Less than 1 percent of global water is available for human use; the rest is either ocean saltwater, water frozen in glaciers, or water that is too polluted or inaccessible. Water infrastructure ensures that water is available when needed for drinking, irrigation, recreation, or ecological purposes. Sometimes these processes break down due to economic, political or climate events. When this happens, water stress can cause significant disruption to the health and safety of many communities. Access to drinking water is a fundamental human right. Yet, around 700 million people worldwide suffer from water scarcity, a number that is predicted to rapidly increase in coming decades.
Climate change and a growing rise in the use of freshwater have caused water stress to have a massive impact throughout the world. Notable cities across the globe such as Rome, Lima, and Cape Town have had to ration water. The Middle East and North Africa is the most water stressed location on earth, but its effects have been felt in a wide variety of countries and climates. Observed effects of this stress include:
Water is an integral part of our climate and weather systems. When something goes wrong within the water cycle or water processing infrastructure that causes a disruption to water services, it can be hard to define exactly where the problem originates. Here are a few definitions to know about water-related vulnerabilities:
There are several numerical methods for general determinations of water scarcity. One of the most prominent is the “Falkenmark indicator”, or the “water stress index”. This indicator measures water stress by the total freshwater resources available for use to the population of a region on a yearly basis. An amount below 1,700 m3 per person per year indicates water stress. Amounts below 1,000 m3 to 500 m3 indicate extreme water scarcity.
Measuring the amount of water stress is important for understanding water risk in environments around the world. The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations have set benchmarks for global clean water and sanitation practices. Target 6.4 of the SDGs specifically addresses water scarcity because of the key role water resources hold for human health and safety.
However, accurately determining the level of water availability that the waterways, ecosystems, and human inhabitants of an area require is often more complicated and includes many different factors. Indicators that measure water stress must include measurements of both water use and overall water availability within a given area. Some of the following elements are significant to that calculation:
Climate change has aggravated water stress and may cause significant danger to global health and productivity, and will continue to do so as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change. Higher temperatures have caused more extreme and unpredictable weather on average. This has resulted in changes in precipitation patterns, such as the distribution of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows, and groundwater resources. The increased prevalence of drought has a high potential to disrupt water sources and strain water supply in communities across America.
Other climate change issues related to water have caused problems for our water infrastructure.
Increasingly frequent and severe flooding has contaminated water sources and destroyed sanitation facilities. Rising sea levels are also responsible for putting coastline water services in danger. In combination with other climate threats, water stress is even more likely to be responsible for decreased economic development, competition over resources, and the potential for forced migration and conflict.
The drastic effects of climate change on water scarcity have been accelerating legislative action to manage the effective supply and demand of water and increase efficiency. The many multinational and nonprofit organizations working on this issue also provide essential support for providing clean water and sanitation services globally.
Some countries have implemented innovative solutions for reducing water stress, especially when environmental conditions and available water supply is already limited in that area.
These are just a few examples of the many ways in which countries and nonprofits are using innovative technology and governance to reduce water stress around the world. Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, Australia, and the U.S. have the most renewable water resources in the world, yet every community will have different levels of water resources and will be affected by water stress differently.
Water stress can be very dangerous because it disrupts a vital part of our economy and ecosystem. When combined with drought and mismanagement and overuse of water reserves, our water system has been stressed in recent decades. With the help of innovative ideas to manage water extraction, a reevaluation of our everyday water use, and government and NGO programs, we can achieve water security even in some of the most drought-prone locations.