This guide is about quantity related global fresh water problems, such as water availability, water scarcity, water stress and water shortages.
We look at the causes, effects, solutions, forecasts, and relevant stats for this category of fresh water problems.
Summary – ‘Quantity’ Related Fresh Water Problems
Quantity related fresh water problems occur when internal fresh water resources are insufficient compared to the demand placed on those resources (demand is the withdrawal and consumption rates) – put another way, when water demand outstrips supply/replenishment, it usually results in the unsustainable use of water
Quantity related freshwater problems are localized to a particular geographic area (e.g. different cities, urban vs rural areas, and so on) over a specific time period
The result of these problems is high competition for scarce water resources, which can lead to a range of consequences and effects
Scarcity and high water stress can come and go as variables like climate and rainfall variability, number and type of water users, and other factors, change over a given time period
Potable water, and non potable fresh water, have different end uses, and are held to different standards and regulations. It’s possible a city can secure their drinking water resources, but have uncertain non potable fresh water supplies for the future. Perth in Western Australia is an example of a city currently facing this situation
There can be many causes behind quantity related water problems. Some of the major causes may include (but aren’t limited to) a lack of tools and data to track, measure and forecast water usage and supplies (as well as future demand), a small volume/capacity of fresh water resources, unsustainable withdrawal and consumption rates (water demand has doubled since 1960, and is projected to keep growing in the next few decades), slow replenishment rates (caused in part by a dry or hot climate, with low or inconsistent rainfall, and high evaporation rates), natural events like droughts, lack of efficiency by the major water users like agriculture, industry and the municipal sectors, not having a diverse range of water sources, not having climate independent fresh water sources (such as desalination), and not having the finances for technology such as desalination and waste water treatment and recycling. Some cities may or may not have access to transboundary water trade with other States and provinces
The impact of having a lack of fresh water sources has potential for serious consequences, depending on how water stressed a city or region is. There is a water footprint for almost everything we do or consume in society, and we use water not only to drink, but for many of the main sectors, with agriculture, industry and household being the three main water users. Cape Town was one example of what can happen when there are water shortages
Because water stress and scarcity are localized problems, they need localized short and long term solutions and strategy, and need to be monitored and modified over time as relevant different variables change
In the future, water consumption is expected to increase most in the agricultural and energy sectors, in line with a growing need for food and energy production for a growing population (pacinst.org)
General Causes Of Water Quantity Problems
There are a different set of causes for water stress or water scarcity in every country, region, city or town.
Some of the major causes of water scarcity, water stress and water quantity related problems are:
- Having a hot and dry climate (these conditions impact the hydrological cycle in terms of there being less rainfall, greater rates of evaporation, and so on. Also, wind, heat, moisture, and the land/soil are all important when it comes to the process of the hydrological cycle).
- Frequency and intensity of natural events like droughts
- Natural distribution of surface water and ground water over the world, and in an area – some areas have none, or very little natural volumes of fresh water (per capita, and/or total demand volume), and have to rely almost entirely on desalination, or options like transboundary water trade
- Having a small volume (or small capacity) of adequate quality fresh water resources to withdraw from (quality of water needs to suit the end needs)
- Having a slow recharge/replenishment rate of these fresh water resources (due to low rainfall, variable (year to year) rainfall, natural events like droughts, evaporation, catchment areas not working as effectively as they should, and ground water sources being naturally slow to recharge)
- Having unsustainable or inefficient withdrawal and consumption rates from these resources (overdrawing from surface or ground water, and these resources don’t recharge quickly enough). Fresh water demand has doubled since 1960 (sciencealert.com), and global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40% in 2030 (bbc.com). Another stat from pacinst.org: ‘Humans withdraw about four thousand cubic kilometers of water globally every year – approximately the volume of all the water in Lake Michigan. This is triple what we withdrew 50 years ago, and withdrawals continue to increase at a rate of about 1.6 percent per year. Global demand for water is predicted to increase by 55 percent between 2000 and 2050 … Much of this new demand will be driven by agriculture [and energy demand is expected to grow by 35% by 2035, leading to an increase in energy related water consumption by 60%]’
- A city not having a diverse range of water supply sources (such as surface water, ground water, replenishment schemes, waste water treatment and re-use, water recycling plants and technology, water trade, generating water from air, and so on)
- A city being too reliant on water sources that rely on the climate or natural factors to replenish (such as rain fall)
- Poor management (governmental or institutional) of a city or State’s water resources in the short and long term (especially balancing sustainable withdrawal rates with supply levels and replenishment rates, also investing in the right water infrastructure and technology, and properly planning for water risks, stressors, and severe natural water related events). This may involve a lack of competence, conflict of interest (such as sacrificing the long term future to get elected in short term election cycles), corruption, or other factors leading to poor or unsustainable management of water
- Not having the finances or practical ability to invest in modern technology like desalination, water recycling, and waste and grey water treatment and recycling
Other causes may include:
- Overconsumption or inefficient consumption of water by the three main water using sectors – agriculture (global average of 70% of withdrawals), industry (global average of 20% of withdrawals), and municipal (global average of 10%) [note the difference between water withdrawals and consumption … where withdrawals may return to the water source, whilst consumption is a permanent use of the water and no return to the water source] [also note that in developed countries, industry can make up a much larger share of water usage and agriculture can decrease]
- Specifically with agriculture – there has been the expansion of irrigated agriculture, and ‘Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater, but some 60% of this is wasted due to leaky irrigation systems, inefficient application methods as well as the cultivation of crops that are too thirsty for the environment in which they are grown … agriculture is also responsible for water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides’ (worldwildlife.org)
- Industry and farmers failing to invest in water efficient or water saving equipment, systems and technology
- Lack of support by the government to introduce initiatives and support for farmers and businesses that invest in and upgrade water saving, water conserving, water efficient and water treating and recycling technology and equipment
- Water leaks and water loss (across all sectors – one example is the amount of water lost from public supply pipes every year before it even gets to homes. Water leaks and loss also happens in factories). Parts of the UK are notorious for losing water/water leaks in the public supply pipes before water gets to households – from independent.co.uk ‘is losing around three billion litres of water each year to leaking pipes’. From wri.org: ‘In the United States, 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost per day from leaky pipes alone’
- Water waste (by farmers, businesses, but also by consumers when they waste food which has a water footprint)
- Water not being priced properly according to it’s real value – tiered water pricing is one option so that all individuals have basic and affordable water rights, but high users face penalties for inefficient or excessive use
- Problems or long term challenges with fresh water technology like desalination or waste water recycling – such as cost to build, being expensive to run, being energy intensive, being capital or labour intensive, and so on. Desalination for example has it’s own list of pros and cons
- Climate change can impact (in some regions) activity like precipitation patterns, severity of droughts and other natural events, raise surface temperature, and so on. This type of activity can impact how dry and hot a climate is, and consequently, replenishment rates of fresh water sources
- Water pollution and contamination lowers water quality, and therefore the amount of available fresh water that is suitable to use or consume. Also, naturally occurring brackish water further limits available fresh water.
- Fresh water sources being crossed with salt water from salt water sources like the ocean – this happened in Miami as one example
- Overwithdrawal from ground water, and slow recharge rates of ground water aquifers (it can take 5 years or more to see meaningful changes to some ground water aquifer levels). Recharge of ground water happens when water (from rivers and lakes, or from precipitation) percolates downwards through the microscopic spaces in the soil and rock profile. Also, unlike surface water sources like lakes, rivers, and dams, it’s hard to see the levels of ground water – which can be a contributing factor to their poor management. From wri.org: ‘Unless patterns shift, in 20 years, 60 percent of India’s aquifers will be in critical condition.’
- Depletion of ground water sources that can lead to ground water salinity
- Rapid population growth (more people means more demand for water directly, and also for all the indirect uses of water such as growing food, manufacturing products, producing energy, and running households). Populations are also dependent on the water sources local to them, and ‘Today, 41% of the world’s population lives in river basins that are under water stress’ (worldwildlife.org)
- Rapid industrialization and urbanization
- Economic growth and increase in water intensive economic activities
- Inadequate or poorly enforced water laws, regulations and policy
- A lack of a comprehensive, detailed and specific sustainable water resources management plan for each level of government – local, State and national
- Over reliance on external or shared fresh water sources (interstate or between countries) as opposed to internal water sources
- Competing interests between different groups in society on how to use water
- There being a lack of integrated water resources management
- Governments investing in inefficient, costly or unsustainable solutions instead of holistic and long term sustainable water solutions
- A growing middle class or societal wealth that results in purchasing of more water intensive products like meat and fossil fuels. Other examples of water intensive products are ‘270 gallons of water to produce $1 worth of sugar; 200 gallons of water to make $1 worth of pet food; and 140 gallons of water to make $1 worth of milk’ (news.thomasnet.com, and pubs.acs.org)
- Water risk tools used by governments and companies have their limitations, and may lack the quality or accuracy of data required (for example – they don’t account well for water use, politics and some types of water infrastructure. They have deficiencies in detecting acute risks – weforum.org)
- It’s hard to predict different future water factors like future demand, future natural water patterns, and so on
- How cities respond to natural events like droughts, and whether they have proper plans in place
- Inadequate or poorly maintained water infrastructure, and governments failing to maintain or upgrade water infrastructure. Treatment plants, pipes, and sewer systems need to be maintained – but are costly and time intensive to do so.
- Changes to a catchment area responsible for stream flow and inflow to surface water sources
- Natural events like floods, hurricanes, etc. can damage water infrastructure, water treatment plants, and contaminate water supplies with different types of contaminants and debris – restricting the overall volume of water supplies
Wikipedia.org describes the different causes of water footprints in some developing countries and developed countries:
- 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
Causes Of Water Quantity Problems In Specific Countries, States, Cities & Regions
- Sao Paulo – drought, and state authorities’ ‘lack of proper planning and investments’
- Bangalore – new property developments, half the drinking water is lost to waste from old plumbing pipes, and water pollution which makes water most unsuitable for drinking or bathing
- Beijing – overpopulation, water pollution
- Cairo – water pollution (agricultural and residential waste)
- Jakarta – illegal digging of well is draining aquifers and they aren’t being replenished because concrete and asphalt means that open fields cannot absorb rainfall
- Moscow – water pollution problems
- Istanbul – heavy populations, dry weather
- Mexico City – doesn’t recycle waste water, water loss from pipe networks
- Tokyo – rainfall concentrated to only 4 months of the year
- Miami – salt water from the Atlantic Ocean contaminated the Biscayne Aquifer (called saltwater intrusion)
- Sao Paulo – drought (weforum.org)
- Cape Town – dry weather, drought, and relying primarily on rainfall (weforum.org)
- Chennai – allowed its water infrastructure, both natural and manmade, to degrade. Decades of development and urban growth destroyed water-absorbing wetlands while storage tanks were not maintained. Distribution pipes leak water before it reaches homes … There’s no shortage of rain. It comes down to bad infrastructure (weforum.org)
- Southeast England – population growth in southeast England and increasing dryness (weforum.org)
- India As A Country – Ground water sources (and surface water sources) are overdrawn, largely for agriculture (wri.org)
- Qatar – being a desert State without a river, and has a growing economy and population (households consume the most water followed by agriculture and then industry) (businessinsider.com.au)
- Israel – droughts leading to low lake, river and aquifer levels. Rely on desalination to provide 70% of drinking water (businessinsider.com.au)
- Lebanon – poor water storage, water pollution and misuse in the household and agricultural sectors (businessinsider.com.au)
- Iran – Rapid population growth, inefficient agriculture, and mismanagement of water use (businessinsider.com.au)
- Libya – desert climate without much rain. Access to water is weaponized (businessinsider.com.au)
- Kuwait – 99% of fresh water comes from desalination.
- Saudi Arabia – each person consumes double the global average, and the country is trying to cut back water use. Prices water to incentivise conservation (businessinsider.com.au)
- Eritrea – arid nation with low rainfall and struggling infrastructure (businessinsider.com.au)
- UAE – high levels on consumption (businessinsider.com.au)
- San Marino – landlocked without any bodies of water (businessinsider.com.au)
- Bahrain – arid climate, and main aquifer was contaminated with salt water due to overuse (businessinsider.com.au)
- India – severe droughts, and high withdrawal rates from groundwater sources due to population growth, low rainfall, and agriculture (businessinsider.com.au)
- Pakistan – high rate of water use, and population growth and urbanisation (businessinsider.com.au)
- Turkmenistan – 80% desert, government mismanagement (businessinsider.com.au)
- Botswana – droughts, low rainfall, urban growth, and poor infrastructure (businessinsider.com.au)
- Middle East & North Africa – hot climates with a water supply that is low to begin with, and rising demand … has pushed countries into extreme stress (bloomberg.com)
- Northern India – ground water depletion due to high dependence on ground water, and because ground water isn’t seen, it is managed poorly (bloomberg.com)
- London – pipe bursts, climate change weakening infrastructure, increasing population, water pollution (usnews.com)
- Melbourne (Australia) – water supply is in danger due to deforestation causing the collapse of the forests in Victoria’s central highlands (where most of the city’s water supply is located in catchments in the forests) (usnews.com)
- Bangalore – dry weather drying up borewells, apartments not connected to the city’s main water supply (usnews.com)
- Beijing – water pollution, and city is sinking (depleting access to ground water), and project to transport water isn’t a long term solution (usnews.com)
- Sao Paulo – water pollution, leaks, and deforestation (usnews.com)
- Jakarta – water pollution, piped water not available to all residents, city is sinking below sea level which threatens access to ground water (usnews.com)
- Tokyo – lack of rainfall once a decade (usnews.com)
- Cairo – increase in population, and water pollution (usnews.com)
- Mexico City – few surface water sources, slow recharge rates, and poorly constructed water pipes that leak and break and waste water (usnews.com)
- Cape Town – drought (usnews.com)
- Chennai – ongoing drought (usnews.com)
- In the past one hundred years – water use has been growing at a rapid rate
- Global water withdrawals have more than doubled since 1960
- [India has a lack of reliable and robust data about it’s water situation]
- In the Middle East & North Africa, one of the problems is that over 80% of waste water is not recycled – they need to create infrastructure to do this
- Parts of Australia suffer from droughts, and there’s a chance drought issues are worsened by climate change
- Agricultural efficiency, over consumption of water/not controlling withdrawals, lack of recycling and reuse of waste water – all major causes of water stress forecast into the future
- Every water-stressed country is affected by a different combination of factors.
- Chile, for example, is projected to move from medium water stress in 2010 to extremely high stress in 2040, is among the countries more likely to face a water supply decrease from the combined effects of rising temperatures in critical regions and shifting precipitation patterns
- Botswana and Namibia sit squarely within a region that is already vulnerable to climate change. Water supplies are limited, and risk from floods and droughts is high.
- Projected temperature increases in southern Africa are likely to exceed the global average, along with overall drying and increased rainfall variability.
- [In the MENA region] Geopolitics also complicates things – some 60% of surface water resources in the region are transboundary, and all countries share at least one aquifer
You can read about some of the causes of Perth and Cape Town’s water scarcity issues in these guides:
The effects of water scarcity and water stress can be wide ranging, and the more water stressed and water scarce a region becomes, the more serious these effects can be.
Effects can be economic, social, and environmental.
On the less serious end of the spectrum, moderate levels of water stress might lead to light levels of water restrictions – this may mean households aren’t able to water their yards during the day time in hot climates, or may only be able to wash their cars with buckets or water and not a hose.
On the far more serious end of the spectrum, higher levels of water stress and water shortages can lead to events like the Cape Town water shortage. This leads to the possibly of public supply water taps being turned off and severe water restrictions. Farmers may experience water restrictions, which leads to a flow on effect of decreased yields, decreased profits, decreased food security, and so on. It’s not only farmers, but almost every aspect of society that depends on water.
In addition to these effects, water stress and scarcity affects different parts of different countries around the world differently.
- [The MENA region could face] expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, at about 6% to 14% of GDP by 2050
- Some of the consequences of water stress are food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability
- Dry taps can trigger disease outbreaks and violent confrontations for scarce water. Shortages erode business confidence and economic output, while adding stress to the lives of residents.
- [Drought and water shortages in Syria likely contributed to the unrest that stoked the country’s 2011 civil war … and had a severe impact on farmers and herders]
- … extremely high water stress creates an environment in which companies, farms and residents are highly dependent on limited amounts of water and vulnerable to the slightest change in supply. Such situations severely threaten national water security and economic growth.
- The economic impact of severe water shortages came to the fore earlier this year in the south Indian city of Chennai, home to 7.1 million people. Heat waves and a monsoon delay in the summer months saw some of Chennai’s freshwater lakes dry up, triggering protests and violence, as well as business interruptions, with tech companies asking employees to work from home.
- [Water scarcity leads to loss of wetlands, and damaged ecosystems]
In regards to the economic value of water, and the potential impact of water going scarce and the associated losses to do with that, soe.environment.gov.au outlines the economic return for water use across several industries in terms of value added per gigalitre of water consumed:
- agricultural production—$4 million
- mining industry—$226 million
- manufacturing industry—$164 million.
We’ve put together a solutions guide to global water quantity related problems here.
Read more about water scarcity and stress in these resources:
27. Downloads/642-progress-on-level-of-water-stress-2018.pdf, ‘Progress On Level Of Water Stress’ (from unwater.org)