Since water covers a vast majority of the Earth, it could be hard to imagine how it could ever be in short supply. However, freshwater – the stuff we drink, bathe in, irrigate our farm fields with – is incredibly rare.
This is because about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and 3% of it is actually freshwater that is fit for human consumption. Around two-thirds of that is tucked in frozen glaciers and unavailable for our use.
Even though water is the basic necessity of life on Earth, it is one of the most misused natural resources. It is the central point of our lives, but unfortunately not our priority. As a result, water scarcity has become a pressing and important issue for much of the global population.
According to Wikipedia, “Water scarcity is the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet the demands of water usage within a region. It already affects every continent and around 2.8 billion people around the world at least one month out of every year. More than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water.”
Thus, water scarcity has become an alarming issue. At the current consumption rate, this situation will only get worse. In the near future, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. And ecosystems around the world will suffer even more.
Causes of Water Scarcity
One of the largest causes of water scarcity across the world is pollution. Pollution can come in many forms, and almost always makes water unfit for human consumption. Pollution can be anything from oil, to carcasses, to chemicals, and fecal matter.
A chemical or oil spill can permanently taint water bodies. Any industrial waste or fecal matter that is dumped into rivers or oceans without proper treatment pollutes the water. Pesticides and fertilizers used by farmers can also lead to water pollution if the chemicals seep into the groundwater or in underground aquifers.
Water pollution is a huge problem, especially when you’re looking at areas that don’t necessarily have a good sewage syste. Some effects are immediate, as when harmful bacteria from human waste contaminate water and make it unfit to drink or swim in. In other instances, such as toxic substances from industrial processes, it may take years to build up in the environment and food chain before their effects are fully recognized.
Climate change is another important cause of water scarcity. When our average air temperature becomes warmer, water from rivers and lakes evaporates faster, which contributes to the drying up of water bodies.
Therefore, people who rely on those water bodies for drinking water will significantly suffer from the consequences of global warming, affecting the local water supply.
Also, as we (humans) continue to pump more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, patterns of weather and water changes around the world.
As a result, droughts will become more common in some places, floods in others. Glaciers and snow packs will disappear in some areas, affecting the freshwater supplies to those downstream communities. These changes will combine to make less water available for agriculture, energy generation, cities and ecosystems around the world.
Agriculture is another significant reason for water shortages. It is not unknown that the production of food requires a lot of water. Agriculture consumes more water than any other source and wastes much of that through inefficiencies.
Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater, but about 60% of this is wasted due to leaky irrigation systems. The traditional method of irrigation wastes a lot of water through evaporation, water conveyance, drainage, percolation and the overuse of groundwater.
This wasteful use of water stresses the availability of water by drying out rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. Added to this is the fact that agriculture also generates considerable freshwater pollution, through fertilizers as well as pesticides, which affects both humans and other species.
With an ever-growing global population, the strain on the world’s water resources only keeps looming larger each day.
In the last 50 years, the human population has more than doubled. This rapid growth, with its accompanying economic development and industrialization, has transformed water ecosystems around the world and resulted in a massive loss of biodiversity.
The human population has successfully harnessed many of the world’s natural waterways – building dams, water wells, vast irrigation systems and other structures that have allowed civilizations to grow and thrive. Consequently, many of the water systems that keep ecosystems thriving and feed a growing human population have become stressed. Hence, concern about water availability grows as freshwater use continues at unsustainable levels.
Impacts of Water Scarcity
The obvious and biggest problem that results from water scarcity is that people are not able to get fresh, clean drinking water. The human body can hardly survive so long without water, and a lack of drinking water can result in a number of other problems, which are highlighted below.
Besides an obvious lack of drinking water, hunger is one of the biggest effects of water scarcity. Water shortages directly contribute to lower crop yields and the death of livestock, which can quickly lead to food shortages.
When water becomes scarce, natural landscapes often lose out. The Aral Sea in central Asia was once the world’s fourth largest freshwater lake. But in only three decades, the sea has lost an area the size of Lake Michigan. It is now as salty as an ocean due to the excessive pollution and the diversion of water for irrigation and power generation. As the sea has retracted, it has left polluted land. This ecological catastrophe has created food shortages and resulted in a rise in infant mortality and a decrease in life expectancy for the nearby population.
Water scarcity may also lead to migration waves. When large areas of land may no longer be suitable for living or farming because of water scarcity, millions of people may lose their livelihood due to that. These people may be forced to migrate to other places to survive.
Low Economic Productivity
Water scarcity slows the overall economic output. When access to clean water is not guaranteed, it is very difficult to have a prosperous and dynamic economy. The prevalence of water-borne diseases can severely affect the general health of the population. Unhygienic circumstances foster poor living and working environments, dragging down economic productivity.
Loss of Biodiversity
If regions suffer from severe water shortages, some animals may become extinct since they simply starve or die of thirst. Many plants may no longer be able to grow and reproduce in a sufficient manner causing serious biodiversity loss.
Destruction of Habitats
Water is crucial for all life forms on our planet. If water scarcity persists over a longer period, it may also lead to the destruction of whole habitats. Animals and plants may no longer be able to get enough water and may therefore die or migrate to other regions.
Unavailability of water takes a massive toll on global energy output. Many energy sources rely on large amounts of freshwater resources in order to properly function. With the global energy demand only increasing, the need for water keeps rising. Unless there is a greater shift towards alternative energy resources, water will continue to be in great demand.
From the foregoing, it can be stated that when water supplies are limited and poorly managed, both ecosystems and people suffer. Therefore, efficient and effective water management is necessary.