Is the World Running Out of Water?

“Access to a secure, safe and sufficient source of fresh water is a fundamental requirement for the survival, well-being and socio-economic development of all humanity. Yet, we continue to act as if fresh water were a perpetually abundant resource. It is not.”—KOFI ANNAN, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL.

AT MIDDAY every Thursday for the past thousand years, a unique tribunal has sat in the Spanish city of Valencia. Its job is to resolve disputes over water.

Local farmers in the fertile Valencian plain depend on irrigation, and irrigation requires lots of water—which has always been in short supply in this part of Spain. The farmers can appeal to the water tribunal whenever they feel that they are not getting their fair share. Disputes over water are nothing new, but they are rarely resolved so equitably as in Valencia.

Nearly 4,000 years ago, a violent dispute erupted among shepherds about access to a well near Beer-sheba in Israel. (Genesis 21:25) And water problems in the Middle East have become much worse since then. At least two prominent leaders in the region have said that water is the one issue that could lead them to declare war on a neighboring State.

In the semiarid countries of the world, water has always aroused strong feelings. The reason is simple: Water is vital to life. As Kofi Annan pointed out, “fresh water is precious: we cannot live without it. It is irreplaceable: there are no substitutes for it. And it is sensitive: human activity has a profound impact on the quantity and quality of fresh water available.”

Today as never before, both the quantity and quality of our planet’s fresh water are under threat. We should not be misled by the apparently abundant supply in some fortunate parts of the world.

 The Shrinking Reservoir

“One of the great contradictions in human nature is that we value things only when they are scarce,” points out UN Under-Secretary-General Elizabeth Dowdeswell. “We only appreciate the water once the well runs dry. And the wells are running dry not just in drought-prone areas but also in areas not traditionally associated with water scarcity.”

Those who face water scarcity every day understand the problem only too well. Asokan, an office worker in Madras, India, has to get up two hours before dawn every morning. Carrying five buckets, he goes to the public water tap, which is a five-minute walk away. Since there is water only between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., he needs to get in line early. The water he takes home in his buckets will have to last all day. Many fellow Indians—and one billion other people on the planet—are not so fortunate. They have no tap, river, or well near their home.

Abdullah, a boy who lives in the Sahel region of Africa, is one of those. The road sign announcing his small village describes it as an oasis; but the water has long since disappeared, and there is hardly a tree in sight. Abdullah has the job of fetching the family’s water from a well over half a mile [1 km] away.

In some parts of the world, the demand for fresh, clean water has already begun to outstrip the supply. The reason  is simple: A large portion of mankind live in arid or semiarid areas, where water has long been scarce. (See the map on page 3.) According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, a third of the world’s population already live in areas that suffer moderate to severe water shortage. And demand for water has risen at more than twice the rate of the population increase.

The water supply, on the other hand, is basically fixed. Deeper wells and new reservoirs may bring temporary relief, but the amount of rain that falls on the earth and the amount of water stored under the ground essentially remain the same. Therefore, meteorologists calculate that within 25 years, the quantity of water available to each person on earth may be cut in half.

Effect Upon Health and Food

How does water scarcity affect people? First of all, it harms their health. It is not that they will die of thirst; rather, the poor quality of the water available for cooking and drinking may make them ill. Elizabeth Dowdeswell points out that “about 80 per cent of all diseases and more than one-third of all deaths in developing countries are caused by contaminated water.” In the semiarid countries of the developing world, water supplies are frequently polluted by human or animal wastes, pesticides, fertilizers, or industrial chemicals. An impoverished family may have little option but to use such tainted water.

Just as our bodies require water to dispose of waste products, abundant water is  required for proper sanitation—water that for much of mankind is simply not available. The number of people without adequate sanitation rose from 2.6 billion in 1990 to 2.9 billion in 1997. This is nearly half the people on the planet. And sanitation is literally a matter of life and death. In a joint statement, United Nations officials Carol Bellamy and Nitin Desai warned: “When children lack water that is fit for drinking and sanitation, virtually every aspect of their health and development is at risk.”

Food production is dependent on water. Many crops, of course, are watered by rain, but in recent times irrigation has become the key to feeding the world’s burgeoning population. Today 36 percent of the world’s harvest depends on irrigation. But the world’s total area of irrigated cropland reached a peak about 20 years ago, and it has been falling steadily since then.

If plentiful water gushes out of every tap in our home and if we have a hygienic toilet that conveniently flushes away waste, it may be hard to believe that the world is running out of an adequate supply of water. We should remember, however, that only 20 percent of mankind enjoy such luxuries. In Africa many women spend as much as six hours a day fetching water—and frequently it is polluted. These women comprehend much more clearly the harsh reality: Clean, safe water is scarce, and it is getting scarcer.

Can technology solve the problem? Can water resources be exploited more economically? Where has all the water gone? The following articles will seek to answer these questions.

[Box/Diagram on page 4]


About 97 percent of the water on earth is in the oceans and is too salty to be used for drinking, farming, and manufacturing.

Only about 3 percent of earth’s water is fresh. Yet, the majority of this is not easily accessible, as the accompanying illustration shows.


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Permanent ice and snow 68.7%

Groundwater 30.1%

Permafrost, underground ice 0.9%

Lakes, rivers, and swamps 0.3%

[Box on page 5]


CONTAMINATION In Poland only 5 percent of the river water is fit for drinking, and 75 percent of it is too polluted even for industrial use.

▪ URBAN SUPPLIES In Mexico City, the world’s second-largest metropolis, the water table, which supplies 80 percent of the city’s water, is sinking inexorably. Pumping exceeds the natural replenishment by more than 50 percent. Beijing, the capital of China, suffers from a similar problem. Its aquifer has dropped more than three feet [1 m] a year, and one third of its wells have dried up.

▪ IRRIGATION The huge Ogallala aquifer in the United States has become so depleted that irrigated land in northwest Texas has shrunk by a third for lack of water. Both China and India, the second- and third-largest producers of food, are facing a comparable crisis. In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, irrigation has caused the water table to sink more than 75 feet [23 m] in ten years.

▪ DISAPPEARING RIVERS During the dry season, the mighty Ganges no longer reaches the sea, as all its water is diverted before that. The same is true of the Colorado River in North America.

[Map on page 3]

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Areas of water shortage