Global Water

Cycle & Supplies

Matt Murphy
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.


In order to fully understand the impact of water privatization, it is imperative that we understand how rare it is to find clean, drinkable freshwater. This page aims to illustrate how little actual drinkable freshwater exists around the world, as well as to show water's importance to all cultures across the globe. By understanding the nature of the global water cycle, and its importance to all peoples, we can understand why water cannot be treated as a commodity, but only as a necessity for all life.

    The Water Cycle

    Source:Illustration by John M. Evans USGS, Colorado District (

    The water cycle is the process by which our freshwater is produced. It breaks down into several different stages. According to the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinios at Urbana-Champaign,"The hydrologic cycle begins with the evaporation of water from the surface of the ocean. As moist air is lifted, it cools and water vapor condenses to form clouds. Moisture is transported around the globe until it returns to the surface as precipitation. Once the water reaches the ground, one of two processes may occur: 1) some of the water may evaporate back into the atmosphere, or 2) the water may penetrate the surface and become groundwater. Groundwater either seeps its way to into the oceans, rivers, and streams, or is released back into the atmosphere through transpiration. The balance of water that remains on the earth's surface is runoff, which empties into lakes, rivers and streams and is carried back to the oceans, where the cycle begins again."

    Source:Universty of Illinois WW2010 project. (


    Facts & Figures About the World's Freshwater

  • Water covers 75% of the Earth's surface. The total amount of water on Earth remains about the same from one year to the next, as it circulates between the oceans, land and atmosphere in a cycle of evaporation and precipitation. This hydrological cycle is fundamental to the functioning of the Earth as it recycles water, and has a role in modifying and regulating the Earth's climate.
  • Nearly 98% of the Earth's water is in the oceans. Freshwater makes up less than 3% of water on earth, and over two-thirds of this is tied up in polar ice caps and glaciers. Freshwater lakes and rivers make up only 0.009% of water on Earth and groundwater makes up 0.28%.
  • Water is essential for all life forms. For example, it makes up 60 to 70% by weight of all living organisms and is essential for photosynthesis. The viability of all life on Earth is determined chiefly by the presence of water, which is not evenly distributed on the planet. If it were, it would cover the entire surface to a depth of 3 km (nearly five miles).
  • Source:BBC Science & Nature Homepage. (

    It seems that the most relative fact is that while three-quarters of the Earth's surface is covered with water, less than one percent (0.37% to be exact) of that water is drinkable. Furthermore groundwater, where we place pumps for wells, only accounts for 0.28% of freshwater across the globe.

    Cultural & Religious Significance of Water

    We cannot however, simply define water as a commodity to be assessed a value and sold. Water is a basic human right and something of significance to all cultures across the globe. It is considered sacred as the source of life, and as a purifying agent, in many religions. Every religion has some sort of belief or practice involving water, giving it an honored, or even sacred position in many rituals. Water is central to the religious practice of all indigenous peoples as well as to the beliefs of the major world religions.

    Buddhism- Buddhist monks pour water into a bowl and place it before a dead body and other monks in attendance at a funeral.

    Christianity- Water is used in baptism rites, a public declaration and acceptance of faith; an individual may be either sprinkled with water or fully immersed, or anywhere in between. Water represents purification and rejection of Sin. In the New Testament the "living water" or "water of life" represents the spirit of God, and eternal life.

    Hinduism- Water represents spiritual purification to Hindus, for whom bathing is a morning ritual. Oftentimes there are pilgrimages to one of the seven sacred rivers of India: the Ganges, Godavari, Kaveri, Narmada, Sarasvati, Sindhu and Yamuna. Water is also used in funeral rites.


    Islam- For Muslims, water serves as the key means of purification, or cleansing the soul. There are three sorts of ablutions: The first and most important involves washing the whole body; it is obligatory after sex, and recommended before the Friday prayers and before touching the Koran. Secondly, before each of the five daily prayers Muslims must bathe their head, wash their hands, forearms and feet. All mosques provide a water source, usually a fountain, for this ablution. When water is scarce, followers of Islam use sand to cleanse themselves; this is the third form of ablution.

    Judaism- Jews use water for ritual cleansing, to restore or maintain a state of purity. Hand-washing before and after meals is obligatory. Although ritual baths, or mikveh, were once extremely important in Jewish communities, they are less so now; they remain, however, compulsory for converts. Men attend mikveh on Fridays and before large celebrations, women before their wedding, after giving birth and after menstruation. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells the story of Creation and of the Great Flood. To punish humans for their disobedience, God sent a torrential rain down upon the Earth, for forty days and forty nights. Safe on an ark, Noah, his family, and two of each species of animal alone were spared. The flood washed away the sins of the world so that it could be reborn, free from impurity.
    Source:International Year of Freshwater 2003



International Year of Water:

United States Geological Survey:

BBC Science & Nature Homepage: (

Universty of Illinois WW2010 project:

CBS News: