What is Water Scarcity?
There are millions of people all over the world who don’t have access to water, or, if they have access, that water is unable to be used. About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water and 3% of it is actually freshwater that is fit for human consumption. Around two-thirds of that is tucked in frozen glaciers and unavailable for our use. According to WWF, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year.
Clean drinking water is scarce and there are millions of people across this globe who spend their entire day searching for it. Yet, people who have access to safe, clean drinking water take it for granted and don’t use it wisely.
Water scarcity involves water crisis, water shortage, water deficit or water stress. Water scarcity can be due to physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity refers to a situation where natural water resources are unable to meet a region’s demand and economic water scarcity is a result of poor water management resources.
That being said, what are the causes of water scarcity, what are the effects of water scarcity, and are there any solutions that we can start to explore? Here’s a quick look at all of those things in a bit more detail.
Children of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it.
According to Wikipedia, “Water scarcity is the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet the demands of water usage within a region. It already affects every continent and around 2.8 billion people around the world at least one month out of every year. More than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water.”
Causes of Water Scarcity
- Overuse of Water: Water overuse is a huge issue that a lot of people are dealing with. It may be overused on people, animals, land, or any other number of things. It may also be used for recreational activities without any care about the effects that it may have on the world around them.
- Pollution of Water: Water pollution is a huge problem, especially when you’re looking at areas that don’t necessarily have a good sewage system. Pollution can be anything from oil, to carcasses, to chemicals, and to fecal matter. No matter what it is; it makes a lot of issues for the people who may need to use it.
- Conflict: If there is conflict over an area of land, it may be difficult to access the water that is located there. In the worst case scenarios, people could end up dying if they try to access the water in these areas (due to violence). This can result in a variety of other issues, including pollution, which we discussed in the previous point.
- Distance: There are a number of areas throughout the entire world that deal with water scarcity because they just aren’t close to anywhere that has water. Areas that are considered to be desert, or areas that are secluded, may not have somewhere that the people can get water effectively.
- Drought: A drought is, in short, an area which is not getting enough rainfall to be able to sustain the life that is residing there. Some areas are in perpetual drought, whereas other areas may be dealing with a drought on occasion. Droughts are common all over the world, and there is little that can be done to prevent such things from happening.
- Governmental Access. In some countries, specifically those with dictatorships, the use of water may be strictly controlled by those in power, causing a scarcity for those who may be located in those areas of the world. These governments use it as a source of control over those that they are governing, which can be a huge problem.
Effects of Water Scarcity
- Lack of Access to Drinking Water: The biggest problem that happens when you have water scarcity is that people are not able to get fresh, clean drinking water. The human body can only go so long without water, and a lack of drinking water can result in a number of other problems, which we discuss below.
- Hunger: If there is no water that can be used in order to help water the crops, then you are going to have people that are going hungry. Animals will also die, which will result in a lack of meat as well. Water scarcity, in short, causes starvation to occur en masse for both people and animals that are located in the area.
- Lack of Education: Water scarcity makes it difficult for people to get the education that they need or that they deserve. Why? Mainly, because those children are either too sick to go to school (which we will discuss below), or they are working to help get water to the home and the family.
- Diseases: If you don’t have clean water access, then you will be more likely to get diseases from the water that you do have. Whether you’re drinking the water or using it for bathing, those diseases will get into the body and, in a number of cases, the people carrying those diseases will pass away.
- Sanitation Issues: Without access to clean water, there is no way to clean food, dishes, or people. When people are not given access to proper sanitation, disease (which we talked about above) ends up becoming much more of an issue than it would have been otherwise. It also causes mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
- Poverty: All in all, people who are dealing with water scarcity are often stuck in poverty as well. These people are not able to get the resources that they need in order to be able to thrive, and instead are just barely surviving through these difficult times.
Solutions for Water Scarcity
- Education: There are plenty of opportunities out there that people can use in order to learn more about the world around them. By educating those who are not dealing with water scarcity, they can be in a position to help. Those who are dealing with it can get educated on how they can prevent the problem from becoming even worse in the future.
- Recycle Water: There are plenty of technologies out there that allow you to recycle rainwater and other water that you may be using in your home. Consider learning about how you can recycle water. Not only does it help to prevent scarcity, but it can save you some money as well.
- Advance Technology Related to Water Conservation: There has been a lot of work in the world of water conservation, but there is also a lot that needs to be done in order to ensure that the rest of the world is able to conserve water. Putting money and effort into conservation could be life saving.
- Improve Practices Related to Farming: Farming and irrigation are often a huge culprit when it comes to water scarcity. Because of that, we need to improve practices so that we don’t use as much water and those who are using water are using it to its fullest potential. Technology also needs to advance in this manner.
- Improve Sewage Systems: Clean drinking water starts with a good sewage system. Without proper sanitation, the water in an area becomes ridden with disease and any number of other problems. By improving the sewage systems in these areas, we can prevent water scarcity from becoming any worse.
- Support Clean Water Initiatives: There are organizations located all over the world that are looking to bring clean water to areas that don’t have it. Consider donating to these organizations, either with your time, your skills, or your finances (whichever you can afford to give to them).
So, as you can see, there are a lot of things that we need to consider when we’re looking at water scarcity and how we can deal with it. If we start to look at this issue as a whole, and we work hard to make sure that we are able to make a difference when it comes to this widespread issue, we’re going to be in a much better place to help people all over the world in preventing this issue from getting worse.
Image credit: Vinoth Chandar , World Bank Photo
Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The water companies are the least loved out of the privatised utilities, and the lack of rain over the past two winters is making their job much more difficult. For many people, it is hard to understand that you can have the wettest April for years, and yet we still face the prospect of a drought as serious as a country like Australia or Spain (which have much lower rain fall)
It seems crazy that a county with rainfall like the UK should still face the potential for a serious drought. Even when it doesn’t rain much in the UK, there is still more rainfall than other semi-arid countries in the Mediterranean. What is the economics of the UK water situation?
- Every day half a billion (17,395 million) litres of water goes in to the UK mains water supply
- average consumption in the UK is 150 litres – one of the highest in the EU
Where Does Our Water Come From?
When we think of water supplies, we tend to think of reservoirs like Thirlmere in the Lake District. But, actually 70% of drinking water in England comes from underground bore holes. These underground water supplies can be very deep. After recent dry winters, water is taken from upto 40 metres down. This is why the recent April showers haven’t really altered these underlying water reserves. The April rain will not have been able to seep down 40 metres yet. The current rain is good for topping up reservoirs and rivers, but to top up underground reservoirs, we need persistent rain in winter. Winter rain is not taken up by plants or evaporates, it just seeps down. That is why water companies, complain about ‘the wrong kind of rain’
Policies to Deal With Water Shortages
To deal with water shortages, there are two main approaches:
- Increasing Supply of Water
- Managing Demand
Increasing Supply of Water
1. Build More Reservoirs. Building reservoirs will increase the potential supply of water. They are easier to refill than underground boreholes. However, building more reservoirs:
- Is quite expensive. To rely on reservoirs for our water supplies, will increase cost of water.
- Typically it takes 25 years from the concept of a new reservoir to bringing it into use.
- Land availability is quite limited in the south east to build reservoirs.
- It is not always possible. In many areas of the south of England, the soil is very chalky. Reservoirs are not practical because the chalky soil is not good at holding water. Therefore, reservoirs are not an option in some parts of the country. The problem some regions face is that the only real supply of water is these underground bore holes.
2. Water Grid. In the north west, rainfall is much higher than the south. Transferring water, e.g. through the canal system will help overcome shortages in the south. Already, water is moved, for example Manchester is supplied by reservoirs in the Lake District. However, water grids are not without difficulties
- It is not so easy to move water around. It is heavy and expensive to move.
- You could still have a drought in the north
3. De-salination plants. For countries in the middle east, desalination plants are key to providing water. In theory, they offer unlimited supplies from the sea. London already has its first de-salination plant in the Thames estuary. However, it is expensive to remove the salt. To rely on de-salination plants for water supply would be very expensive. Also, they require substantial power and produce carbon emissions, which isn’t good for the environment.
1. Water Pricing. If water becomes scarce the economic solution is to increase the price. Let market forces set the price. At the moment, many households pay a flat rate – there is no incentive to reduce water consumption because if you leave the tap running, there is no extra cost. We would never consider paying for electricity like that, where there is just a flat rate to get connected. If people paid for water consumption, there would be an incentive to recycle water, reduce consumption and buy water saving appliances. In drought conditions, water companies could also increase the price to further increase the incentive.
People may say it is unfair to people on low incomes. But, it would also be a way for people to reduce their water bills through careful water management. Why should thrifty water users pay for others extravagance? Also, extra units of water become increasingly expensive. The marginal cost of water rises, the more we consume. The first units are cheap to extract from rivers, but those extra units require expensive reservoirs and desalination plants. Therefore, reducing excess water consumption will save considerably.
2. Reduce industry demand. The biggest consumption of water is not actually by households, but by industry. For example, our power stations are hungry consumers of water. Changing energy sources to renewable energy, would help both reduce carbon emissions, but also reduce long-term water consumption.
3. Advertising campaigns to reduce water. Water companies often appeal to our good nature in asking us to reduce water consumption. But, these will only be a very partial solution.
4. Restricting supplies. Hosepipe bans and standpipes reduce consumption of water.
If we continue to have changing weather patterns, something is going to have to change dramatically. It will require a range of solutions. The first obvious step is to introduce water pricing – making households and industry pay for each unit consumed. Also, the price of water is likely to go up. This extra revenue will be needed to be invested in dealing with long-term supply projects from a water grid to de-salination plants. However, as well as tackling household consumption a change in industry use and energy strategy should be considered.
What do you think? Should we pay more for water?
Photo: Tejvan Oxford, May 4th 2012