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Water Trends




















































































Awareness of global, regional, and local water trends can ensure that organizations have time to plan and act before crises arise. This section presents several important water trends.

  • Although most of the world is not running out of freshwater, a number of regions face chronic freshwater shortages
  • In the future, water shortages are likely to spread due to increasing demands, unsustainable withdrawal rates, difficulty in finding new supplies, pollution and source water contamination, and changing climatic and precipitation patterns
  • Water shortages impact regional security by causing human health problems and population displacement, increasing conflicts between competing users, and damaging ecosystem health
  • While regulatory responses are becoming more stringent, watershed-based management approaches are expanding

Freshwater Supply, Quality, and Availability Trends

The world is not running out of freshwater resources, but freshwater is not uniformly distributed. A number of regions are experiencing chronic freshwater shortages.

Less than one percent of the world’s freshwater is readily accessible and located in the lakes, rivers and streams that cross our continents.(1) Although freshwater is a finite resource, the world’s water cycle is constantly renewing itself. Rain and snow supply enough new water every year to inundate all of Europe under almost seven feet of water.(2) But freshwater resources are not uniformly distributed, and many regions are suffering from shortages.

The Middle East, North Africa and the Southwestern U.S., among other regions, have long been familiar with water shortages. Increasingly, shortages are occurring even in places that have access to relatively large amounts of water. China is facing severe surface and groundwater supply problems as it irrigates croplands to feed its enormous population. The Ganges River in India and the Chao Phraya River in Thailand, both of which are in monsoon regions, now experience times in the year when little or no water reaches the ocean.(3) The Pacific Northwest of the U.S., well known for its wet weather, and states from Maine to Georgia have recently experienced several summers of drought.(4)

The severity of water shortages varies greatly from place to place. Some areas face issues such as hydroelectric power shortages, decreased crop yields, and loss of species habitat, while some less developed nations confront the true crisis of insufficient water for basic human needs. Despite this range of differences, an important commonality is emerging in all global water resource issues. Shortages and conflicts are less the result of insufficient technological or infrastructure capacity for accessing new sources and more a result of water demands surpassing the availability of local freshwater resources.

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Increasing human demands for water and unsustainable rates of water withdrawal are likely to worsen water shortages. Other factors also have the potential to affect long-term water availability.

40% of the world will live in water-scarce regions by 2025.(5) Factors likely to contribute to these predicted water shortages include population growth and unsustainable rates of water withdrawal. The United Nations currently estimates global annual population growth at 1.2%, which translates to an increase of 77 million people per year.(6)

Current data indicates that 10% of the global agricultural harvest—180 million tons of grain—is produced by depleting groundwater supplies.(7) Extensive surfacewater withdrawals for irrigation have also contributed to the dramatic shrinking of some of the world’s great freshwater bodies including the Aral Sea and Lake Chad. Given that agricultural irrigation is the world’s largest use of freshwater, accounting for twice as much as the industrial and domestic sectors combined, these unsustainable rates of withdrawal have already caused water shortages and will likely cause more.

Some researchers have identified potential linkages between changes in the earth’s climate and water availability. This research suggests that changing precipitation patterns could lead to possible disruptions of traditional weather and run-off patterns and affect regional water supplies. Changing temperatures could also decrease the storage and subsequent slow release of moisture from snow and ice.(8)

Global Water Resources

Accessible, Clean Freshwater Is a Small Fraction of Total Global Water Resources

Pollution of existing freshwater supplies exacerbates water constraints and shortages. At the same time, water management advances are providing water quality and availability improvements.

Surfacewater and groundwater pollution effectively decreases the quantity of usable freshwater. Many of the world’s lakes, large rivers, and most of its estuaries have been contaminated with industrial, municipal, and agricultural runoff and effluent discharges. Contamination of surfacewater has led many regions of the world to turn to groundwater. While most of the planet’s groundwater remains pure (largely a result of the fact that there is almost 100 times as much freshwater underground than there is on the earth’s surface), contaminants such as pesticides, nitrogen, petrochemicals, radioactive waste, and a variety of heavy metals increasingly threaten these supplies.(9) The pollution of groundwater aquifers is not just significant for localized groundwater users but also for surfacewater users since the base flow for major rivers such as the Mississippi, Niger, and Yangtze comes from groundwater sources.(10)

Significant progress has been made in developing technologies and best practices for conserving, purifying, recycling, and desalinating water, all actions that effectively increase freshwater availability. In the developed world, basic efficiency measures are now widely practiced in the industrial and commercial sectors and include the use of low-volume plumbing fixtures, reduction of irrigation schedules, and efficiency improvements for water-cooling technologies and equipment. Industrial dischargers generally employ best available pollution control technologies. Basic drinking water and sewage treatment are in place throughout the developed world and some developing nations. More efficient and effective technologies are gradually emerging.

While desalination is not yet cheap enough to be broadly applicable, the technology has advanced significantly, most notably in the technique of reverse osmosis (RO), which uses pressure and semi-permeable membranes to filter salt or other contaminants from water. The effectiveness of RO has increased, as has the durability and dependability of membranes used in the process.

Many areas of the world are taking advantage of improvements in wastewater reuse and reclamation technology. In Singapore, recycled and reclaimed water is emerging as an essential alternative to water from the mainland. By 2010, the island country aims to meet 20% of its water needs through reclaimed water. A new water treatment facility will have the capacity to produce “Newater” (a term coined by the Singapore Utilities Board), reclaimed water with an even higher purity than the standard potable supply.(11) In arid Namibia, wastewater-recycling technology has helped meet water needs in the capitol city of Windhoek at less than half the cost of developing new sources of supply.(12)

Expansion of freshwater supplies is increasingly costly and controversial.

In the past, as demand for water has increased, society’s focus has been on addressing this demand through increases in supply. However, this solution is becoming increasingly difficult and costly and may soon be infeasible in many areas.

No longer does the drilling of additional wells sufficiently address agricultural supply issues. The area of irrigated land using water from the Ogallala Aquifer in the Western U.S. has decreased since the 1970s because of falling water tables and rising pumping costs.(13) While advanced desalination technologies have been implemented in some energy rich, water poor areas of the world such as the Middle East, overall costs remain prohibitively high in most places due to the large amounts of energy and capital required.

Large diversion and storage projects are also increasing in cost and decreasing in feasibility, especially as ecological and social costs are considered. China has long proposed the diversion of its southern rivers, such as the Yangtze, to the country’s northern plains to satisfy increasing demand for irrigation water. However, the potential financial, social, and environmental costs of the project have made it very controversial. In 1991, Libya completed a $25 billion water diversion project that pipes water from desert aquifers to the coastal population centers, but these types of projects are unlikely to solve growing freshwater supply problems.(14)

Social and Environmental Dimensions of Water Issues

Inadequate supplies of clean freshwater contribute to a broad range of public health issues, especially in the non-industrial nations and some developing nations.

Human health can be affected by freshwater problems ranging from contamination of municipal water supply sources to pollution of water bodies used for fishing or recreation. Pathogens that cause acute illness and disease, or chemicals that can be carcinogens in high concentrations, can affect drinking water supplies. Non-industrial and developing nations face the most serious threats to human health from inadequate freshwater supplies. Various sources estimate that 1 to 1.5 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2 to 3 billion people lack access to proper sanitation, and 14,000 to 30,000 people die each day from water-borne illnesses.(15) These astonishing numbers represent a significant challenge for individuals, governments, and businesses in coming decades.

Drought, freshwater depletion, and floods contribute to population displacement.

Freshwater shortages, and attempts to address them through diversion and storage projects, have displaced large numbers of people. As lakes and rivers dry, people dependent on these resources are forced to move. Experts estimate that dams displaced 40 million people in the 20th century. Official records show that at least 10 million were displaced between 1960 and 1990 in China alone.(16) Floods have also contributed to significant population displacement around the globe.

Water scarcity is increasingly leading to conflict, especially in arid areas.

Violent conflict over water resources has occurred in many regions of the world, most notably in the Middle East where scarce water resources exacerbate existing religious and political tensions. Other examples of recent violent disputes over water include a Brazilian invasion of a contested dam site in Paraguay, irrigation rights disputes in India, military protection of dam construction in Slovakia, and violent water shortage protests in Bangladesh. Other examples exist of non-violent water-related conflicts that have produced protests, national and international stand-offs, and contentious debates.(17)

Even in places where water scarcity has not escalated to a cause for conflict, there is increasing public concern over water quality and quantity. In the U.S., there is considerable heated political debate over whether to regulate agricultural runoff or to mandate wetlands and endangered species protection. Partly in response, watershed and community action groups in the U.S. and abroad are becoming more involved in protecting local water resources.

Ecosystem needs for freshwater are broadly affected by human activities.

Due to the finite nature of water resources, there is a constant trade-off between meeting human and environmental freshwater needs. Water taken from a watershed for municipal drinking water supplies, for example, can affect the habitat and health of local species. Indirect impacts of human activities on ecosystem freshwater needs are common. Habitat degradation, urbanization, pollution, and introduction of foreign species can all adversely impact the ability for ecosystems to receive an adequate quantity and quality of freshwater.

As society recognizes the value of ecosystem services and natural capital, environmental needs for freshwater are receiving higher priority.

Often, and especially in times of severe shortage, human needs are given immediate priority over those of the environment. However, there is increasing recognition for the social and economic value provided by the environment and various ecosystem services. Through this recognition of value, environmental needs are receiving more attention. A 1997 report titled “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital” placed the annual value of the earth’s natural storage and purification of water at $2.3 trillion. Annual wetlands services received an even higher value of $4.7 trillion.(18) Governments, institutions, and businesses worldwide have responded by giving environmental concerns a higher priority when making key water-related decisions.

Freshwater Regulatory Trends

Freshwater regulations worldwide are becoming more stringent.

Worldwide, regulations addressing freshwater quality and effluent are becoming more stringent. Largely in response to concerns over the effects of water quality on public and ecosystem health, governments are pursuing a variety of regulatory approaches for reducing water pollution. Techniques include tighter discharge limits for pollutants and nutrients, technology requirements, water use restrictions, and effluent rights trading. Given the increasing pressures on many watersheds and the growing research on public and ecosystem health effects of water quality, it is likely that this trend will persist.

Jurisdictions in many countries are restructuring freshwater subsidies.

Government subsidies for freshwater have often been designed to encourage use of water resources to spur development and agricultural production. However, as shortages have increased, these subsidies have been reexamined. In some areas, subsidies have been restructured to provide incentives for conservation, efficiency, and watershed protection. The price of water, when reflective of its true cost or value, can encourage responsible use.

In Israel, much discussion has occurred over how best to regulate the use of its water resources, which historically have been heavily subsidized. Because subsidies have prevented prices from rising as supplies dwindle, one of the country’s primary aquifers has been drawn down to the critical “red line” level. The country’s Infrastructure Minister is now pushing for a complete phase-out of agricultural water subsidies to increase financial incentives for conservation.(19)

Regulatory efforts are increasingly focusing on watershed-based management approaches.

Watersheds vary significantly in the amount of water they produce and the types of activities they support both on-site and downstream. Many jurisdictions are turning to watershed-based water management as a way to deliver more effective, locally-tailored solutions. In the U.S., regulatory agencies are exploring watershed-based approaches to water quality protection. For example, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) approaches establish discharge limits for local sources based on watershed health and assimilative capacity for pollutants. The European Union (EU) officially adopted the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) in September 2000, which aims to improve water quality in all EU water bodies through coordinated watershed management.(20)

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