It is true that the hydrologic cycle, the process in which the earth circulates water throughout its ecosystems, is a closed-loop cycle that neither adds nor takes away water. In theory, the amount of water on earth will always remain the same.
The problem therein is when the hydrologic cycle is disrupted and water which normally gets distributed to a certain area no longer does so. This is precisely why some regions are becoming arider while others are experiencing flooding and other natural disasters.
In this article, we’ll discuss the role that humans play in the global water crisis and we’ll cover the 10 most alarming water scarcity facts that we shouldn’t ignore.
The Alarming Human Factor in Water Management
Humans play a large role in the disruption of the hydrologic cycle.
- The excessive building of dams prevents rivers from distributing mineral-rich water to areas that are dependent on the nutrients for plant growth.
- Pollution caused by large factories can render freshwater sources such as lakes and rivers unusable.
- The constant paving of roads seals the surface of the ground, preventing it from soaking up rainfall and replenishing the underground aquifers, a very vital part of the hydrologic cycle.
- Excessive drilling into the ground can disrupt the structure of the bedrock, potentially allowing fresh groundwater to be contaminated with seawater.
- Bottled water privatization creates a monopoly on a resource that should otherwise be available to the people who live in the region where the water is located.
As the world’s population increases the demand for the required amount of water necessary to sustain large communities does as well. While water is involved in the sustenance of virtually every aspect of a human’s life, the production of food makes up the majority of it. Agriculture accounts for over 70% of the world’s water consumption. And to produce enough food required for each person’s daily caloric intake, 2000–3000 Liters of water is required (FAO).
While there are organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization that are addressing the water crisis on a global scale, there are still regional problems that vary from region to region. Much of the world’s water supply is largely disproportionate. The average American family uses about 500 gallons of water per day, while the average African family uses 5 gallons per day. If the entire volume of freshwater were to be distributed evenly among all the earth’s inhabitants, each person would receive 1,320,860 gallons of water, each year (FAO).
Let us look at the 10 most alarming water scarcity facts that the world is currently facing.
1) By 2025, Half of the World’s Population will be Living in Water-Stressed Areas
With the increasing demand for clean water and the steady growth of the world’s population, areas which are already water stressed will get worse, and the amount of water-stressed areas around the world will increase. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, some experts in the field have made a distinction between water scarcity and water stress for the sake of accuracy.
According to the CEO Water Mandate, water scarcity can be defined as the shortage in the physical volume of water in a given region, whereas water stress can is defined as the ability, or lack thereof, to access and meet the necessary human demand for water. For example, an arid region such as Sudan which gets little to no rainfall and has no aquifers or surface water would be experiencing water scarcity due to the sheer lack of volume. However, an area which has a limited supply of freshwater from an aquifer or lake, but is challenged due to the increasing demand of the population or the lack of means to access it efficiently, can be considered a water stressed region.
UNESCO predicts that 1.8 billion people will be experiencing water scarcity and half of the world will be living in water stressed conditions by 2025. Climate change, population growth, agricultural demands, and mismanagement of water resources all contribute to the growing global water crisis. Due to water scarcity, some 24 to 700 million people will be displaced from arid and semi-arid regions of the world.
2) The World’s Population will Raise to 9.7 Billion by 2050, Leaving Much in Water-Stressed Conditions
With the steady increase of the global population, the demand for water increases. In places where water is already scarce, this can lead to geopolitical conflict. 60% of all surface water on earth comes from river basins shared by separate nations and almost 600 aquifers cross national boundaries.
In addition to an increase in population, excessive water use increases the demand for water. More people living in urban areas require more water to maintain a certain standard of living. The global population increased by three-fold in the 20th century but water use increased by six-fold. As incomes increase and urbanization develops, food choices shift toward richer, more water-dependent means of production (FAO).
There will be a 40% gap between the demand for water and the availability of water by the year 2030.
The global population is expected to raise to 9.7 billion by the year 2050 and the number of people who live in urban areas is expected to double. By 2050, 3.9 billion people, or 40% of world’s population, will live in severely water-stressed areas (INWEH).
3) Three in Ten People on Earth Currently do not Have Access to Safe and Clean Water
The World Health Organization, a leader in global water data and planning, has categorized water accessibility into 5 groups: safely managed water sources, basic water sources, limited water sources, unimproved water sources, and surface water.
- Safely Managed water sources can be defined as a managed drinking water service that is located on the premises of a home or residence, is accessible whenever needed, and is free from contamination. Examples of safely managed water sources are kitchen faucets and taps drawn from a local reservoir where water is treated under municipal guidelines.
- Basic water sources are defined as improved water sources which are no further than 30 minutes for round trip access, but are not necessarily always free from contamination or accessible when needed. An example of a basic water source would be a community water station supplying a small village which may not always produce water when accessed.
- Limited water sources fit the description of a basic water source but are further than a 30 minute round trip
- Unimproved water sources include unprotected wells or springs
- Surface Water includes water collected directly from a river, dam, lake, or stream
According to the WHO, 2.1 billion people, which is 3 in 10 worldwide, do not have access to a safely managed water source. 844 million people do not even have access to a basic water source. 263 million people have to travel over 30 minutes just to access water that isn’t even clean, and 159 million still drink from untreated surface water sources.
4) One in Three People Worldwide do not Have Access to a Toilet
The WHO also categorizes sanitation services in to safely managed, basic, limited, unimproved, and open defecation.
- Safely Managed sanitation systems can be defined as the use of improved facilities that aren’t shared with another household, and where waste is safely disposed of or transported off site.
- Basic sanitation systems are the use of improved facilities that aren’t shared with another household.
- Limited sanitation systems are the use of improved facilities shared with two or more households
- Unimproved sanitation is the use of pit latrines without platform or bucket latrines
- Open Defecation involves the disposal of human waste in fields, bushes, open bodies of water, or other open spaces.
According to the WHO, 2.3 billion people, that’s 1 in 3 worldwide, lack access to even basic sanitation services. The majority of these people either practice open defecation or use unimproved sanitation such as pit latrines and buckets.
Safely managed sanitation systems are designed to remove human waste away from human contact. Those without safe systems run the risk of having their water supply become contaminated with human waste. The WHO reports that at least 2 billion people worldwide consume water form a source that is contaminated with feces. Fecal contamination in the water supply is a major cause of deadly waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis A, Norovirus, and E Coli.
5) 1.6 Million People Die Every Year From Waterborne Diseases
One of the most devastating effects of the global water crisis are the numerous waterborne diseases that come as a result of poor sanitation and water quality. In developing countries, almost half of the population can link health problems to waterborne diseases (Global Water Institute). Annually, about 5 million people contract diseases related to waterborne pathogens around the world, most of them children. Of the 5 million reported cases, 1.6 are fatal.
Diseases such as Typhoid Fever, Shigellosis, Hepatitis A, and Legionnaire’s Disease can be fatal if left untreated, but are preventable with proper water purification practices, improved sanitation systems, and proper education. Reducing exposure to contaminated water can greatly reduce the risk of disease.
6) Water Privatization Causes More Harm than Good to the Region which the Water is Taken From
Bottled water has certainly brought convenience and security to those who might not have easy access to clean water. However, the privatization of some clean water sources has major downsides for the residents who live near them.
When a municipal utility source such as public water or electricity struggles to maintain itself due to budgeting issues and poor infrastructure, they’ll often sell their rights to a private corporation to take over. While this may seem to be beneficial in the short term, local residents who rely on the water source ultimately suffer.
Because the utility is now owned by a private company rather than a governmental body, the company is now accountable to stockholders, not to the residents. Residents now no longer have representation in corporate affairs. Rather, a natural monopoly is created where water, the commodity, is sold at a much higher price. Because water is a regional resource, competition for lower prices is unlikely.
Privately owned water sources typically charge households 59% more than publically owned sources (Food and Water). Private sewer services are typically 63% more costly.
Nestle, one of the largest corporations in the world, owns 50 springs throughout the United States (Food Empowerment Project). Betchel, the fifth largest corporation in the US, took over the water supply of a region in Bolivia in 1999 and raised rates by 300%, making it impossible for the people of the region to access their water. Coca-Cola pumps 1.5 million liters of water a day from a small town in Plachimada, India, leaving farmers without enough water to make a living.
7) In the US, 2.1 Trillion Gallons of Clean Water is Lost Each Year Due to Poor Infrastructure
Poor infrastructure is a major contributor to the loss of clean water and the potential contamination that wastewater can cause. According to the Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, due to poor wastewater management, 80% of all wastewater is returned to the environment without being properly treated. 30% of all clean water is lost through leakage and deteriorating pipes (INWEH).
In the United States alone, 2.1 trillion gallons of clean, treated water is lost each year due to old, leaky pipes and broken water mains. David Le France, CEO of the American Water Works Association, estimates that repairing America’s water infrastructure will be a trillion-dollar program (NPR).
Water infrastructure is largely a governance issue. Due to divided efforts in governmental decision making, adequate policies and budgeting are often difficult to come by.
8) Women Walk an Average Distance of 4 Miles Every Day Just to Fetch Water that is Likely Contaminated
Gender roles as they relate to water scarcity in developing countries differ from those in the West. Women and young girls are expected to take the responsibility of gathering the needed amount of water to sustain their family on a daily basis.
In Africa, 90% of work involved in gathering water and preparing food are done by women. In both Africa and Asia, women walk an average distance of 4 miles every day, which takes about 6 hours, to carry a 44-pound container of water for their household, from a water source which has the potential to make them sick (Global Water Institute). It is estimated that women and children spend around 40 billion hours a year gathering water in sub-Saharan African countries.
9) One-Third of the World’s Largest Aquifers are Water-Stressed
While surface water has been the primary means of collection for human use, groundwater continues to be an important clean water source for regions where surface water isn’t as available. Groundwater can be accessed via wells or through groundwater pumping. As part of the hydrologic cycle, groundwater is naturally replenished through rainfall and surface water. But when the amount of groundwater being extracted exceeds the rate at which it replenishes, it remains in a deficit known as groundwater depletion. It is very difficult to determine the exact amount of groundwater contained in the aquifers underneath the earth’s surface, but with satellite technology, scientists can make rough estimates as to the volume of water that remains.
Water Resources Research categorizes the stress levels of groundwater into 4 categories: unstressed, human-dominated variable stress, variable stress, and overstressed.
- An unstressed groundwater source has a water table that hasn’t dropped below its normal height and is replenishing naturally.
- A human-dominated variable stressed groundwater source is being extracted of water at a low rate, but is still at an adequate water level and is replenishing naturally as expected.
- A variable stressed groundwater source is still being recharged either naturally or artificially, but has a water table that has lowered beyond its normal height due excessive extraction of water.
- An overstressed groundwater source is not being recharged and has a water table that continues to drop due to excessive extraction.
According to the WRR, 37 of the world’s largest aquifers are variably stressed to overstressed. 8 of them, including the aquifers in Saudi Arabia, North Western India and Pakistan, are not being recharged at all.
10) Meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for the Water Crisis will Cost $114 Billion per year
While implementing reasonable plans for providing clean water and rebuilding infrastructure are necessary for addressing the world’s concerns, it certainly won’t be cheap. The UN has proposed a series of sustainable development goals for a brighter, more self-sustaining future for the earth, with #6 addressing the global water crisis. While these goals are comprehensive and well-informed, attaining these goals will be time-consuming, expensive, and may face political division. It is estimated that in order to reach these goals, it will cost $114 Billion dollars every year until 2030.
The truth is that maintaining clean water sources are very expensive. Even large corporations, whilst motives are mostly internally focused, spend millions of dollars a year maintaining clean water sources for their production. The British Oil and Gas company spent $938 Million to irrigate water from a gasfield to farming fields in Australia (AKVO). Rio Tinto spent $3 Billion for a desalination plant in Chile.
As costly as maintaining the proper sources for clean water may be, the cost of not doing so is also high. $260 Billion are spent globally on addressing healthcare needs due to water related diseases and poor sanitation (INWEH).
Water scarcity is real. To ignore it, or to assume that it is only a problem of the developing world is to be blind to the errors our egos have cause. We in the Western world waste more water in a day than some families around the world would see in months. Much of what we use water for is to sustain a lifestyle that we largely take for granted. Our inward focus has blinded us to a reality that the rest of the world is experiencing. Whether we recognize it or not is irrelevant. Sooner or later, even we in the West will feel the effects of water scarcity in one way or another.
What we can start to do is to limit our water intake. Excessive water consumption and poor water management are factors that we can control immediately. Supporting clean water initiatives will certainly help the movement against the global water crisis. Finally, educating ourselves and raising awareness is a task we all should all take on. Please share this article if you’ve found it helpful.