Finding ourselves without freshwater is a frightening prospect as it is a serious an immediate threat to our very existence. Unfortunately, this is a threat that millions of people around the world already face every day.
Water scarcity is when we cannot meet our water needs. It can happen because demand is greater than supply or because inadequate infrastructure hampers distribution. Water scarcity happens in countries, regions, and communities on all continents and affects a third of the world’s population for at least parts of the year.
When tracking the work to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, the term ‘water stressed’ is used for when ‘more than 25 per cent of the renewable freshwater resources are withdrawn’.
In some parts of the world, such as northern Africa, the Middle East and western Asia, many countries withdraw all their renewable water resources every year. Sometimes more. Much more. In extreme cases, certain countries withdraw ten times their renewable water resources in a year, meaning that they rely heavily on non-renewable resources to meet their water needs. If no action is taken, these countries are effectively heading straight for a humanitarian disaster when all water resources are eventually depleted.
Water scarcity is not only about human demand. When freshwater is in short supply, entire ecosystems suffer. Rivers, lakes, and aquifers dry up or they may become too polluted to use. The world’s wetlands are disappearing at alarming rate, faster than any other ecosystem, and with them we are losing an important component of the water cycle. In addition, climate change is altering weather patterns across the globe, causing great irregularities, with water shortages and droughts in some places and floods in others.
One of the targets for Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation for all is to increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater. If fulfilled, this would substantially reduce the number of people affected by water scarcity.
Water efficiency has increased in recent years, but data is limited, making it difficult to give global estimates. There are also major discrepancies and, in some countries, development is moving in completely the wrong direction.
Globally, agriculture uses 72 percent of all water withdrawals, according to UN figures, making it by far the thirstiest sector. Household services account for 16 percent and industries 12 percent. There are big regional variations to this, but in most parts of the world, the agriculture sector no doubt holds one of the most important keys to sustainable water usage.
Beyond that, in the face of population increase and rapidly growing urban areas, it is also important to address insufficient distribution systems, water saving technologies, reuse of wastewater, and to raise awareness about the urgency of reducing water consumption at all levels. Solid management systems are very much needed, and so is the understanding and acknowledgement that water scarcity is not a local or regional threat, but a global one that we must tackle together.