The World’s Looming Water Crisis

Climate Change Worsens Chronic Water Shortages for One-Quarter of Earth’s Population

The World Resources Institute recently released a disturbing report chronicling increased, dire water shortages around the globe that threaten millions of the earth’s inhabitants.  Climate change is a major contributing factor.  Public health crises, social unrest and global political conflicts are the inevitable consequences if the problem is not addressed successfully–and soon.

17 Countries, Home to One-Quarter of the World’s Population, Face Extremely High Water Stress paints a distressing picture indeed.  The report’s bottom line: catastrophic water shortages, once a rare occurrence, are happening with increased frequency across the globe.  According to the WRI report, two related phenomena are responsible: first, more frequent and intense droughts are occurring in both first- and third-world nations, due in significant part to the effects of climate change.  Second–and perhaps less appreciated–WRI notes that global anthropogenic water withdrawals have more than doubled since the 1960’s, a trend that shows no sign of abating.

The results are dramatic: 17 nations that collectively are home to one-quarter of the Earth’s population are now under what WRI refers to as “extreme water stress.”  The WRI report describes the Middle East and North Africa as “the most water-stressed region on earth.”  India–the world’s second most populated country with 1.35 billion inhabitants–is another nation that is experiencing extreme (and steadily worsening) water shortages.  These water crises are a combined result of increased diversions of surface water supplies and heightened extractions of groundwater resources, both at wholly unsustainable levels.  (The report ranks 164 nations as experiencing various levels of water stress.)

The WRI report notes that among cities with more than 3 million residents, 33 of them–with a combined population of over 259 million inhabitants–currently face extremely high water stress.  By the year 2030, WRI warns, those numbers are projected to reach 45 cities with a total of 470 million inhabitants.

As the New York Times reported in its summary of the WRI report, climate change is a major exacerbating factor: “As rainfall becomes more erratic, the water supply becomes less reliable.  And as the days grow hotter, more water evaporates from reservoirs just as demand for water increases.”  Additionally, in times of drought, groundwater is pumped to offset surface water shortages, often without regard to the finite nature of groundwater aquifers if not properly managed.

Even in nations experiencing what WRI refers to as relatively “low water stress,” pockets of extreme water shortages exist.  Prominent examples include Capetown, South Africa; Beijing, China; southeastern Australia; Mexico City; and the southwestern United States.

Here in the U.S., the most dire water shortages affect the state of New Mexico, according to the WRI report.  But close behind are Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska–and California.  In each of these states, the most prominent cause of the growing water crisis is chronic overdrafting of finite groundwater aquifers.

On a positive note, the WRI report goes beyond describing the global crisis of looming water shortages and also offers several key policy recommendations to address the problem at both global and local levels: improved agricultural practices and efficiencies; investment in gray and green infrastructure; and increased water treatment, reuse and recycling,

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “The World’s Looming Water Crisis”

  1. The population explosion is one of the main causes. Overpopulation has stressed the finite resources.

  2. It is worth noting, that provided policy sends the appropriate signals, there are a lot of means of saving water at very low cost. Two easy pieces are waterless urinals (which are actually cheaper to install) and sinks with foot or knee controls (use less water reaching up to turn it off).

    Repiping grey water from black and using the former for irrigation, etc. directly is another possibility as is local hyperbaric treatment of black water to also reuse for irrigation. These latter systems will require substantial piping modification, some other equipment, and more cost.

    More expensive are exotic sources of fresh water such as desalination with renewable energy (and ultimately, fusion, maybe) and air harvesting.

    Like most other areas of the environment, there are technical solutions readily available and more possible from the engineering community, and one important part of activism is bringing the engineering community together with activists to be able to present solutions ranging from “right now, order it from Amazon” to “somewhere over the rainbow”, and to be able to understand the pesky little details.

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About Richard

Richard Frank

Richard Frank is Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of the U. C. Davis School of Law’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center. From 2006-2010, …

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