As with any answer to a question involving time; that depends. Before even considering the question it is necessary to know the fundamentals of the problem and identify why people are drinking water that is not clean and safe. After determining the problem with water and people the world over, then it would be safe to question what steps can be taken and in what order. Finally in the very end, when all other pieces of information have been evaluated and humanity has consented to a solution, then a time line with a designated “finish” date can be mentioned.
Although an overall analysis is not what people want, it is something that is needed in order to assess the question in the best manner. “People lack clean and safe drinking water/bathing water/cooking water/etc.” and “why do people suffer with the water that is anything less”? That would be because that’s all they have.
Like it or not, this planet stores mostly unusable water. Less than one percent is readily available as fresh water, and an even smaller percentage is anything close to being safe for anyone. Instead most freshwater is frozen or underground, both very unreachable locations for a steady supply. What makes matters worse are the people who live in areas not only removed from clean sources, but are removed from water themselves. This is the first and largest of the hurdles of water, getting it to everyone no matter where they are.
Because the prospect of getting water to people is the first problem, it easily identifies the next problem. Not only is getting water in any form to a specific place extremely difficult, but where is this water coming from? As valuable as ground water is, it is also something that needs to remain below us if there isn’t a constant supply to maintain it, or risk the land collapsing from lack of support. No, unfortunately the solution to everyone is not an underground source.
What about rainwater? When rain can fall it can be collected and that can become the store for water, only it isn’t that easy. Rainwater can hardly be considered clean. With all the air pollutants and other contaminants, rain water is unreliable unless filtered. Even if the water was stored and clean, it would have to be sealed off to preserve itself. Even if left standing for a little while, water can play host to many forms of bacteria and insect larvae that can cause serious sicknesses or risk of parasites. Standing water is not clean water.
So with both water below and above the ground’s surface being only partially good, what of the water from streams, rivers, and lakes? While those sources were very good in the past and the key factor for the establishment of communities world-wide, it is no longer as viable for a multitude of reasons. The first is that the water is typically not clean or safe at all. Unless water comes from springs and is pure, it is likely to have at least some form of biological agent that is mildly dangerous to fatal to put in our bodies. Other than that, the level of pollution in most bodies of water is staggering, especially since that is where people used to dump waste or raw sewage, among other things. An example of one overly-polluted river is the Hudson River along New York City during the late nineteenth century when it was so polluted from industry; it would often combust, on the surface or below it!
The second problem is that water sources from rivers tend to be overused. This overuse is due to many people choosing to live in arid regions originally poorly suitable for habitat, but was converted through the use of constant irrigation. As such, many great rivers are drying prematurely and not reaching their destinations at sea. An example would be the Colorado River. Because the irrigation siphons off too much water, it has lost its ability to become a regular spawning run for many different species of fish and other aquatic creatures that would come in from the ocean.
While many lakes do not suffer from this problem, they have their own pollution issues and water needs to undergo constant filtration before use, but it is the best option available with the least environmental impact. At least for the time being. Apart from the fresh water sources the only large quantity of water left if in the Oceans.
If the ocean waters around the world were to be processed through desalination plants to remove the salt, purified, and then pumped to all areas in need of clean water, then it may be possible to preserve the regular ecosystems reliant of freshwater. However, how would this even be feasible? Even subtracting the amount of piping needed to transport the water to the various parts of any country, the electricity for the pumping systems, the construction of the desalination plants, and the electricity to run them would require astronomical figures. Though the plants themselves and initial pumping stations could be supplied from wave generators in the ocean, it may never generate enough power to move it across continents. For now, the best solution would be to concentrate on island nations and refine the technology there, before moving forward and relying on other renewable systems to keep the pumps going.
Until the world is ready to work together for its common good with both means of technology and those willing to build the systems, the world will have to rely on its own localized supplies to keep going. If people can come together and raise a common goal, then it wouldn’t be impossible to achieve a full supply system within the next century, if not earlier. The more people that push for a change and act on it, the faster the results, and the sooner the worldwide distribution of clean and safe drinking water.