Problem Identification

The Issue of Clean Water Access

For my semester-long sustainable solutions project I will be tackling the issue of lack of access to clean and safe drinking water, primarily in developing countries. This critical issue has adverse impacts on health, education, and overall community advancement. Debilitating water borne diseases, most commonly diarrhea, stop children from attending school. In fact, the UN estimates that approximately 443 million school days are lost due to water-related illness each day all over the globe.[1] In a similar vein, as of 2017, “2.4 billion people had no access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines”[2]. These are only two facets to the over-arching issue of poor access to clean water. This is a wicked problem because there are several contributing factors to the main issue and many smaller struggles that result from the main problem. Several factors contribute to this problem: lengthy distance to water sources, depletion of water sources due to agriculture and industrial use, natural hydrology due to geographical variation, drought caused by climate change, and water contamination due to lack of sanitation and hygiene infrastructure.

In addition, water scarcity is a major contributor and side-effect to poverty around the world. This is classified as an environmental injustice issue that perpetuates chronic poverty and health concerns that come with it. This was addressed in 2015 when the sustainable development goals were adopted, pledging to fix this issue and achieve safe “WAter, Sanitation and good Hygiene for all people by 2030”[3]. WASH United is one organization that is striving to reach these goals and find solutions to mitigate the problem on the basis that clean water is undoubtedly a human right.

The World Bank reports that, “Millions are currently trapped in poverty by poor water    supply and sanitation, which contributes to childhood stunting and debilitating diseases such as diarrhea. To give everyone an equal chance at reaching their full potential, more resources, targeted to areas of high vulnerability and low access, are needed to close the gaps and improve poor water and sanitation services”[4].


Over the next three months, I will explore a variety of sustainable solutions to this problem using the criteria encapsulated in our class’s definition of sustainability: Something is sustainable if it’s initiatives, actions or impacts serve to meet the social and economic needs of the present and the future without exceeding planetary boundaries.  This is best achieved using an inclusive and transparent process based on scientific principles that ensures:

  1. resource use that maximizes renewal, encourages re-use, and minimizes waste while protecting and restoring the health of natural systems, all organisms and biodiversity; and reducing pollution and mitigating global climate change;
  2. ethical economic development that promotes equitable opportunity and empowers rather than exploits people and the environment, and does not undermine peoples’ capacity to meet their own needs; and
  3. an elevated standard of human well-being for all people including but not limited to improved health and increased equitable access to basic human rights.

Best practice for meeting these objectives include using an inclusive process with transparent governance; and assessment through the development of measurable indicators that show improvement in each of the above criteria.


With this year’s Center for Ethics theme being “The Anthropocene”, it’s most definitely relevant to address lack of access to clean water in developing nations. The Anthropocene claims that humans have become the primary force contributing to the detriment of our planet.[1] Human overpopulation is one major contributor to inequities that perpetuate human waste contamination, depletion, and chemical pollution of remaining water sources for many nations. In order to accommodate more people, many resources are being used at a rate in which they cannot be renewed fast enough. People on our planet have been irresponsibly using water and other resources without thinking about how much they actually need and whether or not there will be enough to sustain life in the future. Other unsustainable practices have contributed to climate change, which in turn impact the hydrologic cycle and how much water we physically have on earth.

In another vein, the distribution and access of basic resources are used unequally. Unfortunately, there are people who have access to basic human needs, that others do not. This is essentially a social justice issue. Because of this poignant dichotomy between people, lack of safe water is a perpetual issue. People in developing countries simply do not have access to the resources they require in order to reach adequate health and gain opportunities to advance their future. The Anthropocene does not impact climate and nature in isolation, but also the quality, longevity, and future of lives on our planet.

[1] Niesenbaum, R. 2018. Sustainable Solutions: Problem Solving for Current and Future Generations. Oxford University Press, New York, chapter 4.

[2] Ibd.

[3] “WASH United- Home, “WASH United- Home, accessed September 19, 2018,

[4] “Millions Around the World Held Back by Poor Sanitation and Lack of Access to Clean Water,” World Bank, accessed September 19, 2018,

[5] “The Anthropocene,” Welcome to the Anthropocene, accessed September 19, 2018,

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