Global Water Crisis By the Numbers
Water is essential for most of our basic needs — like washing, cooking, and growing food. As the human population grows, the need for clean water around the world increases, but its availability is actually shrinking. Today:
Close to one quarter of the world is suffering from a water crisis.
What Is the Global Water Crisis?
Since the 1990s, leaps forward have meant that 2.6 billion people in developing countries now have access to clean water.
However, there’s still far to go. Not only do 884 million people suffer from limited access to clean water, the problem is exacerbated every time there’s a drought, which is becoming increasingly common with climate change.
This impacts certain regions of the world and groups of people far more than others. For instance, of the 17 countries at extremely high risk, 12 are in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Top 10 Water-Stressed Countries
- Qatar — The country suffering from the highest water stress is Qatar. Its growing population and economy are demanding more water, but the desert country has not one river.
- Israel — Since 2013, Israel has been suffering from droughts. Last year, its rivers, lakes, and aquifers reached a 100-year low.
- Lebanon — Mismanagement of water for agriculture and home use combined insufficient storage and pollution has led to Lebanon being ranked third on the list of water-stressed countries.
- Iran — Water stress is visible in Iran in the massive sinkholes. Misuse of water in agriculture and population growth are the main causes.
- Jordan — Some communities in Jordan only have running water for just 12 hours a week.
- Libya — Another desert state, Libya receives only a small amount of rainfall each year.
- Kuwait — Residents of Kuwait need to rely on converted saltwater for their potable water.
- Saudi Arabia — The huge consumption of water by individuals has lead to Saudi Arabia becoming extremely water stressed.
- Eritrea — With an annual rainfall of 15 inches, more than 40 percent of the population of Eritrea has no access to clean water.
- United Arab Emirates — Another country relying on desalination to meet its water needs is the United Arab Emirates.
The Water Crisis in Africa
North Africa is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world due to its hot, dry climate. The problem is mostly down to a lack of wastewater recycling. Simply reusing the more than 80 percent of wasted water could provide countries in the region with enough clean water to survive. Such a solution has helped Australia avoid high water stress.
The water crisis is also impacting the other extreme of the continent: in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town. Last year, Cape Town was scheduled to hit Day Zero — the day when more than one million homes would have no running water. This was because the city and its surroundings were about to reach peak water. In other words, there would be no more water to take from the area. First, Day Zero was set for April; later, it moved to July. The city is still coping, but a massive shortage is always just around the corner.
To survive, the residents of Cape Town are making extreme changes to how they manage water, including severe rationing: no longer flushing potable water down the toilet and limiting showering to no more than twice a week.
Whereas this is somewhat effective, home usage only accounts for 3 percent of total water use in Cape Town. At between 80 and 90 percent, agriculture is the real culprit. A large percentage of this goes to the wine industry, which needs water to grow and process grapes for wine exported to Europe and beyond.
The Flint Water Crisis
In fact, there’s no need to go as far as Africa to see the impact of the global water crisis — even the United States is experiencing the crisis firsthand. Although the country as a whole has a low water stress level, certain states are suffering. For instance, New Mexico ranks extremely high and California is on the way there.
Then, of course, there’s the case of Flint, Michigan. The water crisis in the city began back in 2014 and is still ongoing to some extent. It started when city officials, as a money-saving measure, decided to use the Flint River as a source of potable water instead of the Detroit water system. However, the water was improperly treated and, to make matters worse, government officials failed to test the water sufficiently even when residents complained.
For a year and a half, Flint residents had to live with water that tasted, looked, and smelled bad. It also caused a range of health problems, including itchy skin, rashes, and hair loss. In addition, 12 people died and another 87 fell sick because of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease (a type of pneumonia), which could be linked to the water.
When residents were finally taken seriously, tests found that the water contained dangerously high levels of lead. This was because more than half of the pipes bringing water to homes contained some lead. The challenge now is to identify and upgrade all these service lines.
The water in Flint was also found to be contaminated by fecal coliform, which was due to insufficient chlorine in the water mains. To remove the bacteria, the city added more chlorine. However, this caused high levels of the by-product total trihalomethanes, which causes cancer.
Why was the water from the Flint River so polluted in the first place? For more than 100 years, local industries were dumping refuse (both treated and untreated) into the river. This included refuse from car factories, meatpacking plants, and paper mills. To make matters worse, the river was also receiving raw sewage, agricultural runoff, and other toxins.
In fact, even today Flint is not problem free. The water source may be clean and residents are no longer receiving bottled water, but thousands of people are still at risk if they decide to drink the water without filtering it first.
The History of the Global Water Crisis
To understand why there’s a global water crisis, we need to go all the way back to the 1700s — to the start of industrialization.
- In the 1700s, the industrial revolution led to more people living in close quarters in cities, all of whom need clean water for sanitation.
- Over the 19th century, the amount of people living in urban areas grew from 10 percent to 40 percent in the U.S. It is during this period that records of water shortages first appear in historical documents.
- The 1800s also saw the development of public water systems. In 1866, there were just 136 public water systems in the U.S. By the 1890s, that number had increased to 3,000.
- In 1948, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1948 was passed to keep water sources clean. It was later updated in 1972 to include legislation related to water pollution and provide more funds to sewage treatment plants.
- Over the 20th century, demand for water continued to increase faster than supply. In 1960, just 9 percent of the global population was experiencing chronic water shortages. That rose to 35 percent in 2005 — and last year 2.1 billion people still had no access to safe drinking water in their homes.
- From 1900 until today, at least 11 billion people have died from drought-related causes.
How Does Clean Water Impact Lives?
Water impacts almost every aspect of our lives.
When people have access to clean water, adults have greater opportunities for earning income and children are more likely to finish school. Families are able to practice good hygiene and are less likely to suffer from preventable diseases. The situation is even improved on a national level, as there are fewer disputes about who has the right to a limited supply of water.
In contrast, communities that lack access to clean water suffer from financial instability (families are unable to rise out of poverty), food insecurity, and even an increase in conflicts and displacement.
When people cannot practice basic sanitation, they are at risk of a variety of diseases. Poor hygiene leads to more deaths than all types of violence combined, including war. Access to clean water could save 16,000 lives a week.
Children suffer most from water sanitation and hygiene-related diseases. Every day, more than 800 children under the age of 5 die of diarrhea caused by dirty water. In fact, this age group accounts for 43 percent of all deaths due to unclean water. Plus, diarrhea is the third-leading cause of deaths in children of all ages.
Other health problems come from lifting and carrying heavy loads of water. When this is a necessity every day, the risk of suffering from serious injuries is high, as it is unfeasible to rest even for a day — including after straining a muscle.
Those in rural areas without running water often dedicate many hours of their week just to collecting water. They could be using this time for activities that their increase earnings or improve their quality of life, like running a business, caring for livestock, growing crops, looking after children, and maintaining their homes.
Often, children are required to drop out of school to help collect water while their parents work. As a result, children grow up without the skills and knowledge they would need to progress in the workforce, and the cycle of poverty continues.
Women Are Left Behind
Women and girls suffer the most from the global water crisis. Women are frequently responsible for collecting water for their families, spending a combined 200 million hours a day just carrying water. The average journey in Africa is 3.5 miles for 40 pounds of water.
In addition, women often die after giving birth due to unclean water used during labor that causes infections.
Girls are also more likely than boys to miss out on an education to collect water. Plus, when schools lack indoor toilets, teenage girls often stop going to school for as much as once a week each month when they start menstruating.
The Economic Situation
Individuals and families are not the only ones to suffer. When it is necessary to dedicate many hours to gathering water or if people are becoming sick due to unclean water, entire regions may experience crises. Just preventing deaths related to unclean water could add $18.5 billion to the economy each year.
Improving the Situation
We have already made huge leaps forward in bringing clean water to more places around the world, including isolated rural regions. The next step in eliminating the global water crisis is to ensure that everyone has access to sufficient clean, running water. Everyone from governments, charities, and business to individuals has a role to play.
One of the main ways we can solve the global water crisis is to develop and implement technology that will allow us to take advantage of the water we already have available. At the same time, we need to prevent water waste by treating and reusing water.
Desalination involves taking water from the ocean and removing the salt through a chemical process. The main problem with this method is that desalination plants are expensive to run and require large amounts of energy.
Another issue is that the process results in large quantities of salt (called brine) that needs to be disposed of. Usually, brine is dumped back into the ocean, which changes the balance of salt in the water and negatively impacts the ecosystem. In other words, desalination solves one problem but causes another.
One of the least expensive options is to increase the use of wastewater for tasks such as recharging aquifers. Wastewater is also ideal for using on crops. In fact, in some places it is essential to use wastewater for agriculture, the only alternative being changing production to plants that require less water.
Better Utilizing Rainwater
Better infrastructure to save rainwater can help communities manage through dry periods. However, it’s important to keep the water as clean as possible. Strategies like filtering rainwater through plants on a rooftop or rain garden prevents runoff from becoming contaminated.
A solution for areas that see low rainfall but heavy fog (such as in Chile, Nepal, Guatemala, and Morocco) is to catch the fog and turn it into water. The simplest fog catchers are just mesh screens, but for a little extra expense electric charges in the mesh can increase results.
One specific product hitting the market is the WaterSeer. Although it looks like a regular well, the WaterSeer is actually another solution that takes water from the air. At the top of the device is a turbine. Its blades send air into a condensation chamber, which cools the air and turns it into water vapor. This water then heads down into a chamber six feet under the ground. Locals can remove the collected water by using the pump on the device.
In places where farmers need a large amount of water to irrigate their crops, solar-powered pumps can make life much easier. A major risk, though, is that farmers may start using too much water if they feel that solar energy is free.
However, some programs have already implemented a solution to this problem: by encouraging local governments to buy back electricity reserves from farmers. This has the added benefits of increasing farmers’ incomes and providing the state with power it can use for other needs.
Smarter Agricultural Water Usage
Focusing on agriculture is critical for the sheer amount of water growing food requires. Smart solutions involve sensors to measure soil moisture levels and rainfall. It is also important to change the composition of soil to help it retain more water. Possibilities include adding compost at regular intervals as well as growing specific sequences of plants. Yet another option is to genetically modify crops to make them more tolerant to drought.
Water Filter Products
When water is available but is unclean, one of the best solutions is a water filter. Numerous filter products have already been developed, all of which significantly reduce bacteria in water. In developed countries there are a few different types of water filters that are used to clean water:
- Best whole house water filter and softener
- Water filter pitchers
- Under sink filters
- Faucet filters
- Portable water filters
- Reverse osmosis systems
- Water softening systems
If less developed countries with water treatment issues could have better access and resources for portable water filters, RO systems, pitchers, and home filters this could help solve the problem of contaminated water by being able filter dirty water.
The challenge now is to make these filters accessible and affordable to the people who need them most.
In many parts of the world, it would be easy to implement technology to solve the water crisis. The problem is that charities and governments lack the funding they need to bring clean water to the whole population. Charitable funding can go a long way toward providing people with better access to water, purifying their current water sources, and teaching them about hygiene. Sometimes, a sum of just a few hundred dollars could give an entire community clean water for life.
How You Can Help
The global water crisis may be too big a problem for any single person to solve, but you can make a big difference: by donating to the right organizations and by making changes to your lifestyle.
Organizations You Can Donate To
There are many organizations on the ground making a real difference to combating the water crisis. By donating to these charities, you can help them have a bigger impact. Some top choices include:
- Charity: water — This New York-based charity focuses its efforts on Malawi, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, among other developing countries. The organization combines traditional methods, like creating wells and gathering rainwater, with new technology, such as water sensors and biosand filters.
- Blood:Water — Serving communities in Africa, Blood:Water has the dual purpose of eliminating HIV/AIDS and solving the water crisis on the continent. Its water solutions include installing toilets and hand-washing stations as well as educating locals. It has already been successful in bringing clean water to around 1 million people in 11 countries.
- Planet Water Foundation — The focus of Planet Water Foundation is to remove bacteria and other harmful contaminants from water to save the lives of children and their families in rural communities. The organization installs water filtration systems and educates communities on the importance of sanitation. They aim to serve 5 million people by next year.
- Thirst Project — Solving the global water crisis is more likely to succeed if young people become involved. The Thirst Project visits schools and universities across the U.S. and encourages students to start their own Thirst Project Clubs to further increase awareness. The organization has also built hand pump wells in countries including Uganda, El Salvador, Kenya, Colombia, India, and Ethiopia.
Steps to Take in Your Daily Life
No matter if you live in a water-stressed area or somewhere with an abundance of water, you should try to limit your consumption of water.
Reduce Your Water Usage
There is a huge number of ways to reduce how much water you use in your daily life:
- Take showers instead of baths.
- Switch to water-saving appliances, like front-loading washing machines.
- Install aerators on your faucets.
- Always fill your dishwasher completely before using it.
- Only use your toilet as intended.
- Turn off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving.
- Fix water leaks in your home and yard.
- Reduce how much your toilet flushes with a float boaster or tank bank.
- Get creative about reusing water or even install a gray-water system.
- Limit the amount of time you use water sprinklers in your garden — or, better yet, switch to plants that require less watering.
- Cover your swimming pool to prevent evaporation.
- Collect rainwater.
Make Smarter Purchasing Decisions
It is important to support companies that are committed to reducing water usage and are taking water from sustainable sources — especially when crops are water intensive, such as cotton, rice, and nuts. In fact, just purchasing less in general is a good idea, as it will reduce your overall water footprint.
Research how you can become involved in local, national, or even global organizations that are defending water sources and working to bring clean water to more people. This could include raising money for charities, attending talks, or taking part in events. You could also participate in groups that pressure governments and industries to take action to stop polluting water.
Spread the Word
There’s only so much you can achieve alone, but you can easily multiply your impact by simply informing others about the problem. Everything from asking friends, family members, and coworkers to become involved in the cause and organizing your own fundraisers for water charities to sharing information online can make a big difference.
We all need to start acting now if we’re to solve the global water crisis. If we ignore the problem any longer, it will only become much worse — and more lives across the world will be at stake.