Global Water Crisis: The Essential Facts, Threats And Solutions

Given the number of global disasters happening at the moment — from the pandemic to climate change — you can be forgiven for not knowing we’re also in the midst of a global water crisis.

If you live in the USA or most of Western Europe, the crisis probably hasn’t directly affected you much. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps you have noticed more hosepipe bans in the summer, and heard stories of some states, mostly drier ones than yours, running low on water.

But the thing is, if we don’t tackle the global water crisis it will soon become an issue for all of us!

According to the WWF, a whopping 2.7 billion water finds water scarce for at least one month a year. The UN claims that it’s more like 4 billion. And whichever number is closer to correct, because of changes in global climate and weather patterns due largely to human activity, it is only set to increase. In fact, at the current consumption rate two-thirds of the Earth’s population may face water shortages by 2025.

This water crisis thing is sounding closer to home now, isn’t it? 

Before we can tackle a problem, we need to know as much as possible about it. So, here are some quick essential facts about the global water crisis.

I will go into more detail after them, and talk about steps we can take to try to help conserve water for ourselves and future generations, but if you don’t have a lot of time at least get yourself acquainted with the basics!

Global Water Crisis

Global Water Crisis: The Essential Facts

  • There are two types of water scarcity according to Encyclopedia Britannica. These are physical and economic. Physical water scarcity means living in an area of the world where there is little water, even though there is adequate infrastructure. It is often seasonal. Economic water scarcity occurs when there is a lack of investment in water infrastructure over time, so even if there is plenty of, for example, ground water or rainfall, it can’t be utilized.
  • According to the FAO, around 1.6 billion people regularly face economic water shortages.
  • A UNESCO study estimates that the world will use roughly 60% more water by 2030 than it did in 2020.
  • A huge percentage of the water we use goes to agriculture. It averages about 70% overall, but the World Water Assessment Program estimates that this can reach up to 90% in some developing countries.
  • A lot of water demand comes from feeding animals. Raising animals uses 8-10 times more water than growing cereal crops, so diet worldwide is something that must be considered when we’re thinking about how to save water.
  • The people experiencing serious water crisis are spread across 17 countries. Twelve of these countries are in the Middle East and North Africa. Most are countries, according to Bloomberg, in which water supply is low to begin with while rising populations are also increasing demand.

Where is Water Scarcity a Problem?

In addition to these countries in crisis, Australia is close to a dire water situation. Heat, drought and agricultural water use in the country are all leading towards the water crisis according to National Geographic.

Just because other countries aren’t on this list, it doesn’t mean that they have stability in their water supply. The USA, Mexico and Europe all have areas where water is running out. The world is in a water crisis, it’s just that some parts of it will run out quicker than others. But any part of the world running out of water means a humanitarian crisis, and as if that isn’t enough to worry you, there will undoubtedly be knock-on effects for other nations.

What is Causing the Global Water Crisis?

There is not, technically, a global water shortage. At least not according to the United Nations, who are pretty trustworthy on this sort of thing! 

Rather, individual countries lack water, water resources, and financial capital with which to improve resources, while in many cases experiencing growth in population and big jumps in per capita water use at the same time.

The Agriculture Issue

But this isn’t exactly an individual water use problem. On average worldwide, around 72% of water is used for agriculture, with 16% used by municipalities (including personal use) and 12% used by manufacturing and industry. This is all detailed in a UN Water report on progress towards Agenda 2030, which amongst other things aims to deliver clean water and sanitation to all by 2030.

Climate Change and Pollution 

Unfortunately, it is very hard to tackle physical water scarcity, which is getting worse due to both climate change and pollution. Ultimately, a lack of water and sanitation in many countries leads to people dying from preventable diseases like cholera, typhoid and diarrheal illnesses. 

The Urban Issue

Urban water is particularly under threat. But what is urban water?

The Australian Government defines urban water as water used in any populated environments. This includes but is not limited to natural surface water, groundwater, water for potable use, sewage and other 'waste' waters, stormwater, flood services, and recycling of water.

As much of the world’s population lives in urban areas, shortages of urban water are particularly pressing.

Urban Water Solutions

The Australian government also provides a framework for urban water management. With it, they aim to:

  • provide water security through efficient use of the diverse water sources available
  • protect and restore the health of waterways and wetlands
  • mitigate flood risk and damage
  • create public and private places that harvest, clean and recycle water, resulting in water resource, environmental and social liveability benefits.
  • provide water for productive, sustainable, liveable and resilient communities.

A lot can be done to mitigate water issues using urban design. Again, Australia is leading the way here, with projects like New Waterways, who are using green facades irrigated with gray to cool cities and retain water.

Green and Gray Infrastructure

Traditionally, we use gray water infrastructure to tackle a single problem - water infrastructure. Gray infrastructure includes things like reservoirs, treatment plants and pipe networks to supply water and sanitation, storm drains and pumps for urban flood management, and irrigation and drainage canals in agricultural environments. 

The World Resources Institute, amongst other leading bodies, suggests using green infrastructure instead of or in addition to gray to tackle multiple problems at once.

Green infrastructure uses environmental features (which can be man-made) to solve water issues, as you can see below. At the same time, it involves reforestation and returning a lot of habitats to their natural or near natural states, so is great for the environment.

Green infrastructure is also generally low-cost, and requires relatively little upkeep when compared with traditional infrastructures, so it can work for a lot of the world. 

The Water Crisis at Home: Water Issues in the USA

Perhaps you have heard that the USA is experiencing a water crisis. 

This is true, though the country is not in a state as dire as many in the Middle East and North Africa. 

According to a recent Harvard report, the USA may see its water supply drop by a third before 2071. In turn, this will lead to water shortages in 40 of the 50 US states - some as early as this year. In fact, California has recently suffered some of its worst ever water shortages.

This is due to both projected population growth and a decrease in the amount of water available as water basins dry up throughout the USA. In fact, according to Fortune as many as 96 of the United State’s 204 water basins are likely to become depleted in coming decades, or are already depleted. 

Agriculture could be hit particularly hard by water shortages, as 37% of all US water usage is agricultural. At present, many farmers rely on groundwater from aquifers but that, too, is running out. 

Potential solutions include desalination plants, but as a newer technology desalination is expensive. The other options, of course, are combining a push for green water infrastructure with innovating ways to simply use less water or recycle what we have. Las Vegas, for example, has an excellent water conservation system that is now being imitated by some cities in Texas. 

A lot of work is going into developing water saving agricultural techniques, as detailed in this 2019 report out of China. In addition, the World Bank is committed to assisting countries worldwide with their sustainable development goals, which include goals for water, sanitation and agriculture. It remains to be seen, however, what the USA will learn from these outside sources.

Water Safety Concerns

A secondary issue, but still a pressing one, in the USA is water safety. 

A recent Guardian study conducted across nine months found that out of 120 samples, 118 contained levels of arsenic, lead or PFAs above the levels recommended by consumer reports scientists.

PFAs in particular were a problem, with levels considered dangerous found in 35% of samples. PFAs are not as well known to the public as other contaminants, but recent studies have linked them to high cholesterol, testicular cancer, and thyroid diseases amongst other things. 

According to the EWG, over 2,000 locations spread across 49 states have exposure to PFAs through their water supply. 

What Will the Global Water Crisis Lead To?

If you aren’t sure what the effects of a global water crisis might be, that’s understandable. Does it just mean going thirsty? Taking fewer showers? Or will it effect food supply, or worse?

Here are a few predicted effects of an ongoing global water crisis.

Increased Global Tensions

A 2012 report from the US Department of National Intelligence concluded that a lack of usable water internationally may lead to conflicts. These may be over water, or over the issues caused by a lack of water. The DNI classes the global water shortage as a potential threat to US national security. 

Disrupted Food Supplies

According to UNESCO, water shortages may lead to agricultural issues and ultimately less food being grown worldwide. This, in turn, will push up prices and increase inequality. It will lead to a reduced quality of diet for many, and starvation for some. 

Energy Shortages

Energy production uses a huge amount of freshwater. Hydropower is a leading renewable energy, but beyond that water is used for cooling and other things in many traditional power generating systems. Water shortages may lead to energy shortages, and even energy rationing. 

These are just a few potential issues that may arise from a global water shortage. Beyond these issues, many international economies will be bufetted or even destroyed by the fallout from a huge water shortage. And with predictions from the UN that almost half the world’s population will live in areas of high water stress by 2030, the global water crisis is a problem that is likely to touch most of our lives. 

Global Water Goals

According to the WRI, it would take only 1% of global GDP to solve the water crisis. That’s about 29 cents, per person per day.

Of course, in order to implement sustainable water policies worldwide, like strong infrastructure, a mixture of green and gray infrastructure, sustainable agricultural practices, and water reuse policies, extensive international cooperation would be needed. 

In fact, the UN also concluded, as far back as their Millenium Development Goals, which were set in 2000, that increased international cooperation would be key to water security in future.

Here are how those goals relate to water scarcity:

Overall, the issue is not that the world lacks the technology of money to solve the global water crisis, but that we lack the will.

What can you do to change that?

For a start, you can try to open up a dialogue about water, water scarcity, and the need to change how we use water. Beyond that, there are opportunities to fundraise and work with water positive institutions near you. Plus, of course, always be aware of your personal water use. It may not seem much, but remember using less water per capita is going to be key to dealing with the water crisis as the world’s population grows. 

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