First World vs. Third World Problems: Water

This semester, the undergrads in my Politics of the Global Economy class were asked to write an essay (for extra credit) that plays on the internet meme “first world versus third world” problems.  Here is the first of these assignments, describing the “water crisis” issue in both types of countries.

If you’ve been on the Internet for any amount of time you’ve probably seen the “First World Problems” meme or a variation on it. These problems range from the terrifying realization that you’ve already poured your cereal but you’re out of milk to the inexplicable way your shampoo and condidtioner never seem to run out at the same time. And don’t forget the sinking feeling you get when you relax into your favorite recliner and realize the TV remote is on the other side of the room. These memes are funny because they’re relatable, and obviously they’re not created to be taken too seriously. But sometimes in the first world we really do forget how good we have it. Take these two First World Problems, for example:

(Images from


Now as trivial as these problems are, these are inconveniences that all of us in the first world have encountered at least once. But take a minute to think about how lucky we are to live somewhere you can turn the knob and clean cold or hot water comes out of the faucet. A lot of the world doesn’t even have access to clean water, let alone have it running into their homes.

According to, 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water. That’s more than two and a half times the population of the United States. Lack of clean water is a fundamental problem that affects every aspect of life in the developing world – health, education and economy.

Three-point-four million people die from a water related disease each year. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths take place in the developing world. It is estimated that half of the hospital beds in the world are taken by patients suffering from an illness related to poor water treatment. One-tenth of the world’s disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation and personal hygiene in developing countries, and by improving the management of water resources around the world.

The lack of access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation also effects education in developing countries. Unclean water is the world’s second biggest killer of children, and lack of sanitation is the world’s leading cause of infections. The simple act of washing hands with soap has been found to reduce diarrhea by more than 40 percent.

Diarrhea and other water-related infections often attack children, who have weaker immune systems. Diarrhea cases result in 1.5 million deaths each year, most of which are children. These are children who should be in school getting an education so someday they can better provide for their families and contribute to their communities. Instead, 443 million school days are lost each year to water-related illness. It is estimated that if the global proportion of those without access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is halved by 2015, the number of school attendance days a year would increase by 272 million.

Children are not the only group targeted by a lack of clean water, however. In just one day, 200 million work hours are consumed by women collecting water for their families. These are hours that should be spent investing into the economy of the country through a job or caring for the children and making sure they are in school. The lack of access to water is limiting the role of women in these countries to merely survival, instead of giving them the opportunity to live productive and fulfilling lives outside of menial, everyday tasks.

Women collecting water from a cistern in Hababa, Yemen.  They've been collecting water the same way for centuries. Image from the WHO report "Safer Water, Better Health" (available at
Women collecting water from a cistern in Hababa, Yemen. They’ve been collecting water the same way for centuries.Image from the WHO report “Safer Water, Better Health” (available at

By taking women out of jobs and children out of school, both the current and future economies of these countries are being injured. A more educated population can mean more doctors to alleviate health crises and more people escaping the trap of poverty. This, however, cannot be achieved until children are in school and not home sick with preventable, water-related diseases.

Community projects that run with the full participation of women have been proven more sustainable and effective by the World Bank and the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre than those that do not. Effectively half of the workforce of a country, that could be producing goods and generating income, is taken out of the picture by the archaic need to walk miles to a water source of questionable cleanliness.

Today, more people have mobile phones than have a toilet. And if you’re like most people in the developed world, you can’t go long without your phone. But by going without your phone for just ten minutes, you can provide clean water for a day to a child in need, through donors at UNICEF USA’s Tap Project. Just go to on your phone to watch how giving up your first world luxury can help to provide a third world necessity.

So the next time you’re annoyed because the water in the kitchen sink is taking too long to heat up, or someone flushes the toilet while you’re in the shower, scalding your back, or you suffer from any other “First World Problem,” try putting it in a global perspective and remember how good you really have it.




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