Water for Life:

International Water Decade


The First Water Decade

International Decade for Clean Drinking Water, 1981-1990

In the 1980s, there were 1.8 thousand million people living in the rural areas of developing countries. Only one person in five had access to clean water. 590 million (41 percent) of the children under 15 years old did not have clean water. In the developing countries, one hospital patient in four suffered from an illness caused by polluted water.

Daily, millions of women and children have the chore of fetching water, taking up to half a day and using energy which would have been better spent on education, training, or simple survival. Even then, the water may not be clean, yet contaminated water means sickness and death.

"Despite the failure to meet the quantitative goals, much was learnt from the experience of the water and sanitation decade... There was further realisation of the importance of comprehensive and balance country-specific approaches to the water and sanitation problem.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the realisation that the achievement of this goal that was set at the beginning of the decade would take far more time and cost far more money than was originally thought."

(CHOGUILL C., FRANCEYS R., COTTON A., Planning for water and sanitation, 1993)

However, the countries of the world are awakening to this tragedy. The 1977 United Nations 'Water Conference' at Mar del Plata set up an International Drinking Water Decade, 1981-1990. Its aim was to make access to clean drinking water available across the world.

The decade focussed on safe water and sanitation for everybody by 1990. Among the obstacles were the following: whether developing countries will give water and sanitary disposal high enough priority to get results; if an effective organization can be created within countries to carry out a water and waste programme; how manpower training and financing can be accomplished; and whether or not appropriate technology will be used.

This first water decade, brought water to over 1.2 billion people and sanitation to almost 770 million. However, growth and rapid urbanization, together with the low level of public awareness about health, has drastically reduced many countries' abilities to keep up with need; and today, there are still almost 1.1 billion people who have inadequate access to water and 2.4 billion without appropriate sanitation.

Since the decade ended in 1990, hopes for improvement are centred on the World Water Assessment Programme, a joint effort of the UN system and its member states, which includes a biennial assessment of the state of global freshwater resources. The launch of the second International Water Decade during 2005-2015 will also provide much needed impetus for the assessment programme.

Return to Water Decade, 2005-2015
Contact: Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org