Water is one of our most precious resources – one that most of us take for granted in our daily lives. And while most of our planet is covered in water, the water that we drink, bathe in, cook with, and grow crops with is rapidly running out.
Today, over 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries. By 2025, half of the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity. Whether it be a lack of freshwater supplies or that water is polluted or inadequate for consumption, water scarcity is a critical issue facing our entire world.
While the stakes are high, several water scarcity solutions are being implemented worldwide that are helping make a difference in supplying clean and ample fresh water for global populations. Let’s examine these solutions and how they can help curb the ever-growing water crisis.
The current situation: examining the global water crisis
Water scarcity is thought of as a lack of clean and ample water supply that can be physically accessed in a given area. As the United Nations explains, water scarcity increases as demand for fresh water increases, and/or as a water supply is diminished by decreasing quality or quantity of water.
Lack of clean, plentiful water is a problem for more reasons than you might think. It prevents access to water for drinking, cooking, and practicing basic hygiene and safe medical operations.
Polluted or contaminated water can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses like typhoid, cholera, or hookworm. When water is scarce, sewage systems can also fail, increasing the spread of water-borne diseases.
Children, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups are most at risk for these diseases: 2 million people die each year from diarrheal diseases alone.
Scarce water also costs more for citizens and countries as a whole: water scarcity can have long-term negative impacts on a country’s economy and growth.
When water supplies are contaminated, fresh water is also harder to find. Around the world, poor and marginalized groups are impacted the most by the water crisis, particularly women and children, who have to spend more time finding and retrieving clean water today.
What’s causing water scarcity around the world?
Before we examine the most prominent water scarcity solutions, it’s essential to understand what is causing the global water crisis. From population growth to climate change, experts say several phenomena are driving the lack of clean water supplies worldwide.
When pollutants enter the atmosphere, seep into the soil, or travel through waterways, they harm aquatic life, cause diseases in humans, and contaminate water supplies. Over time, marine ecosystems are damaged and can even be unable to support plant and animal life.
Water pollution can come from many sources: pesticides, untreated human wastewater, industrial waste, fertilizers, household chemicals, and more. Because of the water cycle, pollutants in our atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, also make their way into waters.
Once a drinking water supply is contaminated with one or some of these substances, it is no longer usable. This puts already vulnerable populations at risk for increased diseases.
Facts about pollution and the global water crisis that illustrate how intertwined these issues are:
- More than 30% of global biodiversity has been lost because of the degradation of freshwater ecosystems due to the pollution of water resources.
- Today, 12% of the world’s population drinks water from unimproved and unsafe sources.
- Over the last three decades, water pollution has worsened, affecting almost every river in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
When examining water scarcity solutions, it’s apparent that addressing water pollution is essential for the lives of our ecosystems, plant, and animal life, and future generations.
The demand for water for agricultural, residential, and industrial use increases each year. Water demand follows population growth, changing consumption patterns, and economic development around the world.
The human population has more than doubled in the last 50 years, and estimates predict that by 2050 the global population will increase to between 9.4 to 10.2 billion people, an increase of 22-32%. This increasing global population means that water supplies will be even more scarce than they already are.
In the last 100 years, water demand has increased by 600%, especially in urban areas where population steadily increases, or impoverished areas where the necessary infrastructure was not implemented. Increasing demand for water strains infrastructure or means there isn’t enough clean water available to everyone in a community.
New population members need food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities, resulting in additional pressure on water supplies by producing energy and commodities.
Climate change is damaging our world in many different ways, and water supplies are no exception. Climate change is making water scarcity worse for several reasons:
- Global warming is causing temperatures to rise, which increases water demand.
- Unpredictable extreme weather events like floods and droughts are happening more frequently, exacerbating water scarcity.
- The water that is held in our soil, snow, and ice is diminishing as these resources melt or become unusable.
The water crisis and climate crisis are inextricably linked: as climate change worsens, so will global water scarcity, and vice versa. In this way, climate solutions that address pollution and greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale will also help address the issue of water scarcity.
Lack of infrastructure
The lack of adequate monitoring infrastructure leads to misallocated and wasted water supplies. In addition, aging water distribution systems waste water yearly, whether through leaky pipes or water main breaks. According to the American Water Works Association, 2 trillion gallons of water is wasted yearly in the U.S.
However, developing nations are impacted the most by water shortages and extreme weather events because they often lack the resources to recuperate from damage that was done. Many countries do not have adequately developed water monitoring systems that can help balance the water needs of communities and the wider economy, particularly in times of scarcity.
Despite the economic and environmental impact of this water loss, widespread investment in water infrastructure, especially in developing nations, has been hindered by several barriers, one of which being that this infrastructure requires a high, long-term investment that must be maintained for years on end.
Agricultural and food operations
Today, agricultural operations use 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater. Unfortunately, around 60% of this precious water is wasted due to:
- Inefficient water application methods
- The growth of crops that are too thirsty for their environment
- Leaky irrigation systems and infrastructure
The large volume of wasted water is diminishing freshwater supplies around the world, especially in countries like India, China, and the U.S., where large amounts of food are produced.
Food production, particularly the production of meat, uses a large amount of water as well. On average, a single pound of beef takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce, most of which goes towards watering the grass where cattle graze and forage throughout their lives.
Agricultural and food operations not only use – and waste – a large amount of our global water supply, but they also cause a great deal of water pollution. Whether it be fertilizer, pesticides, or mismanaged sewage, these industrial operations release contaminants that seep into our soil, groundwater supplies, and bodies of water through runoff.
Today, chemicals used for agriculture around the world currently amount to 2 million tons per year, with herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides used the most.
For example, arsenic is a byproduct of industrial and agricultural operations. It’s toxic to living things, however: too much arsenic in water or food supplies can cause serious health issues for those exposed to it.
Which areas are the most water-stressed?
Though the water crisis poses an existential threat to the entire world, many countries will not face the repercussions of water scarcity as harshly as others.
Countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia consistently face water shortages, due to extreme weather events, economic instability, and the other effects of climate change.
Among the top countries with the highest percentage of the population lacking basic access to water are:
- Papua New Guinea: where a shocking 63.4% of people lack basic water services.
- Lebanon: it is reported that more than 71% of Lebanon’s population faced critical water shortages.
- Afghanistan: it is estimated that 8 out of every 10 Afghans drink unsafe water.
- Uganda: where 61.1% of people lack basic water services.
Unfortunately, many more countries face dire water shortages today, and more and more citizens will lose access to safe water sources.
Ongoing drought, flooding, government upheaval, inflation, rapid urbanization, and lack of adequate infrastructure are just some of the reasons that the water crisis has been exacerbated in these regions.
Water scarcity solutions
Though estimates project that water scarcity will become worse in the coming years, there are several non-profits, environmental advocacy groups, and governments working to develop water scarcity solutions on a large scale that address the complex issue of water availability.
However, you can also practice some of these solutions at home to play your part in combating water waste and living a more sustainable lifestyle.
1. Sustainable water management
In most countries, water is mismanaged and/or existing water infrastructure is aging or not completed. Conserving water and increasing the efficiency of these systems is a key part of sustainable water management, and integrated water resources management (IWRM) is a proven solution to these challenges.
IWRM provides a broad framework for governments to align water use patterns with the needs and demands of different users, including the environment.
This water scarcity solution can control water stress by:
- reducing losses from water distribution systems
- safe wastewater reuse
- appropriate water allocation
The IWRM framework allows governments to work together to decide the goals of water management for their specific region. Because every country has vastly different socio-economic structures, environmental features, and history, IWRM can be adapted to meet the needs of each situation.
At its core, however, IWRM depends on:
- Good quality data on water resources
- Water-saving, green technologies (particularly in industry and agriculture)
- Education campaigns to reduce wasted water and encourage sustainable diets and consumption
2. Invest in emerging technologies
IWRM is not the only water scarcity solution that requires technological upgrades. Innovative, green technology is at the forefront of addressing water shortages today.
One such process is water reuse, which reclaims water from a variety of sources – like groundwater recharge, wastewater, and agricultural reuse – and then treats and reuses the water for agriculture and irrigation, groundwater replenishment, industrial processes, environmental restoration, and potable water supplies, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Rainwater harvesting and recycled wastewater ease pressure on groundwater and other natural bodies of water.
Another example of sustainable emerging technologies is efficient solar desalination systems, which are showing promise as far as desalinating seawater or brackish water using renewable solar energy.
Smart irrigation systems are already used at many commercial and residential properties, and these systems use advanced controls to minimize wasted water for irrigation.
3. Awareness and advocacy
Another key water scarcity solution is education about the importance of water resources and their protection. Many citizens still do not understand how dire the water crisis is, and that their access to adequate water supplies is in jeopardy.
Organizations and individuals can also work to advocate for adequate health and water requirements in their cities, states, and countries.
Regardless of where you live, everyone has a personal responsibility to conserve water. Here are some simple habit changes and upgrades you can make at home or in your daily life to conserve water:
- Fill sinks with water when washing dishes instead of letting the water run.
- Do not let the water run when brushing your teeth.
- Swap fixtures and appliances for more water-efficient options.
- Flush toilets only when necessary.
- Address leaks in bathtubs, faucets, and toilets.
- Use a bucket to catch running water while waiting for the shower to heat up.
- Replace your high-flow showerhead with a low-flow one.
- Reduce your meat and poultry intake and opt for less water-intensive meals.
- Use a broom to clean sidewalks instead of water hoses.
Over time, making these switches at home can make a big difference in water conservation efforts in your area, and save you money on water bills as well.
4. Reduce pollution and improve sewage management
All forms of pollution eventually make their way to water: our atmosphere, land, and bodies of water are connected. When toxic substances are released into the air, our water and soil suffers. Thus, reducing all forms of pollution, especially direct water pollution, serves as a critical water scarcity solution.
Proper sewage management is a critical part of this solution. Without proper sanitation, water becomes contaminated and unsafe to use, even spreading diseases among communities. It’s estimated that 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, stormwater, and industrial waste are dumped into U.S. waters each year.
Untreated sewage contains biological pollutants like bacteria and pathogens. Stormwater drains carry waters that contain contaminants like fertilizers into nearby rivers, lakes, and waterways, where they are dumped.
Inevitably, these contaminants make their way into groundwater and freshwater supplies. Up to 80% of illnesses in the developing world are linked to inadequate water and sanitation.
However, new strategies are offering promising ways to address this issue, such as decentralizing local treatment systems to improve efficiency, keep resources local, and lower costs. Treatment systems are also beginning to recognize and control excess nutrients that they release, such as phosphorus and nitrogen.
5. Optimize agricultural irrigation
Another critical water scarcity solution involves improving agricultural irrigation. With almost 70% of the world’s freshwater being used for agriculture, we must act to increase irrigation efficiencies and reduce water waste.
Altering farming practices such as rotating crops, or planting crops according to the seasons and soil conditions, and conservation tillage, enhancing soil with the previous crop residue, help improve soil moisture so that land requires less frequent watering. For large-scale farming operations, these practices can help conserve precious water resources.
Collecting and utilizing data to ensure that water is not wasted is also a part of this solution. Enhanced soil moisture sensors, monitoring, and communications systems are already helping provide this data to improve irrigation efficiency.
Water scarcity solutions are essential
It’s clear that prioritizing water scarcity solutions is essential to the health of billions of people, plants, and animal species.
Water scarcity is at the center of the water crisis, and these two dire issues must be addressed in tandem. By investing in existing infrastructure and green technologies, especially in developing nations, we can work to preserve our water supplies and keep water safe for consumption.
As an individual, you have the opportunity to reduce your water use and make more mindful swaps in your daily life to conserve water. Over time, these seemingly small actions will make a difference.