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An Overview of the Factors and Implications for Sustainable Access to Safe Water


This article offers a comprehensive overview of the intricate interplay between anthropogenic activities, climate change, water availability, and safe drinking water accessibility. Through a meticulous review of existing literature, this study uncovers the various ecological transformations triggered by human-induced factors such as agricultural activities, deforestation, and urbanisation. It also examines the role of climate change as a catalyst, amplifying the effects of these drivers on large-scale ecosystem transitions. Moreover, this study sheds light on the complex and multi-dimensional implications of water scarcity for sustainable development. It underscores how limited access to safe drinking water can exacerbate the vulnerability of water ecosystems and significantly impact household finances, particularly in the absence of institutional measures to provide water. Additionally, the critical role of water in the long-term societal development trajectory is highlighted. In summary, the findings of this study strongly indicate the pressing need for sustained and concerted efforts to implement novel models of agricultural management, including plantations and agroforestry, as well as restoration of indigenous vegetation. Institutional interventions that facilitate effective water management must be reinforced, alongside promoting changes in human behaviour towards sustainable water use. These measures are crucial in addressing the growing concerns of water scarcity and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our ecosystems.

Keywords: ecological transformation, safe water access, anthropogenic drivers, climate change, sustainability challenges


Population growth, urbanisation, agricultural intensification, migration, and industrialisation, coupled with increased energy production and consumption, have led to an ever-increasing pressure on freshwater resources (WWAP, 2015). Human health and well-being are closely related to the quantity and quality of water resources. Water is used in all sectors of society; yet people are most affected by freshwater scarcity (Cassivi et al., 2019). In 2000, an estimated 65% of the world's population had access to safe drinking water. Two decades later, in 2020, access to safe drinking water is estimated to reach 74% of the global population. Despite this growth, 26% of people worldwide - 2 billion people- still lack access to safe drinking water (UN-Water, 2021).

The term ‘safe drinking water' is usually associated with the quantity and quality of the water used. Safe drinking water is considered as water that is free of physicochemical contamination, inadequate mineral quality, or contaminants of emerging concern (Martinez-Santos, 2017). In many countries, especially in low- and middle- income countries, evidence of diseases, waterborne diseases, gastrointestinal infections, or productive disease are used as indicators of safe water accessibility (Cassivi et al., 2019). Contamination of surface and groundwater has become one of the greatest threats to available freshwater (Mishra et al., 2021).

Water contamination is related to anthropogenic activities, but access to water for domestic use has also become an issue closely linked to climate change adaptation in several parts of the world (Grönwall & Danert, 2020). This not only affects current access to safe drinking water, but also compromises the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable access to safe drinking water therefore involves more than just the ecosystems that provide the source, or the way water is managed.

The fact that water resources are not infinite should be taken into account, resulting in increased attention to preserving and maintaining the resources we already have and, where possible, finding new ones to satisfy human demands. Anthropogenic activities and climate change are considered to be the main factors affecting water resources and therefore water availability. Likewise, Grönwall and Danert (2020) note that anthropogenic activities, such as agricultural irrigation systems and industrial wastewater discharge, are among the most frequently identified threats to water availability and have increased the difficulty of fetching water in terms of time and physical effort.

Human-Caused Ecological Transformation: Unravelling the Anthropogenic Drivers

Increased agricultural activities, urbanisation and deforestation have led to increased pressures on water quality and quantity that need to be urgently addressed (Mishra et al., 2021). The transformation of landscapes for the benefit of human society affects water discharge, runoff, infiltration, and evapotranspiration in the catchment, which subsequently impacts the streamflow, the flow dynamics, and the nutrient-, sediment- and toxic loads to water bodies.

The use of fertilisers, pesticides and poor irrigation and drainage practices are some of the agricultural activities that have been found to cause eutrophication, pollution, and water shortages. Agricultural activities further affect soil composition, disturb the natural terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and lead to the elimination of sensitive native species and the favouring of non-native species.

Urban areas are concentrated in certain locations with access to water sources, usually near rivers or lakes. Proximity to these provides access to water, but also increases the possibility of water contamination. As shown in the case study from Brazil, most urban streams and rivers in the country are highly enriched in organic waste, fecal coliforms, phosphorus, and nitrogen. This high level of water pollution is directly linked to the lack of sewage management, rapid urbanisation, and degraded riparian zones (de Mello et al., 2020).

Forests play an important role in preserving the natural ecosystems. Deforestation affects stream water chemistry by depleting soil cation pools and acidifying surface- and groundwater. A study in Germany has demonstrated that there can be differences in water chemistry depending on the period in which the deforestation occurs, such as the timing of deforestation or the length of time after deforestation, or the conditions of regrowth (Plaszkowska et al., 2022). Thus, the impact of deforestation on water quality and quantity also depends on the intensity of deforestation activities.

This ongoing landscape transformation to meet the increased societal demands has compromised water quality, altered aquatic ecosystems, and threatened water supplies for domestic use.

Ecosystem in Transition: Navigating the Repercussions of Climate Change

Climate change is significantly altering the hydrological cycle by affecting the water balance and water availability (de Mello et al., 2020). Notable changes in the spatio-temporal patterns and variability of precipitation have affected the replenishment of water resources (WWAP, 2015). Furthermore, more than 87% of the climate change impacts, such as extreme weather events, are associated with water infrastructure (Mishra et al., 2021).

An analysis of the climatic parameters of precipitation, temperature, and wind speed at the Yangambi weather station in the Democratic Republic of Congo revealed a huge impact on the hydrology of the Yangambi watersheds. Between 1970 and 2017, the average annual temperature has increased by 0.8 ℃, while the wind speed has decreased by 2 m/s, and the analysis shows a decrease in rainfall intensity of 11 mm. But it is not just Yangambi City that is facing these changes in climate parameters; according to the 5th IPCC Report temperatures will continue to rise, and rainfall disruptions and prolonged droughts will become globally more frequent (Chishugi et al., 2021). Therefore, protracted exposure to the changing patterns of climate components and their interactions is a factor determining water availability now and, in the future, unless action is taken.

Multi-Dimensional Implications on Sustainable Development

Access to safe water has implications for the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainability. As mentioned above, aquatic systems are ecosystems that are vulnerable to anthropogenic practices. Changes in water chemistry, particularly eutrophication, the loss of native species and their replacement by non-native and more aggressive species are some of the impacts identified in the environmental dimension of water accessibility.

The impact of water accessibility on the economic dimension is examined through the lens of the financial capacity of citizens to afford water supplies. The main responsibility for water supply lies with the public institutions, thus demonstrating the perception of water as an economic resource (Mishra et al., 2021; Mirosa & Harris, 2012). However, citizens may not always be able to afford this service. Grönwall and Danert (2020) have proposed various types of water supply arrangements, ranging from self-supply to publicly or privately provided systems. However, in the case of self-supply, which is mainly used by households in rural and peri-urban areas, the data indicate that affordability, physical accessibility, and acceptability are rated quite highly, while water quality and availability are rated rather low (Grönwall & Danert, 2020). From this perspective, people tend to have their water needs met, regardless of the water standards and irrespective of their right to demand that public institutions fulfil their water needs.

Nevertheless, it is not only the accessibility, but also the quality and quantity of the water utilised for domestic purposes that play an important role in the long-term societal development process (Cassivi et al., 2019). As various studies have shown, access to water contributes to poverty reduction by increasing opportunities for food production and employment, reducing disease, especially among children and women, and further facilitating educational initiatives. This has been the case for South Asia, where it has been found that women's participation in the labour market was directly linked to increased access to water supplies. Additionally, in Ghana, a 15-minute reduction in the time required to fetch water increased girls’ school attendance from 8% to 12%. Similarly, in the case of a school in Bangladesh, having separate facilities for boys and girls increased girls’ attendance by an annual average of 11% (WWAP, 2015).


A multitude of factors can significantly impact the quality and quantity of water resources, ultimately determining the sustainability of access to safe drinking water for individuals. As the demand for access to safe drinking water is set to increase in the future, proactive measures must be taken to ensure sustainable water access. Mitigating the impacts of anthropogenic activities and climate change can be achieved through investment in innovative models of plantation and farm agroforestry, alongside new agricultural production systems and the restoration of native vegetation (Chartres & Williams, 2006). Moreover, institutional interventions are essential to improve access to water in urban areas. Additionally, promoting changes in human behaviour towards water consumption through systematic education in schools and public campaigns to encourage domestic water-saving practices can significantly enhance water conservation and security. It is vital to prioritise sustainable access to safe water, as it is a fundamental right that promotes an adequate standard of living, public health, and dignity as universal, inalienable, and indivisible human rights (Grönwall & Danert, 2020).


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2. Chartres, C. & Williams, J. (2006). Can Australia Overcome its Water Scarcity Problems?. Journal of Developments in Sustainable Agriculture 1: 17-24.https://DOI:10.11178/JDSA.1.17

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Ardiana Jaku

After years of working in the field of social protection and social inclusion at the legislative and executive levels in her home country, Albania, Ardiana decided to further her academic knowledge. Driven by a desire to understand more about how societies can be transformed in a sustainable way, she started studying in an international master’s program in Science for Sustainable Development at the Linkoping University. Exploring the driving forces of human actions and their impacts on the environment, development and well-being, as well as exploring decisions and interventions to potentially change and transform our societies are her main interests. This interest and passion for sustainability and development are guiding her work and engagements on how we can leave a better world for future generations to come.

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