The Ancient Mariner’s plaintive cry of “Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink” is a fitting description of our current water crisis. Looking at photos of Earth taken from space, you wouldn’t imagine that a planet with all those vast expanses of blue would have any problems with water. Yet as hard as it might be to believe, a planet that is 70% water is experiencing a crisis in providing that resource to its growing population. That’s because those space photos don’t tell the whole story: 97% of those vast blue expanses are made up of salt water. Only 3% of the planet’s water resources are fresh, and two-thirds of those are locked up in frozen glaciers or are otherwise unavailable for our use.
The combination of world population growth and water supply shrinkage paint a grim picture for the future. According to a report from the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, more than 40% of the world’s population will live in severely stressed water areas by 2050. By that year, it’s projected that 9.7 billion people will be inhabiting the planet – some two billion more than are living here today. Much of that population growth will occur in Africa and Asia, continents that are already experiencing severe water shortages.
While the UN’s mid-century projection is certainly shocking, water scarcity today presents some equally alarming numbers:
- Nearly a quarter of the world’s population – more than two billion people – live in countries that are experiencing high levels of water stress.
- About four billion people currently experience severe water scarcity for at least one month out of the year.
- One third of the world’s largest groundwater systems are currently in a state of distress.
What brought us to this critical situation? There are several reasons for water scarcity:
- Climate change is making dry areas even drier: Our changing climate is resulting in less rain and lower water supplies in areas like the U.S. Southwest, southern Europe, parts of the Middle East, southern Africa and Australia. This is due to a weather phenomenon known as the Hadley Cell expansion, which creates drier weather in mid-latitude regions as global temperatures rise.
- More people cause more demand for water: It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that water demand grows along with the Earth’s population. But it’s not just the water that people use for drinking and bathing. The two most water-intensive sectors of our society are energy and agriculture – so it’s the water needed to produce food and power for all those extra people that puts the largest strain on the system.
- Aging infrastructure causes huge waste: The system of treatment plants and pipes that bring water to people around the world is in a state of disrepair. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card estimates that in the United States alone, there are nearly a quarter of a million water main breaks each year resulting in the loss of more than two trillion gallons of treated drinking water.
Other reasons for water scarcity include the depletion of groundwater resources like wells and aquifers, where water is being removed at a faster rate than it can be replenished; the pollution of surface water resources like rivers, lakes and streams with industrial waste or untreated sewage; the destruction of “natural infrastructure”, like forests and wetlands, that help replenish groundwater by keeping rainfall in the soil instead of having it run off; and pricing policies for water that don’t accurately reflect its value as a precious resource and offer little incentive for conservation.
While water scarcity is present on every continent, it disproportionately affects populations in the world’s least developed and most economically disadvantaged countries. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, each person in the Americas has more than five times the renewable freshwater resources as each person in Africa and more than seven times the resources of each person in Asia. Even more worrisome is the Organization’s finding that Asia is withdrawing 20% of its freshwater resources annually, compared to only 4% for the Americas.
That’s not to say that underdeveloped countries are the only ones facing water scarcity. Britain – where it always seems to be raining – is facing severe water shortages over the next two decades as a result of its growing population and hotter, drier summers brought about by climate change. And we need look no further than our own state of California to see a prime example of water scarcity in a developed nation. Data released by the World Resources Institute in August 2019 ranks California’s water stress level as higher than any state except New Mexico. California also uses more water than any other state – up to 9% of all the water withdrawn from the nation’s supplies – mostly because of its nearly 40 million residents but also because of its huge agriculture industry.
It’s important to emphasize that water scarcity isn’t just about water itself – it’s about clean water. In some parts of the world, notably in India and parts of Africa, it’s the cleanliness of the available water that’s the critical issue. The World Health Organization estimates that 829,000 people – more than a third of them children under the age of five – die each year of cholera, dysentery, diarrhea and other illnesses that they contract from contaminated water sources or inadequate sanitation.
In regions where local water sources are contaminated or non-existent, the work of bringing in clean water falls disproportionately on women and children. A report by the non-profit Global Water Institute states that women are responsible for 90% of the work in gathering water for household use and food preparation in low-income sub-Saharan countries. It estimates that women and young girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, walking an average of four miles every day to collect water with an average weight of 44 pounds. Girls under the age of 15 are twice as likely as boys their age to be the family member responsible for fetching water.
In 2018, the High-Level Panel on Water appointed by the United Nations and the World Bank Group issued a report outlining the steps that governments and the private sector must take to alleviate the world’s pending water crisis. The report’s key message is that we can no longer continue to take water for granted, and that individuals, companies, cities and countries need to better understand, value and manage water. The first part of this three-pronged agenda – understanding – involves the ability of stakeholders to use water-related data to fully comprehend the quantity, quality, access and use of water and to use that data to inform their decisions. The second element – value – is the recognition of water’s direct and indirect benefits to humankind, and the need to communicate that value through public education. The third segment – manage – is perhaps the most challenging. Water resources like aquifers and basins must be managed as a system, yet those systems don’t always line up with political or administrative boundaries. Proper water management requires government entities at various levels to work together to implement effective policies.
The United Nations has adopted a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that seek to end poverty and promote economic growth while protecting the planet. Goal #6 is to “ensure clean water and sanitation for all”. It’s a goal that can be achieved only through a concerted effort by governments, corporations and yes, each of us to take action now in preserving this precious resource. It’s only in this way that “water, water every where” will become more than a line in a poem; it will become a reality for people throughout the world.