Scarcity and Lack of Access to Safe H2O
In excess of one billion people around the globe don’t have enough to drink. This can be through drought, poor management, or simply having no continual source. Every country needs a reliable supply of this vital fluid to nurture and process crops, produce energy and keep the industrial sector in business.
According to the International Water Management Institute, 1.2 billion people don’t have access to clean supplies, and by 2025 the World Wildlife Federation estimates the shortage will be felt by 66% of people. Compounding the problem are increases in demand from ever growing populations and newly industrialised countries.
Which Factors Have Caused this Shortage?
As rivers, lakes and streams dry up, the resources which local people rely on are classed as stressed. Even underground aquifers can become dry or toxic and wetland areas have halved. Climate change too has had an impact on streams and rivers all over the world, creating areas of persistent flooding in some regions and drought in others. Agriculture is a major contributor, as it guzzles through more fluid than any other sector and inefficient practices mean that waste is another issue that needs addressing.
By producing high levels of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases, we are warming the earth’s atmosphere and altering global weather patterns. Higher temperatures mean more moisture is drawn into the atmosphere in particularly wet regions, and heavier rains will fall there. As a result, some areas will become more prone to floods and others which are already dry will suffer continued cycles of drought. As the world warms up glaciers will begin to melt, delivering an increased flow to downstream areas. As it reaches the sea this frozen polar ice will melt into the salty sea water. Together, these factors will contribute to lower supplies, leaving wildlife, farming communities and energy companies with less.
There are numerous rivers, streams, lakes and oceans affected by the continuing spread of pollution. Whether it’s human waste, industrial chemicals or fertilizers, these toxins drip down into deep aquifers and have an instantly damaging effect. The supply can be contaminated through contact with bacteria or corrosive chemicals, and once the process begins it can develop insidiously over a number of years. This means that surrounding eco-systems and local communities can be exposed to toxins without ever realising.
Intensive farming has made agriculture an industry which needs the lion’s share of freshwater. As much as 70% of available global supplies are used to grow crops, but of that, around 60% is written off as waste. This is due to leaks in ageing equipment, crops which are unsuitable for the ground and need high levels of fluid to survive, and inept techniques. A combination of these inefficient practices acts to dry out the resources that people have traditionally relied on, like rivers, aquifers and lakes.
A Growing Population
Over the past half-century, the number of people on the planet has doubled, and this population explosion has had a considerable impact on the environment. Growth has come with increased industrialisation and land development, together these factors have altered aquatic systems and reduced biodiversity. 41% of people live near ecosystems which are under stress, and resources are being used faster than they can ever be replenished naturally.
A Culture of Disposability
In the western world, we are accustomed to using an object once, then throwing it away. water bottles are a prime example of this trend. Once it’s in the trash the empty bottle leaves your thoughts, but its journey is nowhere near over. Most of these bottles take over 1000 years to biodegrade naturally, but burning them will release poisonous fumes. If a bottle is made from polyethylene terephthalate or PET, it can be recycled, but it’s estimated that around 80% are made of other materials and end up as landfill.
Bottling water is also extremely inefficient. Over 1.5 million barrels of oil are used in the annual manufacturing process, along with 3 litres of water for every saleable litre produced. Finally, fossil fuels are required to transport the finished product to various global markets and these cause toxic emissions.
The Issue of Distribution
Even before we factor in issues like poverty or climate change, the world’s freshwater is not distributed evenly due to seasonal variations and average rainfall. Asia is home to 60% of the earth's people, but 36% of all freshwater. In Latin America where 6% of the population live, that figure is 25%.
Distribution is further complicated by the way supplies reach those in need, in less developed nations people rely on periods of heavy rainfall, like the monsoon season in Asia. As this season is so brief, most of the rain simply drains away and only about 20% is used. This is aggravated by the loss of traditional resources, like wells, streams and seasonal rivers, which are ruined by droughts, lack of investment and wasteful irrigation systems.
Natural wetlands are also under threat, as the World Wildlife Fund estimates that nearly half of these stunning areas have been wiped out since 1900. These habitats are some of the best populated and diverse on the planet, supporting many species of fish, mammals, insects and birds. Furthermore, wetlands are key to the cultivation of rice which is a chief foodstuff for 50% of the world. When wetlands vanish, the benefits they offer to the hydrological cycle, like filtration and flood control are lost, and this further impacts on shortages.
Are There Solutions?
The most effective solutions to this global problem include better storage, reuse, conservation and management. Many ideas are being adopted right now in an attempt to balance supply with demand.
Aquifers are underground areas which fill up during rainstorms and also collect runoff. In many parts of the world they are drying out due to overharvesting, but in California and Australia, scientists are looking at ways of adding back treated supplies. This is seen as a safer storage solution, as dams and reservoirs can be prone to evaporation, seepage and flooding.
Some industrial companies have installed a zero-liquid-discharge system into their facilities. So-called ZLD methods enable the use, treatment, and reuse of liquid in a loop, so it is never disposed of. Heavy rain can also be recycled for use in golf courses, landscaped gardens and orchards.
Converting salty supplies that are not fit for human consumption is becoming a popular fix in many nations. The US, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Cyprus are all investing in desalination plants, but it can be costly. In the US, $3.27 billion is spent on the process each year. Although desalinisation does require lots of energy, in the long-term it is hoped that greener sources will be built-in to the plant and used to power it.
Protecting the hydrosphere is something we can all be part of by conserving our domestic supplies. You can start in simple ways, by ensuring your plumbing is leak-free, taking shorter showers and always placing a full load in the washing machine or dishwasher.