It’s nearly impossible to imagine a world where humanity is without a source of freshwater. We use it for everything: cooking food, drinking, watering plants, agriculture, manufacturing, industry, cleaning, personal hygiene, and even for recreational parks like Water World.
One can’t emphasize the importance of water enough. It is the epitome of life. Water and sunlight, together, are the two building blocks of nearly every living organism.
What is the Water Crisis?
The Water Crisis, simply put, is the phenomena around the world where the demand for fresh water greatly outweighs the supply.
The United Nations has stated that the earth has enough of it for us all to live, but the distribution and acquisition systems are the problem, in addition to polluting our current supply.
According to the American Scientific Association For The Advancement of Science, approximately 1/3 of the world’s population lives during a period of at least one month of serious water shortages.
Unfortunately, NASA reports that human civilization is getting closer and closer to a world where many of us will struggle to find fresh water.
In the organization’s study, they pointed to trends around the world regarding aquifers, showing that thirty-seven of the world’s biggest aquifers are in dire straits.
The satellite project, GRACE, or the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, which circled around the planet for ten years from 2003 until 2013, showed that 21 of the primary aquifers are losing water at an unsustainable level.
Eight of the aforementioned aquifers are “overstressed,” meaning, they’re at a point where they’re not revitalizing themselves.
How Much Water Is Left?
For human beings to run out of freshwater would be disastrous for the world. If every aquifer is running out, every human being that depends on them will likely die.
The GRACE system is capable of measuring the size of an aquifer, but not precisely how much water each one contains.
NASA admitted they’re unsure as to how much water exists in each aquifer; there is no reliable way of measuring the supply.
While their study can’t tell us how much we have left, or how much time we have to fix the problem, it’s clear that we’re heading in the wrong direction.
What Are The Main Causes Of Water Scarcity?
Every depleting aquifer is losing water for its own separate reasons. But among those reasons are mining and industry, agriculture, and drinking water for large communities.
For the most part, we can assume that human over-use and pollution is the primary issue.
We’re using far too much of our groundwater reservoirs. Humanity depends on underground water systems to the point of over-consumption, and thus, unsustainable depletion.
Approximately 2 billion people around the globe use groundwater as their primary source of fresh water.
If the aquifers run out, that means 2 billion people won’t have water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking. In regions like India, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, and Northern Africa, above-ground freshwater sources are limited.
These areas use underground reservoirs at an unsustainable rate.
Reportedly, the Arabian Aquifer System, which provides water for 60 million people, was discovered by NASA to be the most over-worked supply of water on the planet. Moreover, with increasing urbanization, (as more and more people move to the cities), water depletion will only continue.
Industry and Manufacturing
In other areas, water use for manufacturing and industrial purposes are one of the key causes of depletion.
For instance, in Australia, lies the Canning Basin on the West Coast, and it’s the third most over-used aquifer.
Home to gold and iron ore mining, in addition to gas exploration and extraction, this region needs water to sustain daily operations.
Fossil fuel extraction and mining need large volumes of H20, at a disproportionate rate compared to the restorative capabilities of nature.
An added complication is that these areas, rich in minerals and other resources, aren’t necessarily surrounded by water, so it has to be extracted from somewhere else.
In the United States, for example, approximately 36% of oil and gas are in regions with stressed and depleted aquifers. When a company begins their operation, they use water from a region where there is already too much stress on the supply.
The most water-intensive practices are usually for agriculture. Some experts say 70%. Just like industry and manufacturing, agriculture is co-related with overworked aquifers in the areas where there are many farms.
Irrigated water for agricultural purposes is the biggest cause of groundwater depletion around the globe.
For instance, in the California Central Valley Aquifer in the United States, an area heavy with farming lies the most stressed aquifer in the entire country.
In India, farmers use groundwater almost exclusively to water their crops. Around the world, 70% of the freshwater is used for agriculture, and 33% of that is used for livestock.
Livestock is arguably the most water-intensive forms of farming.
These farmers need water for the animals; to keep their facilities hygienic, and for everyday use. In the United States, an average dairy farm can use up to approximately 3.4 million gallons of water per day, with all of the aforementioned processes.
To produce one gallon of milk, the same amount of water could be used for one month of showering.
Experts claim we use 1,800 gallons of water to produce one hamburger.
If the world’s population continues to grow, and it continues to eat meat in the way that it has, by the year 2050, when the population is approximately 9 billion, the world’s meat-consumption habits will be a tremendous pressure on our water supply.
With a growing global population, no doubt, civilizations will turn to groundwater aquifers for livestock farming and agriculture.
Plastic is a looming problem, for a number of different reasons. At this point, plastic pollution hasn’t caused full-on water scarcity. But if we’re not careful, rising plasticity levels could become toxic and render our supply useless.
According to a report from The Guardian, scientists have discovered that people around the world are drinking plastic from their tap almost every single day.
The report states that the United States has the highest rate of contamination of 94%, sampled from Congress buildings, the EPA’s headquarters, and the Trump Tower in New York.
Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.
For this reason, governments around the world, have begun banning the use of both plastic bags and plastic water bottles. This is definitely a step in the right direction, however, it’s going to take a much larger effort.
Industry uses hard plastic for almost everything: headphones, fans, cars, TV’s, keyboards, laptops, air conditioners, and so on and so forth.
One has to be more cognizant of the impact of their purchases.
When did the Global Water Crisis Start?
Scientists have been warning about the impending water crisis for several years now. Droughts in the world’s largest farmlands, as well as hundreds of millions of people without safe drinking water, is the biggest threat facing the planet in the future, in addition to climate change.
Depending on how you define the water crisis, we could say that it started a long time ago.
However, in 2015, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report named water as the number one risk to economies, environments, and human populations.
The issue made it on to the list four times before in the past, but in 2015, it was the first time that the WEF made it their number one concern.
What Are The Effects Of Water Scarcity?
According to one study, by the year 2040, there won’t be enough freshwater to meet the demands of billions of people around the world, for drinking as well as manufacturing, farming, and other forms of energy production.
One by-product of increased water scarcity is the increased chance for conflict and war, which we’re already starting to see around the world today.
Water Wars and Global Conflict
Due to geography, freshwater resources are often split between two or more nations.
As our supply of freshwater slowly runs out, there will be an increased chance of military conflict, especially in cases where neighboring countries are already hostile to one another.
The United Nations reports that there are approximately 276 trans-boundary river basins and around 200 transboundary aquifers.
Thankfully, over the past fifty years, nations have managed to draw out treaties and deals for how they intend to go about sharing their resources.
However, the US Director of National Intelligence released a report in 2012 stating that the overuse of the freshwater supply could threaten American security.
Another by-product of water scarcity is the lack of access by regular people.
Regular People Without Access to Clean Water.
Currently, there are around 1.1 billion people on the planet who don’t have much access to clean water. For this reason, vulnerable people in these circumstances are more likely to suffer water-borne illnesses.
Moreover, as the size of the world’s population continues to grow, and the amount of water we have has shrunk, people will have fewer chances to get clean water. Without water, there can’t be food.
Lack of Food
By the year 2050, the world’s population is supposed to balloon to 9.6 billion, and without water, we can’t grow enough food for all of the people in the most vulnerable nations.
On the other hand, experts have argued that it isn’t that we don’t have enough water to grow food, but instead, it’s the way in which we distribute and use our supply that has the most deleterious effects.
The United Nations claims that unrest, war, political turmoil, and terrorism, could be a by-product of not having enough food. To adjust to the world’s population size, the world’s food production needs to increase by 60%.
As noted earlier, agriculture currently uses around 70% of the world’s freshwater supply, and this will only increase as time goes by.
Lack of Energy
Water is used for almost everything human beings do on a daily basis, from cooking, cleaning, manufacturing, and creating all kinds of products, including clothing.
Water is also a necessity in the process for meeting energy demands, including fossil fuels. In the year 2010, the United States’ thermoelectric power plants used up 38% of the freshwater withdrawals.
The demand for electricity will increase by 70% by the year 2035. India and China will account for approximately 50% of the growth. Notably, these two nations will need an alternative.
Alternative sources like wind and solar energy use significantly less water, but these methods are still in their infancy stage.
Decreased Economic Production
By the year 2030, the United Nations predicts that around half of the globe’s population will live in communities with stressed aquifers.
To have a thriving economy, water is essential for nearly everything, including industry, farming, and for everyday life. Water is especially used for cars, food, clothing, and these processes will be limited by a lack of essential resources.
What Are Some Water Scarcity Solutions At The Societal-Level?
Perhaps, one of the greatest challenges, in addition to mass structural changes to the distribution networks, is the lack of awareness, and the apathy among the average person.
For this reason, information and education are arguably one of the more important solutions for addressing this looming problem.
Before a problem can be addressed, the public has to be aware of the issue, and how their everyday choices affect the rest of the world.
If the average person understood the severity of the issue, one could infer that a person would feel dissuaded to misuse water through the plethora of practices that people have grown accustomed to over the years.
For instance, every year, people all around North America water their lawns to make their properties and their homes look good.
However, one company in California began painting lawns during the drought season that way a homeowner doesn’t have to use over the allowed amount of fresh water to make their grass look nice.
If society was more aware of the problem, using the aforementioned practice would be a good alternative to wasting fresh water.
Another example is just having the mindfulness to not leave the tap running, or filling the bottom of the sink up with a bit of water while shaving, rather than running the tap whenever one has to wash the razor blade.
It goes without saying that, as more and more people become privy to water scarcity, they’ll have the added resource of more minds, and therefore more ideas for how to go about dealing with the issue.
Through education, we can teach those who aren’t dealing with the problem to understand how their position in society allows them to help.
In a UN report from 2012, experts claimed groundwater retraction has tripled in the last five decades due to rising industry and agriculture around the world.
Fortunately, there is a way in which governments and organizations can recharge aquifers or groundwater.
One of the ways of doing so is by injecting extra surface water back into the underground reservoirs, through the restoration of watersheds and wetlands.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, they’ve specified two ways for restoring groundwater: artificial recharge and aquifer storage and recovery, abbreviated as, “AR,” and “ASR” respectively.
Artificial recharge describes the process of restoring water aquifers, while aquifer storage and recovery means to replenish a depleted aquifer with water for later use.
The EPA claims aquifer storage and recovery processes projects are growing in number all over the United States, especially in the areas where water shortages are a possibility.
Three conventional methods of Artificial Recharge and Aquifer Storage and Recovery includes surface spreading, infiltration pits and basins, and injection wells.
Thankfully, technology is continuing to improve, and it’s possible for us to solve the water crisis.
Re-Using Water and Improving Water Treatment Practices
Similar in principle to Artificial Recharge and Aquifer Storage and Recovery, recycling water is an effective process for the alleviation of water scarcity in communities.
One way of recycling and reusing water is through zero-liquid discharge systems.
A zero-liquid discharge system, simply put, is re-using old water instead of discharging it into sewers and other external water systems. Following a solid water treatment process, it’s safe to use water that has already been used.
A simple example: rainwater can be used for washing cars, irrigating landscape, industrial processes, and flushing toilets.
It goes without saying that re-using wastewater is a great way of conserving fresh water for human consumption, especially during droughts.
Improving Waste Disposal Systems
Through regulations and policies, nations can counteract against water scarcity. Not only is freshwater in short supply, but also the water that is available for human consumption is unclean.
For water to be safe for consumption, it has to be free from pollution, bacteria, certain kinds of metals and impurities, and it rarely exists this way in nature; water has to be treated in a formal process.
Through the proper disposal of waste, and the proper treatment of our water supply, we can conserve water and preserve the natural resource for future generations.
Repairing Existing Infrasctrure and Proper Maintenance
Perhaps one of the more underrated ways of dealing with water scarcity is through the maintenance and repair of water distribution channels.
Broken, or leaky pipes, as well as sewage systems often lead to water wastage and contamination. Over time, if left untreated, finicky infrastructures can lead to water shortages.
According to a report from Forbes Magazine, Manik M. Jolly created a solar microgrid-powered power plant that uses reverse osmosis and ultraviolet filtration technologies.
Through this process, he effectively created a sustainable way of converting hard water into clean drinking water. In layman’s terms, reverse osmosis is a way of filtering water and eliminating pathogens and other impurities.
The added ultraviolet filtration uses light to destroy contaminants.
Reverse osmosis is an expensive process, however, Jolly, instead of relying on traditional electricity, used a 10kW solar micro-grid with battery storage to meet the power needs of the process.
His water plant now runs for 10-12 hours per day. In the interview, he said that “renewable energy can be used to address a critical need in rural settings,” and in a way that saves tonnes of carbon emissions.
The majority of water humanity uses is for growing food, and in Israel, they’ve begun using drip irrigation, through long plastic tubes that are approximately an inch (3cm) in diameter.
Where there are flower beds, shrubs, or crops, there are hoses with tiny holes in them where water leaks out.
Conservative estimates suggest that farmers can use 40% less water on a per-acre basis. While one might assume the crops wouldn’t grow as much due to less water used, the results have been the opposite.
In some cases, crop yields are double than when using drippers. Research from the Netherlands found ways of getting 5x as many crops compared to traditional irrigation.
One of the important by-products of drip irrigation, in addition to increased yields and less water used, is the decreased number of contaminants in groundwater reservoirs.
Farmers all over the United States cover their crops in nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, then they flood their fields.
Phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers, in combination with the water, travel to aquifers, streams, and lakes, effectively polluting the water supply.
Some experts argue the biggest contaminants and pollution in the United States isn’t in the air, it’s actually in the ground.
This is discussed in-depth later in the article.
Which countries are most affected by the Water Crisis?
Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Western Sahara, and Djibouti experience some of the most severe cases of water scarcity. However, according to the World Resources Institute, there are countries all over the world facing scarce water supplies.
The effects of this are far-reaching, for instance, in the United States, droughts have affected economic output and the GDP.
As noted earlier, the Arabian Aquifer, which supplies water to 60 million people in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, is the most endangered system.
At second place is the Indus Basin aquifer in India and Pakistan, followed by the Murzuk-Djado Basin in Northern Africa.
In India, monsoon floods kill hundreds of people and move thousands away from their homes. Competition for water in China is an issue as well.
In WRI’s Aqueduct project, they mapped out areas under siege, including 100 river basins, and 180 nations.
In their report, they discovered approximately 36 countries that face “extremely high” levels of baseline water depletion.
In North America, people are in a fortunate enough position where they consider water as just a part of life. Whenever a person turns on the faucet, the water comes out immediately. However, it isn’t like this all over the world.
In many areas of the globe, extreme water scarcity is a serious problem.
Typically, it has a lot to do with the geography and sanitation systems of the country.
South America, Australia, and Asia also experience drought but Northern African nations deal with the problem the most.
How Will The Water Crisis Affect The Poor?
In one study from Seckler, Molden, and Barker, in 1998, the findings showed that by 2020-2030, 2.7 billion people, or 1/3 of the globe’s population will be living in conditions of extreme water scarcity, echoing sentiments made by other analysts.
A significant portion of these people lives in the semiarid regions of Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Food shortages as a result of the overexploitation of groundwater can persist in two of Asia’s major breadbaskets, Punjab and the North China Plain.
In the 1960s in Northwestern India, the use of tube-well irrigation overpowered manual water-lifting devices used by smallholders (small farms that rely primarily on family labor).
In the western and peninsular India, in addition to the lowering of groundwater tables, pump irrigation systems have led to fluoride contamination of the groundwater, one of the primary sources for poor people in their every-day lives.
The implications of this are massive for the impoverished.
Those who suffer the most from the famines were the rural poor, but as the problem continues, it will only become more common.
Poor rural and urban consumers, as well as rural producers and laborers, view access to water as more significant than access to food, education, and healthcare.
Urban households usually use water only for drinking and cleaning. But farmers and rural workers use water for a plethora of activities. Farmers use water not only for the field crops, but also domestically, for gardens, trees, vegetation, livestock, and cleaning
Additionally, rural workers use water for fishing, harvesting, and for necessities like brick-making. Unfortunately, irrigation systems have both a positive and negative effect on the environment, rather than just a positive.
The withdrawal of water affects the rural poor in a number of different ways, including at home, for their economy, and their environment. Water scarcity worsens the situation where a person needs to carry heavy pots of water several kilometers every day.
Farmers lose their jobs and their land because there isn’t enough irrigated water for land and crops. Wetlands are often destroyed, as well, due to upstream water depletion. Moreover, water pollution causes, in many cases, water-borne diseases.
Due to the limited amount of the resource, people are forced to drink and use water that hasn’t been treated and is unsafe.
Will Desalination Solve The Water Crisis?
The fact that humanity is surrounded by oceans of undrinkable water, while freshwater resources are limited is painfully ironic.
70% of the earth’s surface is occupied by oceans, and it represents 96% of the water on the entire planet. The problem with ocean water is salt. It’s heavily salinated. If you drink it the way that it is, there’s a good chance you’ll die.
However, it is possible to turn ocean water into drinkable water, which is precisely what desalination is.
Is It Possible That Desalination Will Solve This Problem?
According to GlobalCitizen.org, the Middle East is the world’s leader in the desalination process. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, and the UAE are at the forefront of this scientific method.
In fact, the aforementioned countries rely on desalination as a source for clean water. Reportedly, 40% of Israel’s water supply comes from desalination.
For these nations, they have no underground water aquifers, so technological innovation is a necessity; they simply don’t have a choice.
1% of the world’s population today relies on water created through desalination processes. However, by the year 2025, the United Nations claims the number will increase to 14%.
What is Desalination And How Does It Work?
There a few different ways of turning saline water into fresh water. Reverse osmosis and distillation are the most common ways of doing so.
Reverse osmosis is a method of treatment that pushes water through small filters and leaves the salt behind.
Distillation involves heating water to its boiling temperature and then collecting the water vapor. Unfortunately, both of these methods require a lot of infrastructure and energy.
Why Don’t More Countries Use Desalination?
The reason most nations don’t use either of the aforementioned processes is that the energy cost is far too high. It’s the last resort for nations without access to groundwater.
Moreover, there are a number of consequences, a few of which are environmentally unfriendly.
Desalination plants retrieve salt water from the ocean and it can harm fish and other organisms living in the ocean that are essential for their respective ecosystem.
There are consequences for the disruption of ecosystems which you can read more about here in this article about plastic.
Furthermore, climate scientists predict that salinity levels in the ocean will increase over the years, thus, desalination will be more costly. If there’s more salt, the plant uses more energy, and thus more money for the process.
Will Desalination Actually Work?
Like most things in life, to rely on one source of resources would be a fool’s errand.
It’s a useful process, but it’s not likely that it will have the ability to meet the entire world’s need for clean drinking water.
With that said, the potential for it to make a big difference is there, and companies are sinking more of their time and money into the improvement of the practice.
According to Global Citizen.org, Israel constructed a huge desalination plant in 2005, and the nation has become one of the world’s water supply super-powers (6).
The Times Of Israel reports that Israel is now a leader in water management (7).
They’ve done so through centralized water planning, water pricing, appointed regulators, educating their people about conservation of water, desalinating seawater, and using drip irrigation in addition to treating their sewage and recycling it for crops.
Building a desalination plant is expensive. As of 2005, it costs 1 billion USD. However, technological innovations have brought down the cost according to Advisian’s Dhananjay Mishra (9).
In his article, he writes that since the 1960’s, the cost for MSF – a form of distillation – has decreased by 90%. In the 1960’s, it cost approximately $ 10.00/m3. And in 2010, it cost less than US$1.00/m3 ($3.79 per 1000 gallons) (9).
In other areas, he adds, MSF has decreased by up to 20% since 2010.
Where drought conditions persist and fresh water is in short supply, such plants are crucial, in California, especially.
California had plans to build seventeen new desalination plants over the years due to worsening drought, but the effects of it have been controversial.
Santa Barbara built a plant years ago and is just re-starting it now because at first, it was too expensive to run.
To restart and maintain it, experts predict that it will cost approximately $55 million USD (9).
It cost twice as much to get water from the ocean than it does to take it from freshwater resources. But many Californian cities are running out of options.
For desalination to work, reports Global Citizen, we’ll need to use renewable energy when necessary, lower the costs, and impose environmental regulations to thwart negative consequences on surrounding ecosystems (6).
Saudia Arabia, for example, has been trying to use solar energy as a way of powering desalination plants.
The California Coastkeepers Alliance is encouraging desalination plants to take water deeper from the ocean, rather than taking water from the top where marine life is far more ubiquitous.
There’s much potential for desalination, and perhaps the greatest benefit is that countries will have their own source they can work with.
As the water problem continues, more and more nations will, hopefully, figure out a way to make the necessary changes.
Will the Water Crisis Lead to War and Conflict?
As noted above, the potential for wars and conflict is real. According to a report from National Geographic, it has already started.
In certain areas of the world, the terrain is dropping four inches per year as the water aquifer beneath it is drained for human use.
For instance, in China’s capital city, where 20,000,000 people live, severe problems are a possibility especially in relation to the rail system, architectural foundations, and roadways (5).
A global association of scientists came to this conclusion earlier in 2016.
Beijing has access to the massive North China Plain aquifer, but it is also the world’s fifth most water-depleted city and their water scarcity is only increasing in severity (5).
Mexico City, Shanghai, and parts of California Central Valley all have similar problems.
In California’s Central Valley, parts of it have decreased by approximately 12-inches (30cm), and in other areas, by more than 28 feet (0.853m) (5).
All around the globe, a lack of freshwater is slowly becoming one of the more insidious problems of the day.
In 2030, the UN anticipates a shortfall. Like it was mentioned above, some of the world’s biggest aquifers are under siege, and the result of which could spell conflict (5).
Reserves in the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa are overworked. Richard Damania, an economist working for the World Bank, estimates that economic expansion in the most threatened areas will drop by 6% GDP.
As water becomes more and more expensive, economic growth slows, food prices increase, and the chance of violent combat and massive uprooting of migrants could be at hand.
Yemen, for example, which relies heavily on groundwater, dealt with water riots in 2009. Some experts believe that Syria’s civil war was, in part, sparked by water issues.
And Jordan – now that 500,000 Syrian refugees have arrived – is experiencing similar problems, as underground reservoirs are their only source of H20 (5).
Jay Famiglietti, one of the leading scientists in the 2015 study led by NASA which concluded 37 of the largest aquifers are threatened, stated that aquifers at significant risk are areas where people are the most populated (5).
In an interview, he stated that global “security was at a greater risk” without sustainable groundwater reserves.
And in areas where it’s already dry, communities will continue to depend on groundwater reserves, only exacerbating the issue.
How Can I Help Today?
In truth, there isn’t much an average person can do in terms of mining and agricultural operations. And the efforts of such political activism might have unintended consequences for the local economy.
However, there are many things a solitary individual can do. Small and minor changes can have an impact, especially at the aggregate level.
1) Using freshwater for one’s lawn is arguably one of the more wasteful uses for water, considering it’s almost entirely cosmetic.
Like it was noted before, in some areas of California, during times of drought, consumers are actually just painting their lawn green.
In areas like Arizona, homeowners make their lawns out of rocks, rather than green grass.
2) Don’t buy bottled water anymore. Some of these companies are known for engaging in shady business practices, like extracting water from depleted areas and then selling the resource for profit.
By buying bottled water, a consumer encourages a company to continue taking water from a depleted water source, and the country from which the company operates continues to ravage their own supply for money, despite the fact their actions will later come with consequences.
Moreover, the bottles that we use everyday end up in landfills, or worse, in the ocean, where they disintegrate into tiny particles that kill wildlife in the ocean, ultimately disrupting ecosystems.
3) When doing the dishes, try to do them by hand, fill the sink up with water, only a couple inches high, and use a stopper to stop the water from draining.
4) Only use the dishwasher when it’s 100% full.
5) Try to keep your shower time below 5 minutes. Soap your body while the water is turned off. Don’t leave the water running while you’re shaving or washing.
6) A big way of cutting back on water use is to decrease meat consumption, maybe to 2-3 times a week, rather than every day.
7) Because agriculture represents 70% of the use for our water resources, a person’s diet is crucial. It is arguably the biggest way of decreasing one’s ecological footprint in the world. Try to eat vegetables and fruits that are in season.