Troubled water

How access to clean water differs for families across the world

by Matt Petronzio


The global water crisis has greatly improved over the past 15 years, but it’s far from over.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations’ blueprint for tackling the world’s most pressing issues, expire this year, allowing us to look at how far we’ve come as well as what we can do better with the next set of global targets — the Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 7 of the MDGs focused in part on water scarcity, with a target of halving the number of people around the world without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation services. Today, 91% of the world’s population uses an improved drinking water source, compared to 76% in 1990, but water scarcity still affects more than 40% of people, across every continent.

And that number’s projected to increase. That means the world’s most marginalized and impoverished families continue to live without the basic human right of water, affecting their health, safety and survival.

This summer, UNICEF assigned photographer Ashley Gilbertson to document the various ways families around the world access and use water, and their relationships to the precious resource.

In his resulting portrait series, #WaterIs: A family affair, Gilbertson takes us into the homes of families in seven countries, where they pose next to visual representations of how much water they use every day. Whether they’re in a poor urban district in Bolivia, a refugee camp in northern Jordan or the photographer’s own home in downtown Manhattan, these families all have at least one thing in common: Water is central to their daily lives.

As this week marks World Water Week, the annual meeting in Stockholm that focuses on global water issues, these portraits — and the stories behind them — remind us of the work that still needs to be done.



Home to more than 10 million people, Bolivia’s economic growth and the government’s investments in basic social services have led to an increase in access to safe water and better sanitation.

In 1990, 91% of urban populations in Bolivia had access to improved drinking water source; today, 97% of the country’s urban dwellers have access to improved water sources.

But rural areas — many of which have sparse populations living in abject poverty — still face challenges. In 1990, 40% of the country’s rural populations had access to better drinking water. Still, in 2015, only 76% have access to improved water sources.

The Estebans — 12-year old Marisol, eight-year-old Josue, and their parents Ronaldo and Augistina — live in District 7, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, with limited access to water.

They use 100 liters per day: 16 liters for cooking and drinking, 6 liters to wash dishes, 30 liters to wash their clothes, and 48 liters to shower and wash their hands and faces.

“The most important thing in my life and my home is water,” Augistina told UNICEF. “Without it we don’t have life.”



Niger is the largest country in West Africa, with a population of more than 18 million. But only 58% of Nigeriens have access to improved drinking water sources due to the country’s desert climates, droughts and political instability.

In 1990, 61% of urban populations and 29% of rural populations had access to better drinking water. Today, an impressive 100% of urban populations in Niger have access, while only 49% of rural populations have access.

The Mahamadou family — seven-year-old Aliou, five-year-old Kadidja, 16-month-old Zeinabou, and their parents Mariama Abdou and Mahamadou Moussa — uses a stone to filter their water, separating clear water from mud. It’s a common practice in their village near the Niger River.

The family uses 60 liters of water per day for drinking and cooking.

Because of their proximity to the river, they have plenty of access to water, but it often carries diseases such as cholera, which Mariama contracted two years ago. After treatment, she luckily survived.

“I feel really blessed to be close to the water because I waste less time than other people,” Mariama told UNICEF. “When I get to the river, it’s a good opportunity to talk to other women. We discuss marriage, baptisms and the community.”



Today, 98% of urban populations in Jordan have access to improved drinking water (down from 99% in 1990), while 92% of rural populations have access (up from 90% in 1990).

Although access to improved water sources is relatively high, Jordan is still one of the most water-scarce countries, per capita, in the world. This is due to factors such as the harsh climate, aging infrastructure, ongoing refugee crisis and conflict, according to nonprofit Mercy Corps.

In February, Jordan and Israel agreed on a $900 million project, supported by the World Bank, that would connect the Red Sea and Dead Sea to provide potable water for Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians. The project remains controversial, however, due to concerns over environmental and social impacts.

The Masaeed family — Abu Ibrahim, Um Ibrahim, 10-year-old Ali Masaeed, 14-year-old Abdul Rahman Masaeed and 16-year-old Khalid Masaeed, all pictured at the very top of this article — are a Bedouin family moving around the desert with their herd of sheep. They use a total of 8,000 liters of water per day: 200 liters for cooking, drinking and washing, and 7,800 liters (which they buy from local salesmen) for their 700 sheep.

“Bedouins value water more than city people,” Abu Ibrahim told UNICEF. “Water is close to them, available to them. But it is not available to us — we have to go to a lot of trouble and effort and travel a long way to bring water.”

The influx of refugees puts additional strain on the country’s water crisis. The Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, for example, is home to more than 81,000 of the more than 620,000 Syrian refugees seeking shelter and security in Jordan. Several organizations, such as Oxfam and UNICEF, have worked extensively to install proper water and sanitation facilities in the camp.

According to UNICEF, about 56% of households in Za’atari use public water points as their main sources of drinking water.

The Abu Noqta family fled Syria in 2012 due to the ongoing conflict in the country, now residing in the Za’atari refugee camp. Abdulrahman, his wife Masamah, four-year-old Rahaf, eight-year-old Tasneem, 11-year-old Danya and five-year-old Mohammad use 380 liters of water per day.

“We’re very economical with our water because we don’t have enough,” Masamah told UNICEF. “We’re afraid that someday we will not have water because sometimes the water trucks go on strike.”



The vast majority of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas — more than 14 million as of 2014, according to the World Bank.

Although official UNICEF numbers show that 89% of rural Malawians currently have access to improved drinking water sources (up impressively from 36% in 1990), reliable access is often lower, due to extreme weather and erratic rains, frequent water point breakdowns (such as broken hand pumps) and widespread water-borne illnesses.

In 2015, 96% of Malawi’s urban populations have access to improved water sources, up from 91% in 1990.

However, only 10% of people across the country have access to improved sanitation facilities, according to UNICEF — and that number drops to 8% in rural areas.

Rhoda January and her children — two-year-old Tamadani January, eight-year-old John Banda and 12-year-old Kosalata Banda — live in the village of Chikosa, Dowa District, and they get their water from a borehole that was installed in 2011.

The family uses 100 liters of water per day: 40 liters for bathing, 20 liters for cooking and drinking, 20 liters for washing clothes, and 20 liters for washing dishes.

Before the borehole was installed, they got water from open, shallow wells.

“The water was really bad,” Rhoda, who works as a subsistence farmer, told UNICEF. “Sometimes, you could see the germs with your eyes. We were supposed to add chemicals to clean it, but we are so poor we couldn’t afford it. People were getting diarrhea, dysentery and even cholera.”

Since using the borehole, Rhoda said the village doesn’t get sick because of the water anymore.

“I love using water when I cook Nsima,” she said, talking about a dish made with maize and water. “That is my favorite. It’s what we’ve eaten since we were young, so we’ve known it all our lives. So we love it.”



India has made moderate progress in sustainable water access since 1990. Then, 89% of urban populations and 64% of rural populations had access to improved drinking water sources. Now, those numbers have risen to 97% and 93%, respectively.

But India still has one of the most challenging water crises in the world, with groundwater becoming alarmingly scarce. Everyone from farmers to city dwellers to large corporations are draining the country’s wells and aquifers, while the remaining water is highly polluted.

Meanwhile, only 36% of Indians across the country have access to improved sanitation facilities — only 25% in rural areas.

The Gayali family — 83-year-old Nabin Chandra, his wife Bhuljhara, 16-year-old daughter Bishaksha, daughter-in-law Swarga, sons Monodish and Krishna, and daughter Beauty — live in the Indian village of Shakdah, Nadia District, West Bengal State.

They use 220 liters of water per day: 30 liters for cooking, 60 liters for bathing, 20 liters for cleaning the house, 70 liters for laundry and washing the dishes, and 40 liters for the family’s cow, Kangali.

The Gayalis obtain all of their water from a hand pump that was installed deep into the ground three years ago. That water is extremely high in iron, however, giving it a pungent odor and turning it murky when exposed to oxygen.

“Our water is not so good,” Nabin Chandra told UNICEF. “It has a lot of iron in it. You can see the deposits in the water after it’s come out of the pump, and it causes us digestion and stomach problems.”

Before the hand pump, Swarga would need to walk more than 200 meters (more than 650 feet) to the neighbor’s house 40 times each day in order to get water for the family.

“I felt like I was walking back and forth all day, just to get water,” she said.



Like much of Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s wet season runs from the end of May through early October and the dry season runs from October to May — but water scarcity is a year-long problem.

While the dry season — especially the hot months beginning in late February — means chronic water shortages, the flooding caused by annual monsoons during the wet season swiftly contaminates the country’s groundwater wells used for drinking water.

Today, 93% of Myanmar’s urban populations and 74% of rural populations have access to improved drinking water sources, up from 80% and 51%, respectively.

The Kyaw family — Kyaw Soe, his wife Nyo Oo, 12-year-old Ei Mon and seven-year-old Ei Zin — owns a general store in Hnen Ser Kyin, Magway Region, Myanmar.

They use 100 liters of water per day from the area’s borehole: 20 liters for drinking, 20 liters for cooking, and 60 liters for washing dishes and using the toilet. In the rainy season, they can draw an additional 200 liters for bathing from the local well or ponds, which saves them the equivalent to $0.40 USD per day. However, this surface water is often contaminated, and has made the family sick in the past.

“In the dry season, we have to wake up very early and get to the well before it gets crowded,” Kyaw Soe told UNICEF. “There are two villages that rely on that well, and so, because of huge demand, the water table was dropping, so sometimes we have to give it time.”


United States of America

The developed world isn’t immune to water crisis. Climate change, droughts, flooding, human actions and population growth are all contributing to the restricting of the United States’ freshwater supply.

As of 2015, 99% of American urban populations have access to improved drinking water sources, which is down from 100% in 1990. About 98% of rural populations have access to improved sources, up from 94% in 1990.

And yet water waste is extremely common. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), household leaks can waste more than one trillion gallons each year nationwide.

When it comes to sanitation, 100% of people in the United States have access to improved sanitation facilities, in both rural and urban areas.

Ashley Gilbertson, the photographer of the #WaterIs: A family affair portrait series, his wife Joanna, six-year-old Hugo and their dog, Olive, live in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood in New York City.

They use 1,000 liters of water per day, drawn from the city’s running water supply: 100 liters for flushing their toilets; 300 liters for bathing; 200 liters for washing their hands, faces and dishes; 80 liters for running the dishwasher; 100 liters for washing clothes; 50 liters for drinking and cooking; and 150 liters for watering the garden and cleaning the house.

“I’ve traveled all over the world in the past month shooting this water campaign, and I’m shocked by the amount of water my family uses in New York,” Gilbertson said. “I knew it would be significantly more than in some of the countries I traveled to, but not by this much.”


Learn More