Causes & Effects of Water Scarcity

Inspire Clean Energy

9 min read

category: Clean Energy 101

What is water scarcity?

The physical shortage of water leads to water scarcity, and lack can lead to many challenges and opportunities. Demand for water can lead to scarcity which often comes from inadequate infrastructure. A lack of water can happen in any country, although it's more likely in dry climates.

Water covers about 70% of the planet, making people assume it's plentiful, but the 30% left includes mostly deserted areas. What's more, the freshwater we drink and use every day only includes 3% of the water on earth, and two-thirds of that is glaciers or otherwise not available for use. Because of this, over a billion people around the world are without water, and another two billion-plus have scarce access for over a month every year. Add inadequate sanitation, and over two billion people are left with diseased water that kills millions of people every year1.

Furthermore, pollution worsens the health of water and can even cause them to dry up, including lakes, rivers, and wetlands. For these reasons, around 20% of the world's population lives with water scarcity. As you can see, water is much more scarce than originally expected as most of the water available is saltwater and not the freshwater we need2.

What are the types of water scarcity?

Water scarcity comes in two forms; economic scarcity and physical scarcity.

The effect of a region's demand exceeding its finite water resources is physical, or absolute, water shortage. Around 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical scarcity, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Most of these people live in arid or semi-arid regions. Physical water scarcity can be seasonal; an estimated two-thirds of the world's population lives in locations where physical water scarcity occurs annually. Both the growing population and disrupted weather patterns affect the number of people experiencing water scarcity.

Economic water scarcity stems from a lack of water support or infrastructure. According to the FAO, around 1.6 billion people deal with water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure to get water to their location. Areas with water scarcity due to their economic conditions often have enough water; it's the access to the water that is limited.

Accessible water may be polluted or unfit for human consumption due to mismanagement or underdevelopment. Unrestricted water use for agriculture or industry, frequently at the expense of the general public, can also lead to economic water scarcity. Finally, large inefficiencies in water use can contribute to water scarcity, mainly due to an economic undervaluation of water as a finite natural resource.

What are the causes of water scarcity?

Water scarcity comes from three sources; pollution, population, and agriculture. While humans have built dams, wells, irrigation systems, and other water maintenance structures, these three areas are stressing out rivers, lakes, and aquifers. A few other factors can affect water scarcity, too, including droughts, natural disasters, government access, distance to water, climate change, illegal dumping, and overuse of water3.

Pollution: Many sources can pollute water, including pesticides, fertilizers, wastewater, and industrial wastes. Pollution affects groundwater too, as it seeps into aquifers causing harmful bacteria to contaminate the water and endanger health. Lastly, pollution can take years to build up and cause an effect, but those effects are detrimental to health.

Population: As the population grows, more humans need water, and rapid growth increases economic development, agriculture needs, and pollution. The growth process results in damages to water ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. Over 40% of the world's population lives in areas with stressed water systems. Water usage continues to grow to unsustainable levels as more people add pressure to the quantity of freshwater.

Agriculture: Agriculture consumes 70% of all available freshwater on the planet, but 60% of squandering is owed to leaky irrigation systems, poor application methods, and the growth of crops that are too thirsty for the environment in which they are cultivated. Rivers, lakes, and subterranean aquifers are drying up as a result of this inefficient use of water. As a result, many food-producing countries have reached their water resource limits or even surpassed the limits.

What are the effects of water scarcity?

Both humans and the environment are heavily dependent on water. As water becomes scarce, the wetlands will disappear along with all the animals they support, including mammals, birds, fish, and much more. Furthermore, wetlands provide rice, which is half of the world's population's main food source.

As water becomes scarce, our natural landscape will change as water shrinks; we will be left with more pollution covering the world. In turn, these lead to food shortages and decreased life spans. With less food and water, we will see energy shortages, too, and then economic slowdowns from the stress. Diseases will become rampant, too, as will poverty and sanitation issues.

What areas are affected by water scarcity?

Over four billion people are affected by water scarcity worldwide for a month out of every year. Of those four billion, 37 countries are affected in the entire population, while 97 countries have over half the population affected. Most of the countries affected are in Asia, South America, and Africa. India, China, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nigeria, Pakistan, Australia, Egypt, and Sudan suffer the most from water scarcity.

What are possible solutions to water scarcity?

Solving the water scarcity in the world will not happen by chance. We will have to come together to work on multiple solutions to impact everyone's health and future generations of plants and animals. The solutions are broken down into four categories where changes need to happen to improve access to freshwater4.

Environmental Policies: The first step requires environmental policies to help preserve and restore the ecosystems that collect, filter, store, and release water naturally. This includes recycling and flood protection as we need an undamaged system to continue using freshwater and the nutrients it provides. To start, we need to respect natural areas by stopping destructive and degraded practices to start seeing immediate benefits for the economy.

Engineering Technologies: With technology, we have reduced resources quickly, including water, and these methods need to be addressed to provide rapid results. A very visible option to solve the problem is infrastructure repairs to find ways to lower the costs of installation and maintenance, especially for under-developed countries. Additionally, creating engineering solutions that will benefit the environment without adding to climate change can positively impact water scarcity.

As around 70% of all freshwater is allocated to agriculture, a smart solution would be to improve irrigation systems. While many agricultural needs are met by flooding and surface irrigation, flooding can overfill crops before being lost through evaporation. Farmers need additional education to reduce water loss with smart practices and funding meant to conserve water by reducing waste.

Economical Solutions: Higher water prices reduce waste as people will naturally conserve to save on expenses. In turn, this would reduce pollution and help to fund improved water infrastructure. However, many people cannot afford increased constraints on their budget. Policymakers have to consider the weight of leveraging water taxes and the effect it will have on the economy.

Adding in cost benefits for those who take measures to conserve water could help to make higher prices more economical. A good sewage system is the foundation for safe drinking water. Without adequate sanitation, an area's water may beccome contaminated with disease and various other issues. We can prevent water shortage in these locations from worsening by strengthening the sewage systems in these areas.

Many people around the world, particularly in poorer countries, are still without access to public water. These people frequently rely only on fountains to supply their water needs, which may not be sufficient in times of drought. These folks are in grave danger of experiencing catastrophic water shortages. Water scarcity risks may be considerably decreased if these people were connected to the public water supply.

Social Solutions: Everyone can take measures to reduce water waste and scarcity. There are a variety of technologies that allow you to recycle rainwater and other types of water in your home. Consider learning how to recycle your water. It not only helps to prevent scarcity, but it can also help you save money. By simply reducing water usage, people can help to improve water. Furthermore, by recycling and reducing trash, people can help to reduce pollutants entering water.

There are groups worldwide working to supply clean water to locations where it is currently unavailable. Consider donating to these organizations, whether it's with your time, skills, or money, whichever is within your means. Educate others whenever possible to make everyone aware of the problem to help reduce waste even further.

There are many smart steps you can take at home to help reduce water usage. You can take shorter showers, turn the water off when brushing your teeth, install water-saving appliances, repair leaks, and flush toilets less.

Water scarcity is a socio-economic difficulty that we must address and ameliorate as soon as possible. It is just one of many challenges that our modern world faces. Luckily, with growing awareness, collective effort, and advancements in technology, we are able to face these issues head-on with calculated solutions to relieve stress on the environment and its inhabitants.

Water scarcity is intrinsically linked to climate change, another deep-rooted obstacle that we must overcome for humanities’ sake. One way to help mitigate the effects of climate change is by switching your home to renewable energy. By switching to renewable energy, you are actively reducing your home’s carbon footprint while simultaneously submitting your ethical vote to support a healthier planet.

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