A List Of Different Global Water Issue Phrases, & What They Might Mean

A List Of Different Global Water Issue Phrases, & What They Might Mean

There different phrases and words used to describe global water issues.

These phrases can be used in different contexts in different industries, and by different organisations or individuals – there is no consensus definition/meaning for some or even most of them.

What we’ve tried to do in this guide is gather a general meaning of each phrase so you at least have a starting idea of what they might mean in relation to one another.

*Note that we treat sanitation as separate issue, because, although sanitation involves water, it also usually involves other factors like human waste, plumbing and pipe infrastructure for example.


Summary – Global Water Issue Phrases

  • Water Availability
  • Water Access (divided into physical and economic water access)
  • Water Quality
  • Water Pollution
  • Water Resource Improvement, & Water Quality Improvement
  • Water Scarcity
  • Water Stress
  • Water Shortage
  • Water Security
  • Water Risk
  • The Water Crisis


Water Availability

Water Availability is having fresh water sources (which may or may not be accessible) physically present within an area (like a city)


Water Access

Water Access is being able to physically and economically access the available fresh water in an area

There’s two types of water access – physical water access, and economic water access:

Physical Water Access is being able to physically get to and use the available fresh water in an area

  • Fresh water is usually physically accessible as surface water (such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs) and less commonly in groundwater (found underground in rock or soil layers, and accessed through wells or natural springs), but not in snow, ice and glaciers
  • Fresh water might also be too far away, too deep in the ground, or you may not be able to create infrastructure or devices suitable enough to physically use/consume the water

Economic Water Access is whether a group of people or community have enough money to access the available fresh water around them, or build infrastructure to access the available water.

This usually affects low income regions, and/or places with political instability


Water Quality

Water Quality essentially refers to whether the fresh water is safe to use or consume – either directly or after fresh water treatment

Fresh water sources can be contaminated for example with certain pollutants like chemicals and bacteria


Water Pollution

Water Pollution is any chemical, physical or biological change in the quality of water that has a harmful effect on any living thing that drinks, uses or lives (in) it (Lentech)


Water Resource Improvement, & Water Quality Improvement

Water Resource Improvement is improving water accessibility usually by improving water infrastructure or innovating (with water packs, water wells etc.)

Water Quality Improvement is improving water quality by cleaning up pollution and contaminants in a fresh water source, managing the source of the pollution to reduce or eliminate it, or creating polluted water treatment devices or systems (such as water purifiers)


Water Scarcity (A Lack Of Water Supply To Meet Demand)

You can read more in depth about water scarcity in this guide

Water Scarcity is more extreme than water stress, and occurs when water demand exceeds internal water resources


According to one measure:

  • 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.
  • An area could conceivably be highly water stressed, but not water scarce, if, for example, it had significant water pollution, but plentiful supplies of contaminated water

– Pacinst


Water Stress (Water Demand/Use Vs Supply Ratio)

You can read in more depth about water stress in this guide


  • 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 

– wri.org


  • Compared to Water Scarcity, Water Stress is a more inclusive and broader concept. It considers several physical aspects related to water resources, including water scarcity, but also water quality, environmental flows, and the accessibility of water

– Pacinst


Countries scarce on fresh water supply, or dry countries, are usually most likely to be water stressed because they have a smaller quantity of fresh water available, and therefore a smaller quantity of fresh water to use and consume. The more water they use and consume, the more water stressed they become.

Water Stress is also a term used to describe countries that are using more fresh water than is being renewed annually – they can be stressing their water supply with high water use

Some of the countries projected to be most water stressed by 2040 are: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, San Marino, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and Israel. Read more about them at

  • http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world%E2%80%99s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040


The World Resources Institute (WRI) define baseline water stress based on the ratio of annual water withdrawals to renewable resources.

It defines water stress categories based on this percentage (% of withdrawals to renewable resources) as follows:

  • <10% = low stress
  • 10-20% = low-to-medium stress
  • 20-40% = medium-to-high stress
  • 40-80% = high stress
  • >80% = extremely high stress

– OurWorldInData/WRI


Wri.org defines a country using/withdrawing 80% or more of their total water supply as ‘highly water stressed’. You can read more about country water stress levels at:

  • http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/12/world%E2%80%99s-36-most-water-stressed-countries


Water Shortage

A Water Shortage is when an area’s total quantity of clean fresh water is getting close to zero

Water Shortages can be created by many factors such as water use, water scarcity, water pollution, water stress, and more

You can read a case study of the Cape Town water shortage in this guide.


Water Security

  • Water Security is ‘the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability’

– UN-Water


Water Security can be made up of water access (especially economic access), water scarcity, water pollution, water quality and other water related factors

You might say a country has good Water Security if they have high amounts of fresh water sources, good access to that water, and low usage/withdrawal rates (lower than annual average renewable supply levels)

High Water Stress countries tend to have poorer water security


Water Risk

Water Risk refers to the possibility [or probability] of an entity experiencing a water-related challenge (e.g. water scarcity, water stress, flooding, infrastructure decay, drought) 


  • The extent of risk is a function of the likelihood of a specific challenge occurring and the severity of the challenge’s impact 
  • The severity of impact itself depends on the intensity of the challenge, as well as the vulnerability of the actor [the area or country in question]

– CEOWaterMandate


  • Companies and organizations and governments cannot gain robust insight into water risk unless they have a firm understanding of the various components of water stress (i.e., water scarcity, accessibility, environmental flows, and water quality), as well as additional factors, such as water governance
  • Many water-related conditions, such as water scarcity, pollution, poor governance, inadequate infrastructure, climate change, and others, create water risk for many different sectors and organizations simultaneously

– Pacinst


The Water Crisis

A Water Crisis (or The Water Crisis) is a term generally used to describe a situation where people lack access to safe water, or access to a toilet 

  • In 2018, 1 in 9 people lack access to safe water, and 1 in 3 people lack access to a toilet 
  • There can be serious consequences to places experiencing a water crisis such as serious short term and long term health implications, and/or death
  • Areas in Africa, Asia & Latin America are where significant work is being done to improve the Water Crisis situation

– Water.org



1. https://pacinst.org/water-definitions/

2. 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]

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_issues_in_developing_countries#Challenges_to_Water_Quality

4. https://www.lenntech.com/water-pollution-faq.htm

5. http://www.unwater.org/publications/water-security-infographic/

6. http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world%E2%80%99s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040

7. http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/12/world%E2%80%99s-36-most-water-stressed-countries

8. https://ceowatermandate.org/posts/water-scarcity-water-stress-water-risk-actually-mean/

9. https://water.org/our-impact/water-crisis/

10. https://water.org/our-impact/

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