Lack of Freshwater Throughout the World
Samuel T. L. Larsen
Part of Water is Life, a class website on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.


Today, one of the largest concerns around the world iis the lack of freshwater for drinking and cooking. It is estimated that over one billion people, or about one-sixth of the world's population, does not have access to fresh water; of these one billion, the vast majority are living in developing nations. Although water is one of the most common resources on the planet, only 2.5% of it can actually be consumed, and the rest is salt water. Of that 2.5%, two-thirds is confined to glaciers and permanent snow cover. Only a fraction of the world's water is liquid freshwater, and it is increasingly the subject of conflict and strife as it becomes less available.


Figure 1.

    Population Growth

    The world's population is growing at a rate of 80 million people each year. This means that each year we need to find a way to add about 64 billion cubic meters of water to the global water supply. The two fastest-growing areas are Africa and the Middle East. The Sub-Saharan African population is growing at a rate of 2.6% people a year, and in the Middle East it is growing at a rate of 2.2%. Africa is already one of the driest continents in the world, and with this constant change its are facing water stress and water scarcity.

    A country is said to experience "water stress" when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person. At levels between 1,700 and 1,000 cubic meters per person, periodic or limited water shortages can be expected. When annual water supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per person, the country faces water scarcity.

    Figure 2.

    As of 1999, 31 countries, with a total of 500 million people, faced either water stress or water scarcity. Estimations in the recent five years have added six more countries and almost 100 million more people. (Irrigation Business and Technology)


    The global demand for fresh water has become much more of an issue than in past decades. The largest user of water in every country is agriculture. Trying to farm in hot, arid countries is difficult, if not impossible at times. Agriculture uses 70% of the world's supply, with industry coming in second with 22% of global use, and only 8% used for domestic household purposes.

    Agricultural users are getting better at limiting the amount of water they withdraw. New techniques such as drip irrigation, low pressure sprinklers, and even drip walls, can capture the water from rainfall before it drains away.

    Figure 3.


    Pollution is becoming a huge and worsening factor in destroying the fresh water supply. Every day almost two million tons of waste are dumped into lakes, rivers, and streams. At present there are about 12,000 square kilometers of polluted fresh water in the world, and if trends are not slowed or reversed, the total will reach 18,000 sq km by 2050, nearly nine times the total amount currently used for irrigation. The Age (Melbourne)

    Figure 4.

    Alarming Facts

  • The 250 million U.S. residents living today have access to about the same amount of water as U.S. residents did 200 years ago, when the population was four million. (National Drinking Water Alliance)
  • If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025. (United Nations Environment Program)
  • At least 1 billion people must walk three hours or more to obtain drinking water. Nearly 2% of U.S. homes have no running water. In Mexico, 15% of the population must haul or carry water. (National Geographic Society)
  • In a one-hundred-year period, an average water molecule spends 98 years in the ocean, 20 months as ice, only about two weeks in lakes and rivers, and less than a week in the atmosphere.
  • By 2050, per capita water supply is predicted to fall, leaving anywhere from 2 billion to 7 billion people with water scarcity (CBC News)


How to Help Protect Freshwater Through Household Conservation


Limit the time you spend watering the lawn, showering, running the garbage disposal, and running faucets.

Fix leaky faucets. One drip a second can waste 2,000 gallons a year.

Buy water-efficient plumbing fixtures. If all plumbing fixtures in the United States were replaced with water-conserving fixtures, we could save 3.4 to 8.4 billion gallons of water a day.

Use moderate amounts of low phosphate cleaners and detergents. Eliminate the use of drain cleaners. Use recycled products.


Wash your car on the lawn instead of the driveway. Water that lands on an impermeable surface, such as pavement, flows through the watershed to the nearest body of water and deposits its contaminants. Your lawn, on the other hand, can trap and break down most foreign agents.

Limit the use of lawn fertilizers, and be sure to use only phosphorus-free lawn fertilizers. Most lawns already have sufficient phosphorus, and when more is added it runs through the watershed and causes algae growth in surrounding lakes.


Realize that many human activities affect water quality. Wetlands, groundwater, and waterways are destroyed by construction, polluted runoff, and spills. Population growth only intensifies these impacts.

Become an educated consumer. Buy recycled, environmentally friendly products.

Learn to recognize and become knowledgeable about aquatic nuisance species. Exotic invaders (such as Eurasian water milfoil, zebra mussels, and thousands more) cause habitat destruction, decrease biological diversity, and cause millions of dollars of damage in the United States each year.


Rethink your daily habits and help reduce water pollution and water use. Bike, walk, or carpool to help reduce the production of toxic air pollutants that cause acid rain.

Turn down the water heater temperature and the home thermostat to reduce your energy usage and help curb pollutants that cause acid rain.

Finally, share your knowledge with others. Try to remember that our actions have a widespread impact on the lasting quality of freshwater resources. We can and must make a difference.

figures from: The Water Web site


The Freshwater Society

BBC News

CBC News

Solutions for a Water Short World

The Age

Common Dreams News center

For more information:

Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment

Water Scarcity and Poverty