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World's Views of Air, Water Quality Highlight Challenges

World's Views of Air, Water Quality Highlight Challenges

by Steve Crabtree

Story Highlights

  • Satisfaction with water quality strongly related to economic development
  • Air quality satisfaction lowest in small, highly urbanized countries
  • Residents' ratings of both environment indicators lowest in Haiti

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued dire warnings this week that governments need to make far-reaching changes if they want to avoid an environmental catastrophe by as early as 2030.

These changes won't come easily, especially for countries where rapid industrialization and urbanization come with a cost to the environment. Gallup's global research indicates that residents' satisfaction with their air and water quality tends to be lower in less economically developed regions, and highlights the challenge facing countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth.

In 2017, three in four adults (77%) worldwide said they were satisfied with the quality of air in their city or area, while somewhat fewer, seven in 10 adults (70%), said they were satisfied with the quality of water.

Satisfaction With Local Air and Water Quality, by Global Region
Satisfied with local air quality Satisfied with local water quality
% %
World 77 70
Australia/New Zealand 92 91
South Asia 89 70
U.S./Canada 84 82
Southeast Asia 82 83
Eastern Europe 77 77
Western Europe 76 83
Sub-Saharan Africa 74 55
Middle East/North Africa 71 61
East Asia 70 68
Latin America 69 70
Post-Soviet states 67 62
Gallup World Poll, 2017

However, results vary substantially by region. Regionally, satisfaction with both aspects of the environmental is highest at more than 90% of residents in Australia and New Zealand. By contrast, residents of post-Soviet states are least likely to be satisfied with air quality at 67%, while satisfaction with water quality is lowest among sub-Saharan Africans at 55%.

Residents' views of air quality and water quality are often similar to each other, especially those in more economically developed regions where satisfaction with both is usually relatively high.

However, there are notable exceptions. In some small, industrialized and highly urbanized countries and regions, residents are much less likely to be satisfied with air quality than water quality. Several of these are in East Asia, including South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

On the other hand, residents are far less likely to be satisfied with water quality than air quality in some of the world's least developed countries, those with poor infrastructure and large rural populations -- including Gabon, Central African Republic, Kenya and Sierra Leone.

Alt text: Scatterplot showing how satisfaction with air and water quality diverge.

Air Quality Most Poorly Rated Among Highly Urbanized Populations

Residents of wealthy northern European countries and Australia and New Zealand are most likely in the world to be happy with the air quality in their city or area, with satisfaction rates exceeding 90% in most cases. Worldwide, however, a country's per-capita GDP is only a weak predictor of its residents' satisfaction with air quality -- partly because more sophisticated efforts to combat air pollution in developed countries are offset by the effects of urbanization and more fossil fuel-burning factories and cars in those countries.

In several industrialized East Asian countries, for example, less than half of residents are satisfied with the quality of air in their area. Hong Kong residents are least likely of any population surveyed in 2017 to be satisfied with local air quality, at 38%. Alarmingly, South Koreans' satisfaction with air quality has plunged in recent years, from 78% in 2009 to 42% in 2017. A recent national study by the South Korean government found that residents are more worried about air pollution than any other threat listed, including North Korea's nuclear program.

In many countries, perceptions of air quality differ widely between rural regions and more industrialized, densely populated urban areas. Among Russians, for example, 86% of those in rural areas are satisfied -- but this figure falls to 50% among city-dwellers. Some of the largest urban/rural differences in air quality satisfaction are evident in Eastern Europe and the southern Balkan states; recent statistics from the World Health Organization indicate that these regions have the highest rates of air pollution-related deaths in Europe.

Water Quality Strongly Related to Economic Development

More than air quality, perceptions of water quality represent a key indicator of a country's development level. Satisfaction with local water quality rises much more consistently with a country's per-capita GDP; it is highest in economically developed regions such as Western Europe, Northern America and Australia/New Zealand and lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Haitians are least likely worldwide to be satisfied with local water quality at 29%, followed by residents of Gabon (34%), Tunisia (35%), the Central African Republic (36%), South Sudan (39%) and Iraq (39%). Haiti has ranked worst in the world on water quality satisfaction in each of the last four years.

Alt text: Heat map showing the range in satisfaction with water quality by country worldwide.


Perceptions of air and water quality around the world reflect frightening 21st-century realities facing global populations. The variation in satisfaction with water quality speaks to the vast and persistent differences in living standards between economically developed and developing regions.

In line with the 30% of adults worldwide who are not satisfied with local water quality, a recent report by the World Health Organization estimates that three in 10 people around the world lack access to safe drinking water at home. Variations in air quality satisfaction underscore that some of the worst environmental consequences of economic growth have migrated from high-income countries to less developed regions -- particularly those that are seeing rapid industrialization but have not yet acquired the technology and infrastructure to mitigate its negative effects.

Gallup's data also highlight those countries where environmental degradation powerfully affects residents' lives. Among these, the most dire example is Haiti, where ecological problems both worsen and are made worse by the country's dismal economic status. In such cases, it is particularly evident that efforts to boost economic growth must harmonize rather than conflict with environmental concerns to avoid catastrophe.

For complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

Learn more about how the Gallup World Poll works.

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