Access to Clean Water – A Local and Global Perspective

by Celeste Mallama, PhD/MPH Candidate

Access to Clean Water in Chicago

Access to clean water is a fact that many of us take for granted because it is always readily available. In Chicago, we use approximately 1 billion gallons of water per day. This clean and treated water is provided to us through the Department of Water Management. Through an extensive network of purification plants, tunnels and pumping stations, waste water and storm run-off is delivered to the metropolitan water reclamation district of greater Chicago, where the water is treated. Have you ever noticed the red and white striped structure in the lake that looks like a circus tent? This is one of the Chicago “water cribs” which pull water from Lake Michigan and run it through tunnels in the bedrock to a purification plant where it is processed and delivered to taps in the city (6).

Chicago water filtration systems (photo credit:

Chicago water filtration systems (credit:

Access to Clean Water Throughout the World

The extensive infrastructure necessary to purify water and deliver it to homes is not present in many parts of the world. In 2013, 768 million people were without access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion lacked improved sanitation facilities that could effectively separate waste from drinking water (1). Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the hardest hit regions: in Angola, Chad, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan over a quarter of the population lacks access to clean drinking water (2).

Slum in the Indian Himalayas (credit:

Slum in the Indian Himalayas (credit:

How Much Water is Required Per Person Per Day?

The water requirement to support human life varies from person to person, but at its most basic, the average person needs 3 liters, or 34 fluid ounces, of water per day to hydrate. The minimum water level necessary in water-based sanitation systems is 20 liters per day, 15-25 liters per person are needed for bathing, and 10 liters are needed for food preparation. That’s 58 liters minimum to get by. In industrialized nations, living on 58 liters would be unthinkable.  To put this in perspective, high flush toilets use about 75 liters of water per person per day, and the average person living in an industrialized nation uses 70 liters of water per day just for bathing (3).

What are the Major Contaminants in Unprocessed Water?

Groundwater taken for drinking or water that isn’t processed correctly can contain contaminants such as viruses, bacteria, parasites (often coming from human or animal waste that is not separated from drinking water) and chemicals, all of which can be causative agents for diarrheal disease. Even in industrialized nations, chemical spills and water contamination can sometimes be a problem – just this month in West Virginia a chemical spill from a coal-processing plant shut down drinking water to 300,000 people (7). Of course, in countries that lack the necessary resources and infrastructure the problem is far more pervasive. UNICEF reports that every day 1,600 children die from diseases directly linked to unsafe water or a lack of basic sanitation facilities (4).

What’s being done?

While the best long term solution to this problem is for governments to generate revenue and make a commitment to providing their citizens with the infrastructure necessary to process drinking water, there are some effective small scale short term solutions. Many studies have shown that something as simple as a hygiene education campaign showing how citizens can use a closed-top container and a low cost chemical disinfectant, such as chlorine, to significantly decrease contaminants in drinking water (5).

On a slightly larger scale, UNICEF runs the TAP project – started in 2007. During World Water Week, patrons at restaurants across the globe are encouraged to give $1 for tap water which they would otherwise receive free. This money is donated to UNICEF for a diverse array of projects designed to bring safe drinking water to children. These projects have ranged from the drilling of wells, to installation of water pumps, to rainwater harvesting to building latrines.

If you’d like to learn more about the UNICEF TAP project their website is here:

While turning on a tap and filling a glass to drink seems like a simple enough thing to do, the story of how water goes from Lake Michigan to your kitchen is actually a complex one, and has a long and fascinating history. If you’re interested in learning more about it, the NPHR will be publishing an article on the history of water processing in Chicago in our upcoming edition of the Northwestern Public Health Review – stay tuned.


(3)   Gleick, P.H., (1996). Basic Water Requirement for Human Activities: Meeting Basic Needs. Water International, 21, 83-92.
(5)   Lule, J.R., Mermin, J., Paulekwaru, J., Malamba, S., Downing, R., Ransom, R., Nakanjako, D., Wafula, W., Hughes, P., Bunnell, R., Kaharuza, F., Coutinho, A., Kigozi, A., Quick, R. (2005). Effect of home-based water chlorination and safe storage on diarrhea among persons with human immunodeficiency virus in Uganda. Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 73, 926-933.

About NPHR Blog (337 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

11 Comments on Access to Clean Water – A Local and Global Perspective

  1. Northwestern’s Science Club program at the Boys and Girls Club is doing a unit on clean water right now! We’re teaching the middle schoolers about clean water scarcity and having them build filtration systems out of simple everyday objects. These facts will be great to share with my group, thanks!

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  9. I learned so much from the post. Thank you for this. Through the post, I learned that we are massive users of water. We should do everything to prevent water pollution. I agree with the suggestion of education campaign for people to get involved in solving the water contamination issue. So, governments are generating revenue and have promised a long-term solution to this water contamination problem. As individuals, we should also do our part and be responsible in disposing our wastes.

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