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What is water scarcity

By Patrycja Kurasińska · April 20, 2022
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As the world is running low on the most important natural resource: water, we wonder – what can be done when natural water resources are unable to meet a region’s demand, and poor water management resources result in economic water scarcity.

Key water facts

About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, only about 3% is fit for consumption (World Economic Forum 2021).

 771 million people don't have clean water close to home. (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme 2021).

 31% of schools don’t have clean water (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme 2020 Drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene in schools; Global baseline report).

What is water scarcity?

Water scarcity, dubbed the greatest challenges of our time (WEF, 2021; water.org, 2021, National Geographic, 2021) also called water crises or water stress –can mean an inadequate, insufficient access or availability to water due to shortages. 

This simple definition describes a complex environmental problem, increasingly involving more extensive and diverse areas in the world, regardless of terrain or climate type – and too often to ignore, a failure of institutions to ensure a regular supply due to a lack of adequate infrastructure.

Is water scarcity a problem?

 With recent reports indicating that billions of people are without fresh drinking water, the water scarcity problem is much more severe than it may occur. Water shortage causes drought and sometimes rapid economic failures with insufficient crops and agricultural commodities. In addition, with water running dry, sanitation becomes affected, leading to many water-borne illnesses, e.g., typhoid fever and cholera. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation (2021), two billion people worldwide are affected by inadequate sanitation - many still do not have basic facilities such as toilets or latrines.

Where is water scarcity the biggest issue?

 According to the FAO (2007), areas more susceptible to severe physical water scarcity are those located where high population densities converge with low availability of freshwater. Some typical examples in South Africa are the Gauteng and Western Cape provinces, where it is an essential component for food security and agricultural production.  

How many countries are in a water crisis?

According to Bloomberg (2021), there are 17 countries (!), mostly in the Middle East, facing the risk of extremely high-water stress, the most at risk of water scarcity being Qatar (it heavily depends on seawater desalination systems to supply drinking water to people and industries).

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What are the types of water scarcity?

Water scarcity is distinguished into two types: physical and economic.

Physical water scarcity

The first one is a result of a naturally limited resource, particularly in the dry, hot and arid parts of the world. Sometimes physical water scarcity is a man-made condition- e.g. when a seemingly abundant source of water is being overused and over managed, like The Colorado river basin in the United States (Thewaterproject.org, 2021).

Economic water scarcity

The economic water scarcity is caused entirely by governance: it occurs when a population does not have the necessary monetary means to utilize an adequate source of water. Such unequal distribution of resources for many reasons, including political and ethnic conflict. Much of sub-Saharan Africa suffers under the effects of this type of water scarcity (Thewaterproject.org, 2021).

Can we prevent water scarcity in vulnerable areas?

As the climate heats up, water scarcity is now one of the leading challenges for sustainable development. With scientists raising alarms on the crises, governments and institutions are joining forces on the ongoing quest to find new ways to provide water in the developing countries. 

How severe is water scarcity around the world?

Although water scarcity is not an issue that is currently present worldwide (as of 2021), there are parts of the world that are in critically urgent need of fresh drinking water. These spot crises as well as many more will become aggravated due to the worsening climate change phenomenon. Rapid world urbanisation and bioenergy demands amongst other factors are a particular culprit that intensifies the lack of water resources. It is anticipated that the water shortage challenge will become unequivocally more pressing as the world's population steadily increases, along with its demand for agricultural production and food security amongst others. 

What can governments do to prevent water scarcity?

Introduce a better metric - to equalise tariffs across emerging and developed market;

Insurance against the risk of extreme events – e.g. drought and flooding;

Finance innovative solutions to the world water crisis;

Improve supply chains;

Develop better water distribution infrastructure;

Without a crucial element like water, all food production ceases, habitats degrade, and we suffer loss of important biodiversity. The persisting, current issue of water scarcity is at the very core of sustainable development: it is also one that we can tackle individually and daily – all is not lost! In order to protect water habitats, we must change our habits and preserve this precious resource.

What can I do during the water crisis?

At this point, you are probably wondering what actions you can take individually to save water. The most important principle is simple – always try to save water. This could mean limiting your personal use, clothes washing, or taking short showers instead of full baths. Furthermore, always try and educate others about water – if your friends are a bit of a layperson in the subject, convince them of its importance. Save water whenever and wherever possible. 

You can also check our dedicated blog post here.

Other great solutions to save water

Support water conservation projects and products by donations;

Recycle water;

Control own water consumption;

Limit your meat consumption;

Stay on top of your food waste;

Water scarcity education – for yourself and everyone around;

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How does Elliot for Water work?

Elliot for Water is the search engine that donates safe drinking water with every search. In fact, we use 60% of our profit to finance clean water projects in developing countries. Thanks to our users, we have already been able to realize a clean water project for a community in Guinea-Bissau.