The cost of supplying water varies significantly between western and developing nations, but prices are rising all around the world. Providing access to clean drinking water requires the construction and maintenance of a robust system that also disposes and treats dirty water. These services are among the most expensive public services and it is the developing nations that are suffering the most. Typically, their sanitation systems are of a low standard and they do not have the finances to develop the infrastructure. 

Africa and Asia have the highest rate of urbanization and the continued growth of cities has not kept up with the increase in population. This has put even more pressure on the existing water supply and it leaves many people, particularly those in the slums, without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.1

In developing countries many of those without a house connection are forced to rely on street venders for their water and the cost can be up to 100 times more expensive than if the water was supplied to the house.2

For over twenty years the partial or complete privatization of public waterworks has been put forward as a solution to cope with the rising cost of supplying clean water. During the 1980s the World Bank and International Monetary Fund granted loans that forced many Third World countries to privatize the water supply. Many of these projects were called off due to public pressure as the development of the water supply was often selective and the price of water became unaffordable for a large portion of the population.

In developed nations there is a significant variation in the price of water, ranging from the lowest cost in Canada to costs which are five times as high in Germany.3 The differences in price reflect the capital and operating costs as well as cost of cleaning the water. The most expensive water in the world is in Copenhagen, whereas water in Ireland is relatively cheap as the costs of water delivery is covered by property taxes. The table below shows some of the variation in prices across developed nations.

Country Dollars per M3
Germany $1.91
Denmark $1.64
Belgium $1.54
Netherlands $1.25
France $1.23
UK and Northern Ireland $1.18
Italy $0.76
Finland $0.69
Ireland $0.63
Sweden $0.58
Spain $0.57
USA $0.51
Australia $0.50
South Africa $0.47
Canada $0.40

The United Nations created eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which seek to improve life for people around the world by the year 2015 and these are some of the most important challenges facing the international community. One of the MDGs is to improve environmental sustainability and to halve the number of people without sustainable access to drinking water and basic sanitation. However, according to UNESCO unless countries increase their efforts and investments these targets will not be met by 2015. More needs to be done to keep pace with the continued growth in population, increased urbanization and climate change to ensure that more people around the world have access to clean drinking water.


  1. United Nations World Water Day –
  2. Second Water Utilities Data Book, Asian Development Bank, 1997.
  3. Executive Summary of the World Water Development Report. Watertech online, 2001.