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 problems, and water quality problems
The first category is having an adequate quantity of available fresh water resources.
This involves having sufficient available fresh water resources relative to demand placed on those resources i.e. water volume and/or water replenishment rates should be adequate when compared to withdrawal and consumption rates
The second is having an adequate quality of available fresh water resources.
This involves the water being in an adequate condition for it’s end use.
One end use example might be potable drinking water, whilst there are many examples of non potable water ends uses – irrigation in agriculture is one. Water usually has to meet regulations (the Safe Drinking Water Act & Clean Water Act are examples), and/or water testing standards in developed countries.
There is a third water category of water problems, but it is really a problem that is more 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 also have water access issues 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.
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
There’s many factors that can lead to water stress or water scarcity, but some of the main ones are:
A city or town not having a high natural volume or capacity of available fresh water resources
A dry and/or hot climate (and increasing surface temperature and decreasing or variable rainfall levels)
Natural events like droughts
Increasing demand placed on water resources – can be caused by factors such as population growth and increase in water required for economic activity
Poor or inadequate governmental or institutional management of freshwater resources
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, inflow and stream flow rates into surface water and groundwater, percolation rates through soil and rock into ground water aquifers, 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)
Ability to generate fresh water (via desalination technology for example)
The volume and capacity of available shared water resources
The volume and capacity of external/transboundary water 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 regions within a different countries can experience water scarcity and stress during different time periods.
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 (experts say waste water recycling could have potential to do this long term)
2. Quality Of Water
Quality of water refers to the condition of the water, and fresh water resources must be of adequate quality for the potable or non potable end use.
Ocean water (salt water) for example is not of adequate quality to drink unless it’s treated with desalination.
Fresh water may become polluted or contaminated, or may become cross contaminated with salt water, and both of these things can make fresh water not suitable for drinking water or non potable uses.
Drinking water usually has to meet legislation or regulations (the Safe Drinking Water Act & Clean Water Act are examples), and/or water testing standards in developed countries.
Water that that is non potable, such as water used for irrigation to grow crops in agriculture for example might be tested for specific quality standards.
We’ve put together several guides with further information on some water quality related topics:
Solutions To Major Global Water Issues & Problems
1. Water Quantity
Read more about solutions to water quantity related problems in this guide.
There are many potential solutions for addressing water quantity related issues.
Some of the major ones may include, but aren’t limited to:
Better and more accurate tools that allow governments, farmers, and businesses to measure and track water usage, as well as indicators, stressors and triggers of water risk. Also, better data analysis that allows the short and long term sustainable management of fresh water resources, as well as estimating future forecasting for factors like demand, population growth, economic growth and so on
Restricting, rationing and controlling water withdrawals to protect baseline water levels, or so that withdrawals don’t outpace renewal rates
Increasing water capacity/volume e.g. building a new dam
Increasing water efficiency, and effectiveness of water use in the major water using sectors and activities – agriculture (irrigation in particular), industry (energy generation in particular), and household
Similarly to the point above, identifying and minimizing water waste and loss in the above sectors
Adapting to the local climate – if it’s a hot (high surface temperature) and dry (low or variable rainfall) climate for example, or if it has a strong frequency and intensity of natural events like droughts that impact rainfall. Cities and towns can get around this by using climate independent technology like desalination, waste/grey/storm water treatment and recycling, and so on (options that don’t depend on rain, aren’t affected by droughts, and other climate related factors)
Diversifying to more than one source or type of water supply source – to diversify risk, and gain the benefits of different types of water supplies
In the long term – considering ways to decouple population growth and economic growth from an increase in water use/water withdrawals
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.
Cities and towns may also look to secure both potable and non potable fresh water supplies for the short and long term.
2. Water Quality
Read more about solutions to water quality related problems in this guide.