New Water Poverty Index Defines World Water Crisis Country by Country: Haiti Worst, Finland Best

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(Dr. Caroline Sullivan of the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and William Cosgrove of the World Water Council will be available for interviews in London on Wednesday, Dec. 11th, either in person or by telephone. Kenzo Hiroki, Deputy Secretary General of the Secretariat for the 3rd World Water Forum is available for telephone interviews from Japan. Please call to schedule time.)


The newly developed international Water Poverty Index (WPI) finds that some of the world’s richest nations such as the United States and Japan fare poorly in water ranking, while some developing countries score in the top ten, say researchers from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and experts from the World Water Council.

The Water Poverty Index has been developed by a team of 31 researchers in consultation with more than 100 water professionals from around the world. At the international scale, it grades 147 countries according to five different measures – resources, access, capacity, use and environmental impact — to show where the best and worst water situations exist.

According to the WPI, the top 10 water-rich nations in the world are, in descending order: Finland, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Guyana, Suriname, Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland.

The 10 countries lowest on the Water Poverty Index are all in the developing world — Haiti, Niger, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malawi, Djibouti, Chad, Benin, Rwanda, and Burundi.

“The links between poverty, social deprivation, environmental integrity, water availability and health becomes clearer in the WPI, enabling policy makers and stakeholders to identify where problems exist and the appropriate measures to deal with their causes,” says Caroline Sullivan, Ph.D., who led an interdisciplinary team to develop the WPI concept at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Wallingford, United Kingdom, part of the UK government’s Natural Environment Research Council.

The new index demonstrates the strong connection between ‘water poverty’ and ‘income poverty.’ This link will be a prime subject of the upcoming 3rd World Water Forum, where some 10,000 government officials, representatives of international and non-governmental organizations, industry and water experts will discuss the world water crisis and its solutions. The Forum, to be held in Kyoto, Japan in March of 2003, is expected to be the most important international water conference ever held.

When thinking of the poor and vulnerable, there is a general tendency to think of them as helpless people for whom the only solution is aid. “The reality is that marginalized people are usually highly motivated to help themselves,” says William Cosgrove, Vice-President of the World Water Council and a contributor to the development of the WPI. “They are very often held back by constraints imposed on them by society. In every case, these people should be looked upon as an important and powerful resource to be involved in planning and implementing solutions to their own water-related problems, whether access to drinking water or adapting to floods and droughts.”

One of the advantages of this new index is that it draws on information already available from a number of sources, including the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. This makes it easy to update without having to create new data gathering systems.

“The international Water Poverty Index demonstrates that it is not the amount of water resources available that determine poverty levels in a country, but the effectiveness of how you use those resources,” says Dr. Sullivan. “The best illustration of how the utilization of water resources affect a nation’s water and poverty situation can be found by comparing Haiti and the Dominican Republic.”

The two nations share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and have more or less the same amount of water, but Haiti ranks last at 147th while the Dominican Republic ranks 64th. “The reasons for the wide divergence are partly due to the fact that Haiti’s resources are less well developed, with less infrastructure, and the people of the Dominican Republic have significantly better access to water than those in Haiti,” says Dr. Sullivan. “However, perhaps more meaningfully, the capacity scores for the Dominican Republic are also very high, indicating a healthy, well-educated population with a reasonable financial base. In terms of both use and the environment, Haiti’s scores are much lower, reflecting the much lower level of development in that country than in the Dominican Republic.”

The WPI assigns a value of 20 points as the best score for each of its five categories. A country that completely meets the criteria in all five categories would have a score of 100. The highest-ranking country, Finland, has a WPI of 78 points, while Haiti, the last, has a WPI of just 35.

According to statistical analysis, capacity, one of the five WPI components that defines a country’s level of ability to purchase, manage and lobby for improved water, education and health, has Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Japan and Austria as the top five countries. Four of these are in the top 10 percent as measured by the WPI as a whole. These countries, along with many others, have high incomes and healthy and well-educated populations. The bottom five are Sierra Leone, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and the Central African Republic. Besides being among the world’s poorest, these countries also suffer from inadequate health and education provision. Niger and Sierra Leone, for instance, have the highest rates of under-5 mortality in the world, respectively 320 and 316 per 1000 live births. Furthermore, four of these countries are among the 10 percent of countries with the lowest overall WPI rating.

For Resources, which measures the per capita volume of surface and groundwater resources that can be drawn upon by communities and countries, the top five countries are Iceland, Suriname, Guyana, Congo and Papua New Guinea. The bottom five are United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. The top countries all have abundant resources, but most importantly they have small populations in relation to the amount of resources. The bottom countries are all in desert areas with minimal rainfall and no major rivers bringing water from outside. Despite the scarcity of water, Israel, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are in the top 50 percent as measured by the WPI, reflecting their ability to overcome these shortages through effective management and use.

In Access, which measures a country’s ability to access water for drinking, industry and agricultural use, 21 countries garnered very high scores – Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States. So many countries achieved this rating because they have the economic capacity to provide safe water supplies and sanitation to their whole populations. The lowest five countries in this category are Eritrea, Chad, Ethiopia, Malawi and Rwanda. Besides poor levels of access to safe domestic water and sanitation, these countries also need irrigation for food production, but the demand is not being met adequately.

“The economies of the countries at the lower end, and many others, are unable to generate the user fees or tax revenues needed for infrastructure development,” says Mr. Cosgrove, a Canadian water engineer. “They will certainly require assistance from the developed world.”

For Use, which measures how efficiently a country uses water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes, the lowest ranking country is the United States, because of wasteful or inefficient water use practices. For instance, despite the massive consumption of water in agriculture, the contribution of agriculture to the national GDP is tiny. The USA also practices high per capita domestic water use and high volumes of water used per dollar of industrial production. Also in the bottom five are Djibouti, New Zealand, Cape Verde and Italy. All have heavy agricultural water use for relatively little return, while in the case of Djibouti and Cape Verde domestic use is below acceptable levels. The top five countries are Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Guyana, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. They have acceptable levels of domestic use, and industrial and agricultural production is relatively efficient in terms of the amount of water used, in comparison with the revenue generated by that use.

For Environment, which provides a measure of ecological sustainability, issues included are water quality, environmental strategies and regulation, and numbers of endangered species. The top five countries in this category are Finland, Canada, United Kingdom Norway and Austria. The USA is number 6. The bottom five are Haiti, Morocco, Mauritius, Jordan and Belgium. The top countries here are all rich with well-developed environmental awareness and regulation, while in the bottom five environmental concerns are low on the agenda. Some, for instance Haiti, have a high proportion of endangered species, while Belgium’s surprisingly low position seems to be mainly a result of poor water quality status.

Haiti is in a particularly disastrous situation. Lack of fuel or means to purchase it has forced the population to denude the forests of the mountainsides. This leads to soil erosion, increased flood runoffs and decreased recharge of groundwater aquifers. As a consequence, rivers dry up during long periods without rain, and the groundwater sources are also disappearing. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Haitians do not have the means to build physical storage infrastructure

Guyana scored #5 and Suriname #6 overall. They come out surprisingly high because, although they are developing countries, they have small populations in relation to their abundant water resources and at the same time have good access to safe water and sanitation and relatively good health and education provision. Turkmenistan at #13 is another developing country that scores highly because of the provision of good access to safe domestic water, combined with good access to irrigation, essential in this desert area.

On the WPI measure, Japan takes the 34th position, scoring very highly in access and capacity but earning only 11.6 points in environment. In relation to its high position, Japan’s resources are relatively scarce, but it also scored very lowly in use, at 6.2 points out of 20.

“The main water management problem in Japan relates to scarcity of per capita water resources, accounting for the low score on the resources component,” says Kenzo Hiroki, Vice Secretary General of the Secretariat for the 3rd World Water Forum. “In terms of use, its low score reflects the low economic return on water use in agriculture, where the contribution of that sector to overall GDP is relatively low.”

The situation in other Asian countries varies a great deal. While China, with its huge population, scores quite well on capacity, and moderately on use, its scores on resource, access and the environment are all low. In India, a very low resource per capita score is counteracted by a relatively high score for use and capacity, but access and the environmental components are weak.

In Bangladesh, while access and use are relatively moderate scores, the per capita resource and the environment are low, with capacity being no more than average. In comparison, Indonesia scores moderately well on most components, with the environment being its weakest point on the WPI score. In other countries in the region, Nepal, Laos and Vietnam all have very low scores on access, coupled with relatively poor scores on the environment, but their capacity to manage water and their per capita resource estimates are moderate, with use scores relatively high.

In the same region, Cambodia has the lowest score for access, at only 4.9, while at the same time having quite high resource availability per capita. This is in stark contrast to the Republic of Korea which in spite of having a very low per capita resource score, manages to score very highly on access, possibly due to its high level of capacity. In the case of the Philippines, the weakest component is the environment, coupled with relatively low resource availability, while in Pakistan, the problem clearly relates to water resource availability more than any other factor. This situation is also found in Singapore, but in that country, where almost no resources are available, capacity and access are very high, bringing its overall position on the WPI score up to a respectable level.

In South America, the pattern of the WPI values for most countries is quite similar. With by far the largest population, Brazil scores an overall 61.2 WPI points, with use and environmental components being the weakest. By comparison, countries with much smaller populations have higher scores, with for example Venezuela having quite high per capita water resources, coupled with moderately good access and capacity to manage water. While capacity in Argentina is high, its score on water use is low, reflecting some degree of inefficiency particularly in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Similarly, in Uruguay, high access and capacity scores are offset by low use and moderate environmental performance. With a score of 68.9, Chile features well on this index, with good or moderate scores on each component.

Egypt is ranked #71, which is relatively high when its scarcity of resources is considered. “However, Egypt scores highly on access, including access to irrigation, and its long cultural heritage of water management means it has developed the capacity for management,” says Dr. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, as well as President of the World Water Council.

Canada scored #2 overall on the WPI. It scored high in four categories, but slipped to 19th worse in the use component, because of some wasteful or inefficient water use in industry and for domestic supply.

“Canada has nine percent of all the world’s fresh water, so that it can serve as a model of what a water-rich, wealthy country can do,” says Mr. Cosgrove.

The United Kingdom, placed #11 on the WPI, scored highly on four categories, including number 3 in environmental use of water. It did not fare well in the resource category, because some regions of the UK are dry enough to be classed as a semi-arid area. Since the UK’s climate is cooler than the tropics, the impact of its relatively scarce water resources is not too severe, and what resources are available are relatively well managed through the use of large storage capacity and long distance water transfers.

In a similar position, France scored #18 overall, again scoring very highly on access and capacity, in spite of the relatively low score on resources, and a slightly lower position on the environment component. “Both France and the UK are amongst the most developed nations of the world, but there is still room for improvement in terms of how their water resources can be managed, and how this management may impact on ecological integrity. Both countries are certainly actively engaged in addressing both these issues,” said Dr. Sullivan.

The United States, at # 32 overall, scored only 10.3 out of 20 on resources because large stretches of the country, especially in the West, are arid or semi-arid. The U.S. did better than many other industrial nations in environmental terms, with 15.1 points for 6th place in this category, but it came last in terms of use, with just 2.8 points.

“The U.S. is at a relatively low position because of wasteful or inefficient water use practices in domestic, industry and agriculture,” says Mr. Cosgrove. “This is illustrated by the fact that per capita water consumption is the highest in the world.”

Germany, which ranks 35th, achieves the high scores in access and capacity, which are counteracted by the low score on resources, and use. Like France and the UK, Germany is making progress in reducing wastage and increasing water use efficiency.

Australia at #44 has an overall profile that is similar to the USA, but its score is reduced by the lack of access to irrigation in this dry country, and a lower score on the environment component.

The commonly used number for those without access to safe water is 1.2 billion, based on the latest survey by WHO and UNICEF. Mr. Cosgrove believes the number could be twice as high and points out that the definition used in the WHO/UNICEF survey was access to an “improved supply” of water, not a safe one.

Experts say that 20 percent of the world’s population in 30 countries faced water shortages in the year 2000, a figure that will rise to 30 percent of the world’s population, in 50 countries, by 2025. They have warned that unless action is stepped up, the number of people living under threat of water scarcity will increase to 2.3 billion by 2025.

“Water demand is increasing three times as fast as the population growth rate even though no new water can be created anywhere on this planet,” says Dr. Abu Zeid. “However, in many countries, water shortages stem from inefficient use, the effective loss of available water too polluted for use by humans or nature or by the unsustainable use of underground water in aquifers, which can take thousands of years to replace. The WPI lays this out statistically in a valuable road map.”

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held earlier this year in South Africa, gave a commitment by the global community to cut the proportion of people without access to water and sanitation by half by 2015. This consolidates the agreements on the Millennium Development Goals, first outlined at the Millennium General Assembly of the United Nations in 2000.

“We are expecting that the political commitment expressed on these occasions will be turned into concrete action plans at the 3rd World Water Forum,” says Mr. Hiroki. The World Water Forum will be the marquee event of the International Year of Freshwater (, to be launched Dec. 12 at the United Nations in New York.

On World Water Day, March 22 (, the 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto will be the venue for the release of the World Water Development Report, the first-ever United Nations system-wide report on the state of the world’s freshwater resources, three years in preparation and the foremost water-related information product to be issued by the UN during the International Year.

Water & Health

“Because the WPI includes indicators of health and of water quality, it can be used to address the link between lack of water access and ill health,” says Dr. Sullivan. It provides a means of focusing on the communities where there is the greatest need for investment in water, so targeting the poorest people who suffer the greatest incidence of water-related illness.

According to the WHO, diarrheal diseases alone account for more than 3 million deaths per year, and give rise to one billion incidences of illness, many of which involve loss of capacity to work. Every year, more than 5 million people die from some kind of water related disease, and more than 3 billion incidence of disease occur.

“In economic terms, this represents a great loss, both in terms of a reduction in the labor force, and in terms of the loss of productivity associated with this,” Dr. Sullivan adds. “At the national scale, this undermines economic growth, and reduces GDP (gross domestic product). On a personal level, this means a reduction in capacity to sustain one’s livelihood, and this loss of human capital gives rise to an increased incidence of poverty within the community. Tens of millions of adults lose workdays every year to the same illnesses.”

Dr. Sullivan estimates that the economic losses worldwide stemming just from diarrhea alone amount to more than $6 billion per year in both lost salary and production value. The ten countries which have the greatest numbers of people without access to safe water – China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Brazil, Turkey, Pakistan and Congo – account for around 68 percent of these losses, and not surprisingly, they rank amongst the poorest nations.

An estimated one half of people in developing countries are suffering from diseases caused either directly by infection through the consumption of contaminated water or food, or indirectly by disease-carrying organisms (vectors), such as mosquitoes, that breed in water. These diseases include diarrhea, schistosomiasis, dengue fever, infection by intestinal worms, malaria and river blindness (onchocerciasis).

Developed countries also have problems because of bad water and sanitation. In the U.S., the incidence of waterborne diseases has dropped from roughly eight cases per 100,000 person-years between 1920 and 1940 to under four between 1970 and 1990. An exception was a severe outbreak in Minneapolis in 1993 when over 400,000 cases caused by Cryptosporidium occurred, resulting in over 100 deaths. In Canada recently, seven people died and roughly 2,300 others were stricken with diarrhea, nausea, fever and headaches — symptoms of an E. coli bacteria infection — after heavy rain flooded an Ontario town’s wells with cow manure from area farms.

Water Poverty Index

Researchers created the WPI by developing a standardized data set from a number of pilot sites, on which different methodologies of generating a WPI were tested. Consultation with a wide range of stakeholders was conducted to evaluate each methodology. To illustrate how the WPI can be applied at various scales, information was also collected from 147 countries that had sufficient data on the main WPI criteria, and WPI scores were calculated from publicly available datasets. “The information given here is at the national level only, but of course, water resources vary considerably in any country”, says Dr. Sullivan. This kind of macro assessment does not address local variability, which is crucial for effective management. Community level assessment must be carried out to capture this, and the main reason for developing the WPI was to help in that process”.

The researchers adopted what is called a “holistic” approach that includes as essential components institutional issues, adaptive capacity and the maintenance of ecological integrity, necessary because the WPI attempts to promote equitable and sustainable water management. They are added to the more conventionally used water availability measures provided by hydrological science, enabling the assessment to be much more representative of what is actually happening on the ground.

“The WPI is work still in progress,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It is not a definitive statement. Only the inception phase has been undertaken so far, and considerable further development is needed. The country rankings are not by any means the most important aspect of the WPI. It has been designed ultimately as a tool for monitoring progress, mainly at the community or district level, but these preliminary national comparisons are of interest.” The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has already carried out pilot projects to test and use the WPI in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and South Africa. For more information on the countries included in the international scale assessment, visit the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology website at

The WPI has been developed as a consensus of opinion from a range of physical and social scientists, water practitioners, researchers and other stakeholders in order to ensure that all the relevant issues were included in the index.

“The WPI is one of the very few policy tools that incorporates the environment explicitly as an essential component with other parts of water management,” says Dr. Sullivan. “In the past, water problems were often dealt with by providing engineering solutions, which to a large extent were productive, but sometimes neglected important social or cultural issues. Today however, with increasing public empowerment, devolution of responsibilities in the water sector, and an increasing awareness of ecological issues, such solutions are no longer adequate to address most water management problems.”

The World Water Vision, presented to the Second World Water Forum in The Hague in March 2000, argued that while there are water crises in many parts of the world, they are not crises caused by a lack of resources but crises caused by poor water management. The WPI to be discussed at the 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto in March 2003 will attempt to describe the various factors that influence relative water poverty.

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