Troubled water


How access to clean water differs for families across the world


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. »


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