70% of the planet is covered in water, a key resource for almost every aspect of life and a major factor in health, peace, and security across the world. SDG 6 looks to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ by 2030; a quite ambitious task considering that 2.3 billion people – or one-quarter of the world’s population – live in water-stressed countries. Physical water scarcity refers to the lack of sufficient water in an area, whereas economic water scarcity occurs when people cannot afford access to water. The consequences are disproportionately felt by the poorest and most vulnerable. Although there is no international mandate, governments around the world have implemented policies and strategies to help tackle the issue. In this article, we explore some of the most common solutions to water scarcity.

What Are the Causes of Water Scarcity?

Only 3% of the world’s freshwater is accessible, with the rest frozen in glaciers or otherwise unavailable to us. Pressure from water scarcity is distributed as unequally as water distribution. One-third of those living in water-stressed countries are under critical threat – that’s nearly ten percent of the global population.

Contamination is responsible for the death of millions of people every year. Water laden with sewage and waste from agriculture and industry flows through most rivers and streams without treatment, allowing pesticides and toxic chemicals to leach into the groundwater and freshwater systems, critically lowering the availability of water resources.

Population growth and urbanisation drive an increase in demand for freshwater. Several countries around the world, from China and South Africa to some European nations and several US states have experienced water crises and droughts in recent years. 

Climate change expresses itself through water. In altering the global temperature and precipitation patterns, global warming vastly impacts the quality and spatial distribution of global resources. Drought and wildfires occur more frequently thanks to faster water evaporation from the soil and increasingly arid conditions. Of course, climate change also contributes to rising sea levels and mass flooding.  

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What Are the Consequences of Water Scarcity?

The effects of water scarcity are glaring but are not confined to the obvious health, poverty, and disease-causing issues. According to water.org, nearly one million people die every year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases, all of which could be reduced by securing access to safe water and sanitation.

Water is a lifeline, not only for human survival but also for food production. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally and this is only expected to grow as the world population continues to grow.   

It is estimated that over 140 million people will be forced to migrate within their countries by 2050 due to climate change. It is estimated that around 500 million women do not have access to menstrual products or safe, hygienic spaces to use them, and 446,000 children under 5 die due to diarrhoea which is linked to inadequate WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) – equating to 9% of the 5.8 million deaths of children globally.

Inequality in access to water can also be a catalyst to conflict. In 2013, 27 conflicts around the world were related to water, rising to 71 in 2017. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated water-related tensions by targeting civilian infrastructure. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that 1.4 million Ukrainians now have no access to safe water, with a further 4.6 million experiencing limited access. 

In Egypt, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could reduce the water flowing downstream. Ethiopia is keen to fill it in just six years, causing Egypt to lose 36% of its water supply.  

“Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil but wars of the 21st century will be about water unless we change the way in which we manage it,” said Ismail Serageldin, the former vice president of the World Bank.

Nine out of ten natural disasters, like storms, floods, droughts, etc., are water-related. Wetlands are an integral part of biodiversity, supporting living things, the cultivation of rice, and water filtration, alongside flood control and storm protection. More than half the world’s wetlands have dried up.

Water Scarcity Around the World

1. Niger

Niger is a region experiencing continual water scarcity thanks to drought and degraded soils. In 2017, only 50% of the Nigerian population had proper access to drinking water. A large proportion of forested areas has been lost to demand for firewood and wood products by a quick-growing population that led to rapid deforestation, exacerbating water scarcity. The World Bank is investing in helping Niger harness its scarce water resources via The Integrated Water Security Platform, which aims to use disruptive technologies to promote proper management of Niger’s water, improve water supply, sanitation, and irrigation service delivery, and increase long-term sustainability. It is projected that 3 million people will benefit from this project. 

Further attempts by the government to replace fallen trees have been thwarted by ill-defined rights, but they have since managed to implement agroforestry. Following the reintroduction of trees, access to water in the country is finally improving. 

2. Chile

Chile is projected to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the face of worsening global warming. Each year for more than a decade, rainfall has been below average in the central areas of the country. Record high temperatures and more frequent heatwaves have further exacerbated the situation, leading to what experts refer to as a megadrought. But the water crisis in Chile is nothing new. In fact, it began over a decade ago and scientists attribute around 25% of its severity to human-induced climate change.

Former Chilean Agricultural Minister Maria Undurraga, said that the drought is “no longer an emergency [but] it turned into structural change.” 

The key to solving the Chilean water struggles lies in better governance, committing to net-zero infrastructure, and implementing a new constitution. However, following the 2022 referendum to determine public opinion on a New Political Constitution and its subsequent overwhelming rejection, the government’s ability to implement significant change has been challenging.

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3. Kenya

The Water Project in Kenya is funding pioneering sand dam construction to help unlock potential through sustainable and community-constructed solutions. Only requiring a seasonal river, the approach has seen 130 sand dams built across the country.

Aquifers provide water and time for productive farming and allow for progression in techniques such as inter-cropping, zero-grazing, and seed banks, securing food supply even in drought. They provide a lifeline for people with clean and reliable water within 30-90 minutes of people’s homes.

4. South Africa

South Africa’s population has increased exponentially in recent years, but the infrastructure is vastly underprepared. Since the 2018 water shortage in Cape Town, official mandates regarding significant reductions in water usage have proved ineffective and have led to overcrowded communal taps, dangerous bore-holing, and the dangerous acceptance of contaminated groundwater sources to combat the drought.

The government sanctioned the drilling of boreholes near hospitals and schools for access to water underground but this is considered by many just a short-term solution. Saline water intrusions will render the water undrinkable in as little as six months, according to professor Phumelele Gama of Nelson Mandela University, so a different approach is required to solve South Africa’s water crisis. 

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5. Europe

A number of European nations are dealing with water scarcity. 

Last year, the longest river in Italy, the River Po, almost entirely dried out. The river stretches 405 miles (652 km), meandering through some of the country’s major cities, and has suffered massively at the hands of soaring temperatures and lack of precipitation. The direct impact on crops and feed production for livestock has resulted in major crop loss. Besides agriculture, the drought also critically affected hydropower energy generation.

Similarly, River Rhine, Germany’s main economic artery and Europe’s most important river, dried out completely in some areas amid last year’s drought, which experts dubbed the worst the continent has experienced in 500 years. With water levels dropping to a critical depth of 40 centimetres (just under 16 inches) or even below, most large ships transporting goods, including coal to diesel, were effectively unable to transit for days, with major repercussion on trade across the entire continent. 

Elsewhere in Europe, Barcelona was forced to import water supply from France after experiencing water shortages in its reservoirs over the arid summer of 2008, while demand for water in London is predicted to exceed what can be supplied within the next decade. 

water scarcity; water shortage; river dried up

2.3 billion people – or one-quarter of the world’s population – live in water-stressed countries.

Short-Term Solutions to Water Scarcity

Although water scarcity must be viewed as an ongoing problem, there are a few short term approaches that can help relieve pressure.

Concern USA, a global humanitarian organisation, highlights the efficacy of water trucking. By providing water to refugee areas during infrastructure improvement, drought or displacement, individuals can have access to clean water, while installing pumps in refugee camps can also help.

Water traded as a commodity is a moral conundrum: it puts basic human rights in the hands of financial institutions. But there is evidence to suggest that a water market, which allows resources to be allocated in accordance with the highest need, is beneficial. Underlying economic incentive renders the market effective as it promotes conservation and discourages overuse of water for monetary reward. Nations where water trading is utilised include the UK, Chile, and the US.

While short-term solutions are vital in ensuring the health and wellbeing of people dramatically affected by water scarcity, long-term approaches must be at the forefront of the international and local agendas.  

Long-Term Solutions to Water Scarcity

1. Infrastructure

Lacking infrastructure has devastating effects on human health and the economy, and fragile pipework and lack of supply to major regions not only waste resources but also impact everyone’s quality of life.

For this reason, smart investments in clean water and sanitation prevent needless deaths and transform lives. According to the United Nations, 100-200bn cubic metres of water could be saved globally by 2030 in urban areas simply by reducing leaks. 

It is up to cities to ensure the infrastructure is in place to deal with water scarcity in the face of warming global temperatures. A good example of an infrastructure-based solution to water scarcity is the smart-water management system utilised in South Korea, an innovative system that helps improve the reliability, soundness and efficiency of water management.

In China, the ‘sponge city’ initiative seeks to reuse 70% of rainwater and introduce wetlands by using the landscape to retain water, slow down the flow and clean it. In encouraging the reabsorption of water back into the groundwater system, China is taking steps to tackle water scarcity and prevent flooding.

Aqueducts move water to areas where it is required the most. However, they are not always efficient in tackling water shortages. The Owens Lake and Mono Lake in California, for example, started to disappear after the water supply was diverted to the Los Angeles aqueduct, aggravating drought conditions. Aqueducts therefore may not be the best solution to water scarcity. 

2. Irrigation and Agriculture 

According to a World Economic Forum report, sustainable and efficient agricultural management techniques “are needed to grow more food on less land and with less water.”

Reservoirs have their advantages. They collect water during wetter times and store it to use during the dry season. They are also used to generate electricity and can be a crucial instrument in the prevention of floods. While effective in helping water-stress nations, reservoirs are also sometimes associated with downstream river erosion and can have a detrimental impact on ecosystems as well, changing a river to a lake habitat and interfering with migration and spawning of fish.

Desalination removes dissolved salt and minerals from plentiful seawater, freeing up water for consumption. However, these processes are expensive and require large amounts of energy to perform. Saudi Arabia is utilising solar-powered plants for desalination, while the UK is opting for small-scale facilities for agriculture.

Individual households can also consider reusing water by rerouting sink water to flush the toilet. On a larger scale, sewage wastewater can be purified and turned into drinking water, or used for agriculture, municipal water supply, industrial processes, and environmental restoration.

3. Conservation

We waste an incomprehensible amount of water each year, mostly indirectly through agricultural processes, the automotive industry, and mining. According to the World Water Council, water usage via irrigation and agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals, while industry accounts for 20%.

A UK statement to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stressed the importance of “sustainable management of natural resources to mitigate impacts of climate and biodiversity crises”, including water. By eliminating pollution and continuing to measure and manage pollution and water quality, we can work toward human health and biodiversity protection.

4. Community

Building communities around local water systems and resources can help raise awareness and educate people on consumption and a sustainable lifestyle. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) supports organisations to become responsible water stewards at both the global and local levels, including the Alliance for Water Stewardship, a globally accepted framework for major water users which promotes the sustainable use of water and other local projects. The Alliance offers solutions for reducing the impact of water scarcity by tracking and controlling water use.

Educating people on changing or improving their behaviour for the better could hold the key to greatly reducing water crises in the future. This, however, will require a major overhaul of all forms of consumption including individual use and supply chains of major corporations.

5. International Cooperation

Transboundary cooperation is needed to guarantee equal access to this vital resource worldwide and for economic well-being. Binding international frameworks for natural resources is hard to achieve, as evidenced by the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which attempted to solidify emission pledges from all major economies. Unfortunately, it resulted in no clear path toward a treaty with binding commitments.

Transboundary agreements are equally hard to manage but international bodies must keep trying. Securing quality drinking water at the local level is essential to building international bridges and finding long-term solutions.

Policy Suggestions

The need for effective policy founded in evidence-based decisions means recognising water value in different societies and implementing integrated approaches to water resource management.

Political commitment and leadership, technological innovations as well as breakthroughs in service delivery and financing models are all needed to support governments in delivering on their commitment to SDG 6.2. Building strong institutions and facilitating dialogue and information systems that can support resource management will allow cooperative agreements to be reached. 

In the European Union, for example, the Water Framework Directive (2000) provides guidelines to address water scarcity and drought, while water scarcity and droughts are recognised as a priority in the 2021 European Green Deal and are reflected in strategies such as the Adaptation to Climate Change, the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan and the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030

Legislation must be rolled out on an international scale to ensure the taming of water crises across the world.

Final Thoughts

The success of the rest of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lies on the shoulders of a functioning water cycle, as water, as the UN states, drives “economic growth, supports healthy ecosystems and is essential and fundamental for life itself.”

Despite the success of some nations in combating complications related to water scarcity, the world still has a long way to go to secure safe and accessible water for everyone. Not only does infrastructure need to be improved to cope with water scarcity, but human approaches to water must undergo a dramatic shift. Innovation and technology require economic capital in order to fully invest in these procedures – unfortunately a luxury only the developed world has access to. Policy and legislation must also be upheld.

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