10 Critical Water Scarcity Facts We Must Not Ignore

A deep look into the 10 most compelling water scarcity facts that our world is currently facing. With alarming statistics, this article touches on waterborne diseases, water privatization, sanitation, and more.

Updated: May 8, 2024
Jeremiah Zac


Those in the developed world might not experience the impact of water scarcity as heavily as those in the developing world, but that doesn't change the fact that water crises are a global matter.

Let's have a look at the ten most alarming water scarcity facts that we shouldn’t ignore.

The alarming human factor in water management

Humans play a significant role in the disruption of the hydrologic cycle.

  • The excessive building of dams prevents rivers from distributing mineral-rich water to areas dependent on nutrients for plant growth.

  • Pollution caused by large factories can render freshwater sources such as lakes and rivers unusable.

  • The constant paving of roads seals the ground's surface, preventing it from soaking up rainfall and replenishing the underground aquifers, a vital part of the hydrologic cycle.

  • Excessive drilling into the ground can disrupt the bedrock's structure, potentially contaminating fresh groundwater with seawater.

  • Bottled water privatization creates a monopoly on a resource that should otherwise be available to the people who live in the region where the water is located.

As the world’s population increases, the demand for water necessary to sustain large communities also increases. While water sustains virtually every aspect of a human’s life, food production makes up most of it. Agriculture accounts for over 70% of the world’s water consumption. To produce enough food for each person’s daily caloric intake, 2000–3000 Liters of water are needed (FAO).

While organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization address the water crisis globally, problems vary from region to region.

Much of the world’s water supply is mainly disproportionate. The average American family uses about 500 gallons of water daily, while the average African family uses 5 gallons daily. If the entire volume of freshwater were to be distributed evenly among all the earth’s inhabitants, each person would receive 1,320,860 gallons of water each year (FAO).

Let us look at the ten most alarming water scarcity facts that the world is currently facing.

1) By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas

african kids holding water container

With the increasing demand for clean water and the steady growth of the world’s population, areas that are already water-stressed will worsen, and the amount of water-stressed regions worldwide will increase. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, some experts have distinguished between water scarcity and water stress for accuracy.

According to the CEO of Water Mandate, water scarcity is defined as the shortage of the physical volume of water in a given region. In contrast, water stress is defined as the difficulty communities experience with meeting basic needs in areas stricken by water scarcity.

UNESCO predicts that 1.8 billion people will be experiencing water scarcity, and half of the world will live in water-stressed conditions by 2025. Population growth, agricultural demands, and mismanagement of water resources all contribute to the growing global water crisis. Due to water scarcity, some 24 to 700 million people will be displaced from arid and semi-arid regions of the world.

2) The world's population will raise to 9.7 billion by 2050, leaving much in water-stressed conditions

flavelas bnlack and white

In places where water is already scarce, geopolitical conflict is likely to increase. 60% of all surface water on Earth comes from river basins shared by separate nations, and almost 600 aquifers cross national boundaries.

In addition to an increase in population, excessive water use increases the demand for water. People living in urban areas require more water to maintain a certain standard of living. The global population increased threefold in the 20th century, but water use increased sixfold. As incomes increase and urbanization develops, food choices shift toward more affluent, more water-dependent means of production (FAO).

There will be a 40% gap between the demand for water and the availability of water by the year 2030.

The global population is expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050, and the number of people living in urban areas is expected to double. By 2050, 3.9 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, will live in severely water-stressed regions (INWEH).

3) Three in ten people on earth currently do not have access to safe and clean water

Poverty in India

The World Health Organization, a leader in global water data and planning, has categorized water accessibility into five groups: safely managed water sources, basic water sources, limited water sources, unimproved water sources, and surface water sources.

  • Safely Managed water sources can be defined as a managed drinking water service located on the premises of a home or residence, accessible whenever needed, and free from contamination. Examples of safely managed water sources are kitchen faucets and taps drawn from a local reservoir where water is treated under municipal guidelines.

  • Basic water sources are defined as improved water sources that are no further than 30 minutes for round-trip access but are not always free from contamination or accessible when needed. An example of a basic water source would be a community water station supplying a small village, which may not always produce water when accessed.

  • Limited water sources fit the description of a basic water source but are further than a 30-minute round trip.

  • Unimproved water sources include unprotected wells or springs

  • Surface Water includes water collected directly from a river, dam, lake, or stream.

According to the WHO, 2.1 billion people, which is three in ten worldwide, do not have access to a safely managed water source. Eight hundred forty-four million people do not have access to a basic water source. Two hundred sixty-three million people have to travel over 30 minutes to access water that isn’t even clean, and 159 million still drink from untreated surface water sources.

4) One in three people worldwide do not have access to a toilet

homeless holding bag

The WHO also categorizes sanitation services into Safely Managed, Basic, Limited, Unimproved, and Open Defecation.

  • Safely Managed sanitation systems can be defined as the use of improved facilities that aren’t shared with another household and where waste is safely disposed of or transported off-site.

  • Basic sanitation systems are the use of improved facilities that aren’t shared with another household.

  • Limited sanitation systems are the use of improved facilities shared with two or more households.

  • Unimproved sanitation is the use of pit latrines without platform or bucket latrines.

  • Open Defecation involves the disposal of human waste in fields, bushes, open bodies of water, or other open spaces.

According to the WHO, 2.3 billion people, that’s 1 in 3 worldwide, lack access to even basic sanitation services. Most of these people either practice open Defecation or use unimproved sanitation such as pit latrines and buckets.

Safely managed sanitation systems are designed to remove human waste away from human contact. Those without safe systems risk contaminating their water supply with human waste. The WHO reports that at least 2 billion people worldwide consume water from a source that is contaminated with feces. Fecal contamination in the water supply is a significant cause of deadly waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis A, Norovirus, and E. coli.

5) 1.6 million people die every year from waterborne diseases

abandoned hospital room

One of the most devastating effects of the global water crisis is the numerous waterborne diseases resulting from poor sanitation and water quality. Almost half of the population in developing countries can link health problems to waterborne diseases (Global Water Institute). Annually, about 5 million people, most of them children, contract diseases related to waterborne pathogens around the world. Of the 5 million reported cases, 1.6 are fatal.

Diseases such as Typhoid Fever, Shigellosis, Hepatitis A, and Legionnaire's Disease can be fatal if left untreated but are preventable with proper water purification practices, improved sanitation systems, and adequate education. Reducing exposure to contaminated water can significantly reduce the risk of disease.

6) Water privatization causes more harm than good to the region which the water is taken from

water bottles for drinking

Bottled water has brought convenience and security to those who might not have easy access to clean water. However, privatizing some clean water sources has significant downsides for the residents who live near them.

When a municipal utility source such as public water or electricity struggles to maintain itself due to budgeting issues and poor infrastructure, it'll often sell its rights to a private corporation to take over. While this may seem beneficial in the short term, residents who rely on the water source ultimately suffer.

Because the utility is now owned by a private company rather than a governmental body, the company is now accountable to stockholders, not residents. Residents now no longer have representation in corporate affairs. Instead, a natural monopoly is created where water, the commodity, is sold at a much higher price. Because water is a regional resource, competition for lower prices is unlikely.

Privately owned water sources typically charge households 59% more than publically owned sources (Food and Water). Private sewer services generally are 63% more costly.

Nestle, one of the largest corporations in the world, owns 50 springs throughout the United States (Food Empowerment Project). Bechtel, the fifth-largest corporation in the US, took over the water supply of a region in Bolivia in 1999 and raised rates by 300%, making it impossible for the people of the area to access their water. Coca-Cola pumps 1.5 million liters of water daily from a small town in Plachimada, India, leaving farmers without enough water to make a living.

7) In the us, 2.1 trillion gallons of clean water is lost each year due to poor infrastructure

abandoned bathroom

Poor infrastructure significantly contributes to the loss of clean water and the potential contamination that wastewater can cause. According to the Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, 80% of all wastewater is returned to the environment without proper treatment due to poor wastewater management, and 30% of all clean water is lost through leakage and deteriorating pipes (INWEH).

In the United States alone, 2.1 trillion gallons of clean, treated water is lost yearly due to old, leaky pipes and broken water mains. David Le France, CEO of the American Water Works Association, estimates that repairing America’s water infrastructure will be a trillion-dollar program (NPR).

Water infrastructure is essentially a governance issue. Due to divided efforts in governmental decision-making, adequate policies and budgeting are often challenging.

8) Women walk an average distance of 4 miles every day just to fetch water that is likely contaminated

woman carrying water bucket

Gender roles related to water scarcity in developing countries differ from those in the West. Women and young girls are expected to take the responsibility of gathering the needed amount of water to sustain their families daily.

In Africa, 90% of the work involved in gathering water and preparing food is done by women. In both Africa and Asia, women walk an average distance of 4 miles every day, which takes about 6 hours, to carry a 44-pound container of water for their household from a water source that has the potential to make them sick (Global Water Institute). It is estimated that women and children spend around 40 billion hours a year gathering water in sub-Saharan African countries.

9) One-third of the world's largest aquifers are water-stressed

deep empty well

While surface water has been the primary means of collection for human use, groundwater remains an essential clean water source for regions where surface water isn’t as available. Groundwater can be accessed via wells or through groundwater pumping. As part of the hydrologic cycle, groundwater is naturally replenished through rainfall and surface water.

But when the amount of groundwater being extracted exceeds the rate at which it replenishes, it remains in a deficit known as groundwater depletion. Determining the amount of groundwater in the aquifers underneath the earth’s surface is challenging. Still, with satellite technology, scientists can estimate the volume of water that remains.

Water Resources Research categorizes the stress levels of groundwater into four categories: unstressed, human-dominated variable stress, variable stress, and overstressed.

  • An unstressed groundwater source has a water table that hasn’t dropped below its average height and is replenishing naturally.

  • A human-dominated variable-stressed groundwater source extracts water at a low rate but is still at an adequate water level and replenishes naturally as expected.

  • A variable-stressed groundwater source is still being recharged either naturally or artificially but has a water table that has lowered beyond its average height due to excessive water extraction.

  • An overstressed groundwater source is not being recharged and has a water table that continues to drop due to excessive extraction.

According to the WRR, 37 of the world’s largest aquifers are variably stressed to overstressed. Eight of them, including the aquifers in Saudi Arabia, North-Western India, and Pakistan, are not being recharged.

10) Meeting the UN's Sustainable Development Goals for the water crisis will cost $114 billion per year

united-nations Flags

While implementing reasonable plans for providing clean water and rebuilding infrastructure are necessary for addressing the world's concerns, it certainly won't be cheap. The UN has proposed a series of sustainable development goals for a brighter, more self-sustaining future for the earth, with #6 addressing the global water crisis.

While these goals are comprehensive and well-informed, attaining these goals will be time-consuming, expensive, and may face political division. It is estimated that reaching these goals will cost 114 billion dollars annually until 2030.

The truth is that maintaining clean water sources is very expensive. While motives are mostly internally focused, even large corporations spend millions of dollars annually maintaining clean water sources for their production. The British Oil and Gas company spent $938 Million to irrigate water from a gasfield to farming fields in Australia (AKVO). Rio Tinto spent $3 Billion on a desalination plant in Chile.

As costly as maintaining the proper sources of clean water may be, the cost of not doing so is also high. $260 Billion is spent globally on addressing healthcare needs due to water-related diseases and poor sanitation (INWEH).

To Summarize

Water scarcity is absolute. To ignore it or to assume that it is only a problem of the developing world is to be blind to the errors our egos have caused. The Western world wastes more water daily than some families worldwide would see in months. Much of what we use water for sustains a lifestyle we take for granted. Our inward focus has closed our eyes to a reality that the rest of the world is experiencing. Whether we recognize it or not is irrelevant. Sooner or later, even we in the West will feel the effects of water scarcity in one way or another.

What we can start to do is to limit our water intake. Excessive water consumption and poor water management are factors that we can control immediately. Supporting clean water initiatives will help the movement against the global water crisis. Finally, educating ourselves and raising awareness is a task we should all take on. Please share this article if you've found it helpful.

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WHO. (2017, July 12). 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, more than twice as many lack safe sanitation. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/detail/12-07-2017-2-1-billion-people-lack-safe-drinking-water-at-home-more-than-twice-as-many-lack-safe-sanitation

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I'm Jeremiah, the owner of World Water Reserve. I'm a writer and researcher with a particular interest in sustainability and rural living, water scarcity, and innovative water purification methods. I utilize my multimedia and communication experience in the NGO and humanitarian fields to bring light to important topics. My passion is to educate others on the reality of the global water crisis and on ways to sustain themselves and their families in the midst of it.
Jeremiah Zac