Water Scarcity: Causes, Effects, Solutions, Forecasts & Stats

Water Scarcity: Causes, Effects, Solutions, Forecasts & Stats

Water scarcity is made up of a number of water related factors and issues.

It is a term loosely thrown around by different organisations and media outlets, with different meanings depending on who is using it and in what context.

In this guide we outline what water scarcity is, the types of water scarcity, what causes it, the effects, countries affected, and solutions.


Summary – Water Scarcity

  • Water scarcity is a different measurement and indicator to water stress
  • Water stress is simply an indicator of water supplies vs water demand – expressed as low to high levels of water stress
  • Water scarcity occurs when water demand actually exceeds internal water resources i.e. a water stressed country or city is more likely to experience water scarcity
  • There’s a range of potential ways to measure water scarcity
  • There’s a range of types of water scarcity such as physical water scarcity, and economic water scarcity
  • Causes of water scarcity can vary, but could be a combination of any of the following overpopulation or a growth in population, lack of signifiacant/adequate freshwater supplies, lack of money to invest in tech and infrastructure used for accessing and maintaining freshwater, poor management of water resources or access to water resources, high usage/demand and increased consumption of water in all sectors (residential, commercial, industrial) and particularly agriculture, high temperatures and dry climates, climate change, droughts, lack of rainfall, or variability in rainfall, and natural events and natural disasters like floods which pollute or disrupt a water supply
  • One-third of the global population (2 billion people) live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least 1 month of the year
  • Half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round
  • Half of the world’s largest cities experience water scarcity
  • Water Demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40% in 2030, if current trends continue.
  • Scarcity can be expected to intensify with most forms of economic development, but, if correctly identified, many of its causes can be predicted, avoided or mitigated
  • Desalination plants and recycling and re-using grey water and waste water after treatment are just some of the options in developed countries to combat water scarcity
  • In developing countries, financial investment to address water pollution and contamination, human waste and treatment and hygiene infrastructure, fresh water supply etc. are required


What Is Water Scarcity, & Absolute Water Scarcity?

  • Water scarcity is the lack of fresh water resources to meet water demand.
  • The essence of global water scarcity is the geographic and temporal mismatch between freshwater demand and availability.

– Wikipedia.org

  • Water scarcity is more extreme than water stress, and occurs when water demand exceeds internal water resources.

– Ourworldindata.org


Note that there is a difference between water scarcity, and absolute water scarcity – which we outline below.

Keep this in mind when you read stats about water scarcity.


Measuring Water Scarcity

Globalwaterforum.org explains that there are 4 ways water scarcity might be measured and described:

1. One of the most commonly used measures of water scarcity is the ‘Falkenmark indicator’ or ‘water stress index’. This method defines water scarcity in terms of the total water resources that are available to the population of a region; measuring scarcity as the amount of renewable freshwater that is available for each person each year.

If the amount of renewable water in a country is below 1,700 m3 per person per year, that country is said to be experiencing water stress; below 1,000 m3 it is said to be experiencing water scarcity; and below 500 m3, absolute water scarcity.


2. An alternative way of defining and measuring water scarcity is to use a criticality ratio. This approach relaxes the assumption that all countries use the same amount of water, instead defining water scarcity in terms of each country’s water demand compared to the amount of water available; measuring scarcity as the proportion of total annual water withdrawals relative to total available water resources.

Using this approach, a country is said to be water scarce if annual withdrawals are between 20-40% of annual supply, and severely water scarce if they exceed 40%.


3. A third measure of water scarcity was developed by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). This approach attempts to solve the problems listed above by including: each country’s water infrastructure, such as water in desalination plants, into the measure of water availability; including recycled water by limiting measurements of water demand to consumptive use rather than total withdrawals; and measuring the adaptive capacity of a country by assessing its potential for infrastructure development and efficiency improvements.

Using this approach, the IWMI classifies countries that are predicted to be unable to meet their future water demand without investment in water infrastructure and efficiency as economically water scarce; and countries predicted to be unable to meet their future demand, even with such investment, as physically water scarce.


4. A fourth approach to measuring water scarcity is the ‘water poverty index’. This approach attempts to take into account the role of income and wealth in determining water scarcity by measuring: (1) the level of access to water; (2) water quantity, quality, and variability; (3) water used for domestic, food, and productive purposes; (4) capacity for water management; and (5) environmental aspects. The complexity of this approach, however, means that it is more suited for analysis at a local scale, where data is more readily available, than on a national level.


You can read more about each approach and it’s limitations in Globalwaterforum.org’s guide.


Water Scarcity vs Water Stress

Water stress is the ratio of total withdrawals to total renewable supply in a given area. A higher percentage means more water users are competing for limited water supplies, and therefore that area/country is more stressed.

But water stress is just an indicator how how close a country might be getting to running out of water.

(You can read more about water stress and water stress related information in this guide)

On the other hand, a country is water scarce when water is not available to meet demand.


Types Of Water Scarcity

There’s two types of water scarcity:

Physical Water Scarcity

  • Results from inadequate natural water resources to supply a region’s demand
  • Around one fifth of the world’s population currently live in regions affected by Physical Water Scarcity, where there is inadequate water resources to meet a country’s or regional demand, including the water needed to fulfill the demand of ecosystems to function effectively.
  • It also occurs where water seems abundant but where resources are over-committed, such as when there is over development of hydraulic infrastructure for irrigation. Symptoms of physical water scarcity include environmental degradation and declining groundwater as well as other forms of exploitation or overuse.

– Wikipedia.org

  • can mean scarcity in availability due to physical shortage

– UNwater.org


Economic Water Scarcity

  • Can result in two ways…
  • Results from poor management of the sufficient available water resources
  • Or, results by a lack of investment in infrastructure or technology to draw water from rivers, aquifers or other water sources, or insufficient human capacity to satisfy the demand for water.
  • Found more often to be the cause of countries or regions experiencing water scarcity, as most countries or regions have enough water to meet household, industrial, agricultural, and environmental needs, but lack the means to provide it in an accessible manner.
  • One quarter of the world’s population is affected by economic water scarcity.
  • Economic water scarcity includes a lack of infrastructure, causing the people without reliable access to water to have to travel long distances to fetch water, that is often contaminated from rivers for domestic and agricultural uses.
  • Large parts of Africa suffer from economic water scarcity; developing water infrastructure in those areas could therefore help to reduce poverty.
  • Critical conditions often arise for economically poor and politically weak communities living in already dry environment.
  • Consumption increases with GDP per capita in most developed countries, and the average amount (per capita) is around 200–300 litres daily.
  • In underdeveloped countries (e.g. African countries such as Mozambique), average daily water consumption per capita was below 10 L.
  • This is against the backdrop of international organisations, which recommend a minimum of 20 L of water (not including the water needed for washing clothes), available at most 1 km from the household.
  • Increased water consumption is correlated with increasing income, as measured by GDP per capita. In countries suffering from water shortages water is the subject of speculation.

– Wikipedia.org

  • can mean scarcity in access due to the failure of institutions to ensure a regular supply, or
  • scarcity due to a lack of adequate infrastructure

– UNwater.org


What Causes Water Scarcity?

There’s many factors that can cause water scarcity including:

  • Overpopulation or a growth in population
  • Lack of freshwater reserves
  • Lack of money to invest in tech and infrastructure used for accessing freshwater
  • Poor management of water resources or access to water resources
  • High usage/demand and increased consumption of water in all sectors (residential, commercial, industrial) and particularly agriculture
  • High temperatures and dry climates
  • Climate change
  • Droughts
  • Lack of rainfall, or variability in rainfall
  • Natural events and natural disasters like floods which pollute or disrupt a water supply


Wikipedia.org also offers other causes:

  • Partial or no satisfaction of expressed demand
  • Economic competition for water quantity or quality
  • Disputes between users of water sources
  • Irreversible depletion of groundwater
  • Negative impacts on the environment which impact water sources
  • Technically, there is a sufficient amount of freshwater on a global scale. However, due to unequal distribution (exacerbated by climate change) resulting in some very wet and some very dry geographic locations, plus a sharp rise in global freshwater demand in recent decades driven by industry, humanity is facing a water crisis.
  • The increasing world population, improving living standards, changing consumption patterns, and expansion of irrigated agriculture are the main driving forces for the rising global demand for water.
  • Climate change, such as altered weather-patterns (including droughts or floods), deforestation, increased pollution, green house gases, and wasteful use of water can cause insufficient supply
  • At the global level and on an annual basis, enough freshwater is available to meet such demand, but spatial and temporal variations of water demand and availability are large, leading to (physical) water scarcity in several parts of the world during specific times of the year. All causes of water scarcity are related to human interference with the water cycle. Scarcity varies over time as a result of natural hydrological variability, but varies even more so as a function of prevailing economic policy, planning and management approaches.
  • The total amount of easily accessible freshwater on Earth, in the form of surface water (rivers and lakes) or groundwater (in aquifers, for example), is 14.000 cubic kilometres (nearly 3359 cubic miles). Of this total amount, ‘just’ 5.000 cubic kilometres are being used and reused by humanity. Hence, in theory, there is more than enough freshwater available to meet the demands of the current world population of 7 billion people, and even support population growth to 9 billion or more. Due to the unequal geographical distribution and especially the unequal consumption of water, however, it is a scarce resource in some parts of the world and for some parts of the population.
  • Scarcity as a result of consumption is caused primarily by the extensive use of water in agriculture/livestock breeding and industry. People in developed countries generally use about 10 times more water daily than those in developing countries. A large part of this is indirect use in water-intensive agricultural and industrial production processes of consumer goods, such as fruit, oil seed crops and cotton. Because many of these production chains have been globalised, a lot of water in developing countries is being used and polluted in order to produce goods destined for consumption in developed countries.

– Wikipedia.org


Climate change and bio-energy demands are also expected to amplify the already complex relationship between world development and water demand

– UNWater.org


Effects Of Water Scarcity

The effects of water scarcity may not be so severe, but it can turn into absolute water scarcity if not managed properly.

Absolute water scarcity on the other hand can be detrimental to country or region. Some effects can involve:

  • Economic effects – lack of economic growth, and increased poverty
  • Health effects – malnutrition from lack of water and lack of water to grow food to eat, hygiene and sanitary related health issues
  • Environment effects – increased salinity, nutrient pollution, and the loss of floodplains and wetlands. Furthermore, water scarcity makes flow management in the rehabilitation of urban streams problematic.

There can also be flow on social impact from these effects such as threats to social health (diseases), safety (increased violence and war) and stability (loss of employment).

Humans, animals, plants and the greater natural environment and atmosphere can be impacted by scarcity of water.


How Much Of The World Is Affected By Water Scarcity?

  • One-third of the global population (2 billion people) live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least 1 month of the year
  • Half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round
  • Half of the world’s largest cities experience water scarcity

– Wikipedia.org

  • a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year

– worldwildlife.org


What’s The Future Forecast/Trend For Water Scarcity?

  • Water Demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40% in 2030, if current trends continue.
  • Scarcity can be expected to intensify with most forms of economic development, but, if correctly identified, many of its causes can be predicted, avoided or mitigated

– Wikipedia.org


Solutions To Water Scarcity

General solutions to water scarcity may include:

  • Getting access to additional freshwater sources
  • Investing in water technology and infrastructure in low income, and highly water stressed countries and regions
  • Controlling populations in human dense cities and urban locations
  • Controlling water pollution
  • Using water efficiently at the home, commercial and industrial levels
  • Governments having good water management plans now and in the future, and governments being more organised
  • Developing freshwater technology to be cheaper and more energy friendly e.g. desalination plants
  • Mitigating the impact of climate change
  • Having drought and other natural event management plans
  • Better co-operation between countries on shared or trans-boundary freshwater sources
  • Everyone in society treating water as a scare resource to be protected
  • + more


More specific solutions, per Wikipedia.org, may include:

  • Some countries have already proven that decoupling water use from economic growth is possible. For example, in Australia, water consumption declined by 40% between 2001 and 2009 while the economy grew by more than 30%. The International Resource Panel of the UN states that governments have tended to invest heavily in largely inefficient solutions: mega-projects like dams, canals, aqueducts, pipelines and water reservoirs, which are generally neither environmentally sustainable nor economically viable. The most cost-effective way of decoupling water use from economic growth, according to the scientific panel, is for governments to create holistic water management plans that take into account the entire water cycle: from source to distribution, economic use, treatment, recycling, reuse and return to the environment.
  • Construction of wastewater treatment plants and reduction of groundwater overdrafting appear to be obvious solutions to the worldwide problem; however, a deeper look reveals more fundamental issues in play.
  • Wastewater treatment is highly capital intensive, restricting access to this technology in some regions; furthermore the rapid increase in population of many countries makes this a race that is difficult to win.
  • As if those factors are not daunting enough, one must consider the enormous costs and skill sets involved to maintain wastewater treatment plants even if they are successfully developed.
  • Reducing groundwater overdrafting is usually politically unpopular, and can have major economic impacts on farmers. Moreover, this strategy necessarily reduces crop output, something the world can ill-afford given the current population.
  • At more realistic levels, developing countries can strive to achieve primary wastewater treatment or secure septic systems, and carefully analyse wastewater outfall design to minimize impacts to drinking water and to ecosystems. Developed countries can not only share technology better, including cost-effective wastewater and water treatment systems but also in hydrological transport modeling. At the individual level, people in developed countries can look inward and reduce over consumption, which further strains worldwide water consumption.
  • Both developed and developing countries can increase protection of ecosystems, especially wetlands and riparian zones. There measures will not only conserve biota, but also render more effective the natural water cycle flushing and transport that make water systems more healthy for humans.
  • A range of local, low-tech solutions are being pursued by a number of companies. These efforts center around the use of solar power to distill water at temperatures slightly beneath that at which water boils. By developing the capability to purify any available water source, local business models could be built around the new technologies, accelerating their uptake. For example, Bedouins from the town of Dahab in Egypt have installed Aqua Danial’s Water Stellar, which uses a solar thermal collector measuring two square meters to distill from 40 to 60 liters per day from any local water source.
  • This is five times more efficient than conventional stills and eliminates the need for polluting plastic PET bottles or transportation of water supply.

– Wikipedia.org


There is not a global water shortage as such, but individual countries and regions need to urgently tackle the critical problems presented by water stress.

Water has to be treated as a scarce resource, with a far stronger focus on managing demand. Integrated water resources management provides a broad framework for governments to align water use patterns with the needs and demands of different users, including the environment.

– UNWater.org


Stats On Water Scarcity

  • Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of scarcity. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage (where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers). (FAO, 2007) via UNWater.org
  • Around 700 million people in 43 countries suffer today from water scarcity. (Global Water Institute, 2013)
  • Two thirds of the world’s population currently live in areas that experience water scarcity for at least one month a year. (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2016) via UNWater.org
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stress conditions. (UNESCO, 2012) via UNWater.org
  • With the existing climate change scenario, by 2030, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people. (UNCCD) via UNWater.org
  • A third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are already in distress (Richey et al., 2015) via UNWater.org
  • Nearly half the global population are already living in potential waterscarce areas at least one month per year and this could increase to some 4.8–5.7 billion in 2050. About 73% of the affected people live in Asia (69% by 2050) (Burek et al., 2016) via UNWater.org



1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_scarcity

2. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity

3. http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/

4. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/12/four-billion-people-face-severe-water-scarcity-new-research-finds

5. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Water Access, Resources & Sanitation”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/water-access-resources-sanitation’ [Online Resource]

6. http://www.globalwaterforum.org/2012/05/07/understanding-water-scarcity-definitions-and-measurements/

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