Global fresh water issues and problems generally fit into one of two broad categories.
In this guide, we identify these categories, and also the specific water problems associated with them.
We also look to identify potential short term and long term options and solutions to address them.
Summary – Biggest Global Water Issues & Problems, & Solutions
- There’s two broad categories that global water problems and issues might fit into – water quantity, and water quality
- The first category is having an adequate quantity of available fresh water resources relative to demand (withdrawal and consumption rates) placed on those resources. There’s several key factors that need to be taken into account and managed in order for a city or region to ensure they have adequate internal water resources to meet demand.
- Water availability, water stress, water scarcity, and water shortage are all terms that are used to describe various aspects of water quantity related problems
- The second is having adequate quality of available fresh water resources. This involves the water being in good condition for it’s end use. This may involve meeting water guidelines or water regulation requirements (such as a Clean Water Act) for drinking water, or meeting specific water testing standards for water used for other non potable purposes like irrigation in agriculture for example.
- Water pollution and contamination, and water salinity are terms that are used to describe various aspects of water quality related problems
- There is a third water category, but it is really a problem that is specific to underdeveloped, developing, and low to moderate income regions. This problem is lack of access to clean and safe drinking water, and lack of access to basic sanitation and hygiene services. Because it is not a global issue common to all countries (at the start of 2020 – roughly 800 million people lack access to clean drinking water, with many of those people being located in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and The Pacific, & South Asia), we will not expand on this point in this guide. Although, it should be noted that some developed or higher income countries and regions may have issues with access to water if their water infrastructure is not working as it should be i.e. there is problems extracting, treating/purifying, transporting and delivering water to the places where people live and work. Lack of access to water can also be one of the major causes of not having an adequate quantity of water available to use for a region.
- Water crisis, water risk and water security are other general terms used to describe global water issues
- Ultimately, fresh water issues and problems should be assessed and addressed on the local level i.e. specific to a city, town, region or population of people. Every location has different factors and variables impacting upon their fresh water resources and supplies at any one time, and will consequently face different challenges and problems. Perth in Western Australia is an example of a city facing water scarcity issues who has at least addressed their drinking water resources in the short term, but, is still developing longer term solutions for sustainable non potable fresh water resources.
* Note – this guide also does not cover natural disasters that involve water, such as river floods.
Biggest Global Water Issues & Problems – Quantity & Quality Of Water
1. Quantity Of Water
Some of the key factors that need to be taken into account when assessing water quantity related problems may include, but aren’t limited to:
- The total volume (and capacity) of available internal fresh water resources (surface water, and ground water sources
- Demand on those resources – withdrawal and consumption rates
- Renewal/replenishment rates (usually from hydrological cycle, taking into account rainfall, evaporation, inflows and stream flows, and so on) of those resources compared to how quickly they are being depleted or emptied
- Ability to increase resource capacity (like building a new dam for example), or to generate fresh water (via desalination technology for example)
- Ability to treat and re-use water, or to recycle water
- The volume and capacity of available external/transboundary, and shared fresh water resources, can also be looked at – but, they cannot be relied upon like internal resources.
When there are limited available internal fresh water resources, or when the withdrawal or consumption rate (demand) is higher than the rate that those resources are being recharged/replenished, there is usually water quantity issues like high water stress, water scarcity and water shortages.
Different countries and cities/regions throughout the world may experiencing water quantity related issues, or may be forecast to suffer from any of these issues in the future.
Perth in Western Australia is an example of a city that has managed to address their water scarcity issues by securing drinking water in the short term. However, they are focussing on longer term sustainable strategies for non potable fresh water too
2. Quality Of Water
Quality of water refers to the condition of the water.
Fresh water resources must be of adequate quality for the potable or non potable end use.
This means the water usually has to meet water quality guidelines or regulation requirements (such as the Clean Water Act) for drinking water (it has to be safe and clean), or pass specific types of water quality testing for non potable fresh water.
Water that will be used for irrigation to grow crops in agriculture for example might be tested for specific quality standards.
Water pollutants and contaminants, as well as the water being saline or brackish can cause the water to be of poor quality for it’s end use.
There’s many types of pollutants and contaminants that be found in water, and different countries and cities around the world have different levels of, and causes for water pollution and contamination.
Solutions To Major Global Water Issues & Problems
1. Water Quantity
There are many potential solutions for addressing water quantity related issues. Some of these may include, but aren’t limited to:
- Increasing total fresh water supply capacity (one example is building another dam)
- Impacting the replenishment rate of existing fresh water resources (by protecting natural landscapes and catchment areas as one example)
- Generating new fresh water resources (via desalination for example)
- Sustainably managing the withdrawal and consumption rate from existing water resources (there’s many ways to do this, such as water restrictions and sustainable water use policies)
- Using water more efficiently in the sectors that withdraw and consume the most water in society – especially irrigation in agriculture, and wet cooling at thermo electric power plants
- Decreasing the amount of water lost to water leaks in public supply water pipes, and also in agriculture and industry
- Addressing climate change (climate impacts rainfall and evaporation in the hydrologic cycle, as well inflows and streamflows to surface water sources, and percolating into ground water sources)
Solutions to water quantity issues can be addressed on the global, national (with national policy), State (with State policy), city, sector and individual levels. They may also be addressed in a shared way when cities share water resources for example.
2. Water Quality
Solutions to water quality problems involve:
- Preventing water pollution and contamination
- Cleaning up water pollution and contamination
- And, testing and treating/purifying poor quality water to make it adequate quality for it’s end use
- [it may also involve making sure public supply pipes are free from heavy metals and other compounds, and pipes and water infrastructure isn’t leaching into the water]
We’ve put together several guides on these topics:
- How To Find Out The Quality Of Freshwater
- Drinking Water Quality In Different Countries & Cities, & How To Know If Tap Water Is Safe
- Solutions To Water Pollution & Contamination