Water scarcity and the associated social risks are critical challenges facing the modern world. Many countries suffering from a freshwater shortage cannot increase the water supply volume from their sources.
The lack of due attention from the world community to the water shortage problem is because today, it is more often perceived as a local challenge rather than a consequence of global climate change.
The different levels of water scarcity in other countries are due to the influence of the regional factor. A comprehensive solution to the problem of lack requires a global approach.
The big question is: what causes water scarcity? The enumeration of factors can indicate possible solutions to combat this problem.
Table of Contents
1. Climate Change
Water scarcity and climate change are inextricably linked. One of the primary pieces of evidence for this relationship is that climate change disrupts rainfall patterns.
In general, due to climate change, both immediate negative consequences (increased drought, more frequent floods, higher temperatures) and systemic ones (an increase in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere increase precipitation and, ultimately, soil erosion) occur.
The actual water availability depends on projected increases in both flooding and droughts in the future. Increased flooding will put 1.6 billion people at risk by 2050.
However, compared to the irregular effects of floods, drought is a more long-term, chronic problem and possibly the most damaging result of climate change. Meanwhile, since 1950, the number of cases of drought has increased fivefold.
2. Growing consumption
The increase in water consumption in the world has contributed to the decrease in the availability of water resources.
Although water has a capacity for cyclical renewal, the increase in consumption may be more significant than this natural replacement, generating scarcity.
The causes for the increase in water consumption are several:
- population growth
- economic development
- increased production in peripheral or emerging economies
- increased production activities
- increased consumption of products that use a lot of water in their production
3. Pollution and degradation of water reserves
Human beings need freshwater to guarantee their livelihood in most of their activities. Many anthropic activities reduce this water, mainly with the pollution of rivers and springs, which become unusable quickly.
One of the most common ways is minimizing pollution generated by sewage disposal or excessive pollution in cities. This picture becomes even more dramatic in places where basic environmental sanitation is inadequate.
In aquifers and underground reserves, soil pollution often leads to the intoxication of the water table, affecting the obtainment of mineral water.
Therefore, the conservation of some water reserves also depends on the maintenance of soils and their non-pollution.
A non-exhaustive list of the leading causes of pollution of drinking water resources (September 2021):
- The discharge of toxic products into living water (industrial wastewater)
- Garbage left in nature, near waterways
- Air pollution and the descent of polluting particles from rain into groundwater
- Oil spills that make contaminated water unfit for consumption
- Contamination of groundwater through the use of chemicals for agricultural use
4. Degradation of natural resources
It is not only the actual degradation of water and its reserves that affects water availability. Nature, after all, works from a balance, and changing it causes a series of chain effects.
Soil pollution or erosion affects underground reserves and even surface water. In addition, many rivers suffer from the decline of their banks caused by removing their riparian forests.
They are precisely responsible for preventing the progress of the process in question, which generates a more significant deposition of sediments in the river beds, causing siltation.
Over time, the affected rivers cease to exist or considerably reduce their water flow. The destruction of forests through burning and deforestation is also a problem at heart.
Vegetation has the function of preserving the springs of large rivers and providing, in some cases, moisture to the atmosphere, which causes rainfall. With the reduction of vegetation cover worldwide, water is gradually becoming scarcer.
5. Absence of basic infrastructure
Water scarcity becomes a problem even in countries or places globally with specific water availability.
This water scarcity happens for economic reasons, especially in peripheral countries, where problems related to the lack of resources affect investments in water collection, storage, and distribution systems for the population and productive activities.
6. Global warming
The Earth’s hydrological cycle is directly associated with atmospheric temperature and radiation balance changes. It is responsible for continuously distributing water from the oceans to the atmosphere and rivers and lakes.
When this cycle changes, there is an increase in water vapor levels in the atmosphere, making this resource’s availability less predictable.
It is because evaporation increases, which causes changes in soil moisture, runoff, rainfall, and, consequently, water availability.
As a result, some locations may face torrential rains, while other regions may experience severe droughts. The leading cause of global warming is emissions from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Due to global warming, the average earth temperature is already increasing. It will bring severe environmental, economic, and social impacts, such as a significant reduction in rainfall and effects on local agricultural productivity.
7. Social Issue
Social inequality and lack of responsibility in the management and use of natural resources have been determining factors for the future of water in the world.
The lack of investments in basic water supply structures in poorer countries results from growing social inequality.
The countries sharing the border also have water conflicts due to various factors. The leading causes of water conflicts are:
- Problems of water resource allocation (excessive water intake in upstream areas of lakes and rivers)
- Issues of water pollution (emission of pollutants in upstream regions.)
- Problems of water ownership
- Cases of water resource development and allocation
8. Disorganized urbanization
Today, it is challenging to transport water to communities due to a lack of infrastructure. This problem happens many times because there is no town or city planning.
People start developing and building houses without first securing a water supply. In some cases, especially in rural communities, people make their homes near a river or a lagoon to access this resource.
However, with time and overexploitation, these natural places are affected. The water resources are diminishing, leaving the population with no other solution.
9. Agriculture and Industry
Agriculture is one of the leading elements of water scarcity in the world. This activity represents approximately 70% of water withdrawals worldwide.
The vast majority of the water that is extracted is used for irrigation. That being said, the efficiency of different irrigation techniques will also directly impact overall water use.
Therefore, not all of them will impact in the same way on water scarcity in the future. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated an increase in water withdrawals for irrigation of 5.5% by 2050.
10. Domestic use
The demand for water for domestic use is also one of the causes of water scarcity in the world. This activity represents approximately the remaining 10% of world water withdrawals.
Thus, future water shortages due to domestic consumption are expected to increase significantly over 2050. This future applies to almost all world regions, except for Western Europe, where it remains constant.
At the same time, water access difficulties are also intensifying due to global warming. This phenomenon generally makes humid regions wetter and dry areas drier.
11. Distribution of resources on the planet and the difficulty of accessing them
Another critical factor is the distribution of water resources on the planet and the difficulty accessing them.
Most of the water is in frozen form, therefore unavailable to humans. Only 30 percent of the most accessible water is collected in underground aquifers.
Extracting water faster than the rate at which it naturally replenishes creates significant restrictions on availability in various parts of the world.
In Yemen, an extreme example, extractions are estimated to be around 400 percent higher than reloading, and similar situations are encountered in China, Mexico, India and Pakistan, and other countries.
12. Inadequacy of the water infrastructures management
A further factor in the aggravation of water problems is the inadequacy of the management of water infrastructures and the protection of river basins.
A 2016 OECD water security report predicts that, globally, the funds needed to improve water infrastructure will rise from $ 6.7 trillion by 2030 to $ 22.6 trillion by 2050, not counting expenses for irrigation or the energy sector.
According to estimates presented in a report by the Global Forest Watch, the 216 catchment areas of the world have lost an average of 6 percent of their tree cover.
Over the past 14 years, fires, erosion, urbanization, and agricultural expansion have consumed the tree coverings that provided the necessary protection.
13. Price of water
Another complex factor causing significant imbalances in inaccessibility to water is the application of inadequate prices to water services.
Each person has a fundamental human right to fresh, safe, and clean water and therefore must be free to entertain debates on water policies worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
Only in more prosperous countries is charging recovery costs a common and accepted practice. About two-thirds of OECD member countries already measure (and charge for) the consumption of more than 90 percent of their single-family homes.
It is far from the norm in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, or large countries like China, India, and Indonesia.
All of these are regions with long-standing and substantial financial deficits in the water sector, which have led to massive chronic underinvestment, deterioration of water infrastructure, and increased risks to health and the environment.
Six hundred fifty million people worldwide lack access to safe water in the world’s poorest regions. The geographical and political obstacles prevent governments from inducing consumers to pay operating costs.
The lack of modern water distribution systems causes the poor to pay a much higher price for water than in countries where such systems exist.
In Nairobi, the urban poor pay ten times more water than New York. In New Guinea, the amount to be paid for daily water needs can reach half of a worker’s daily income, while in the UK, the cost rarely exceeds one or two percent of daily revenue.
Fracking requires and contaminates large amounts of water pumped into the drilled cavities to bring oil to the surface. The surrounding groundwater reserves are also threatened.
It involves the seismic measurements in advance of the drilling, and the Fracking itself can cause faults in the rock layers.
It pollutes the groundwater and collapses the cavities. There is a risk that previously impermeable layers will become porous and release substances trapped under them.
In the USA, where Fracking has been practiced on a large scale for several years, methane gas has increasingly accumulated in drinking water near boreholes.
The concentration was so high that an explosive mixture leaked out of the water pipe in places. People could have ignited with a cigarette.
According to investigations, leaks in the cemented edges of the boreholes or cracks from fracturing leading to the groundwater caused this incident.
15. Natural cause
Water is an abundant resource on Earth, given that this element cover 70% of its surface. But, 3.5% is fresh water and is not evenly distributed or completely available for consumption.
Almost 70% of fresh water is frozen in glaciers and therefore not directly available. In short, it is estimated that the drinking water available on Earth does not exceed 2.5% of total water.
Similarly, in arid and semi-arid areas, high temperatures imply high evaporation rates, which, together with low rainfall, cause water shortages.
16. Lack of awareness
There is a lack of awareness and comprehension regarding water conservation. The misuse of water is increasing continuously.
Water conservation, proper use of water, reuse of water, and groundwater recharging are not given due attention.
17. Lack of Political will
Lack of political and administrative will, wrong priorities, public apathy, and above all, a culture of corruption from top to bottom are also the causes of water scarcity.
Despite spending hundreds of dollars on water resource augmentation schemes, the number of troubled villages remains the same.
18. Water wastage
A lot of water is wasted worldwide. Just think of agriculture, where 60% of the irrigation water (water needed for artificially irrigating fields) drips into the soil without benefiting agriculture.
The industries also use a lot of water. For example, the production of one kilogram of paper requires 700 liters of water. Similarly, 10 to 20 liters of water are needed when flushing the toilet.
Taps that sometimes drip because the tap is broken, taking too long in the shower, letting the water run while you are doing something else, and so on are all the activities that are causing water scarcity.
19. Bad water policy
The World Bank has blamed the weak and wrong water policy as the main culprit of water scarcity. Many liters of water are lost every year due to old and leaking pipes and an ill-considered pricing policy.
Some nations fail as much as two-thirds of their water. Countries must create policies that help to use water sustainably.
Some areas with high populations can expect long periods of negative economic growth if they don’t manage their water resources.
20. Disappearance of Glaciers and over-exploitation of groundwater
Glaciers are considered a vital water source because of their contribution to water flow. Rising global temperatures have a noticeable effect on their melting rate, causing glaciers to decline worldwide.
Although dissolved waters from these glaciers increase the total amount of water, for now, the disappearance of glaciers, in the long run, will reduce the available water resources.
Due to rising global temperatures, increased water levels can also have adverse effects such as lake and dam floods and catastrophic results.
On the other hand, Groundwater exploitation has increased dramatically since the 1960s. Changes in knowledge, technology, and funding have enabled contact with previously inaccessible groundwater.
Large amounts of water stored underground in most aquifers have a significant buffer capacity that allows water to withdraw during drought or low rainfall periods.
This process is crucial for people living in regions that cannot depend solely on rainfall or surface water supplies.
Since 2010, the global abstraction of groundwater in the world has been estimated at 1000 km³ per year. 67% of that amount is used for irrigation, 22% for domestic needs, and 11% for industrial purposes.
Groundwater has become crucial to the life and food safety of 1.2 to 1.5 billion rural households in poorer regions of Africa and Asia.
Of course, these factors listed above cause water shortages in regions where this problem did not exist before or where people could have quickly resolved it.
It is necessary to identify problems with analysis of solutions to combat water scarcity, including adopting alternative supply systems, water reuse, river transposition, seawater desalination, and many others.
(Last Updated on October 30, 2021 by Sadrish Dabadi)