Costs /Effects

Lake and water supply. Image by Information for Action, a website for conservation and environmental issues offering solutions

Many fortunate people in Western countries take clean water for granted. When they want it, they simply turn on a tap. Yet for over 1 billion people, water rules their daily lives. Hours of grinding labour is spent acquiring it, and it is often so polluted that it has to be boiled or chemically treated.

Hydrologists define water-scarce countries as having less than 1,000 cubic meters of renewable water per person per year, and water-stressed countries as having 1,000-1,700 cubic meters per person per year.

Over 1 billion people lack access to safe water, over five hundred million people experience ongoing or intermittent water shortages and over 2 billion people lack access to basic sanitation (UN world commission on water for the 21st century). As the planet's population surges and demand for water increases, the situation is likely to worsen. By 2025 water problems are expected to affect 3 billion people.

According to the African Development Bank, almost two out of three Africans living in rural areas lack an adequate water supply, and almost three-quarters have insufficient sanitation.


As water levels diminish, this places greater stress on food supplies. Useful farmland becomes unproductive when there is not enough water to irrigate crops. When a country is water scarce, it is compelled to import water. This is an expensive option for most developing countries, and it is the poor who suffer most. More food must be imported into water scarce countries as their water sources dry up. Over one quarter of world grain imports go to water scarce countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Lack of water may mean that thousands of people go hungry and malnourished due to crop failure. The ongoing shortage of fresh clean water results in an estimated 4 million deaths each year – mainly infants and children.

In many parts of the world, salinity threatens the quality of our water systems, and the decline in water quality adversely affects agriculture.

Political security, conflict and instability

Consequently, the increasing lack of water and ultimate decrease in food production may inevitably lead to armed conflicts in many nations that must share hydrological systems; the problem is as much political as it is technical. Water shortage leads to loss of livelihood, and to social and economic unrest.

Water shortages have resulted in political tensions between countries that share the same rivers. The Nile, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Danube, Tigris and Euphrates are shared. When a country diverts dams or develops a river, this lowers levels downstream.

Hydrological systems do not recognise international boundaries. Over thirty countries receive more than one third of their water from beyond their borders. Many countries are facing severe water shortages, and with populations expected to increase, the problem is expected to worsen. Due to several nations sharing the same water source, and with political tensions already strained, increased water shortages may ultimately lead to armed conflict.

Social unrest and political instability is to be expected when countries such as China, India, the US and Mexico run out of water and increase groundwater extraction and the building of dams. Self-interest in protecting their levels of water for food production will result in conflict.

Water-borne diseases

Many of the world’s rivers are heavily polluted. The small amount of water available to people – particularly in developing nations – may be so contaminated with pollutants that it is unusable. Polluted water cannot be used safely unless it is treated. Pollution makes water unavailable for human or animal consumption. Pollution is an important cause of water shortage.

Water-borne diseases are widespread in Africa and other developing countries. Almost half of the African population suffers from water-related diseases. People are infested with parasitic worms such as bilharzia and giardiasis, which drains their energy and in turn weakens them.

In India hundreds of millions of Hindus revere the River Ganges. They believe that bathing in the river purifies their souls. Unfortunately the river is dangerously polluted with sewage. The concentration of pollutants is many times the permissible level. Serious diseases occur and recurring problems of diarrhea among the worshipers is common.

An immediate solution would be to build gravity assisted pipelines to take the sewage from the nearby city Varanasi and from towns along the rivers route to a treatment centre, where micro-organisms can destroy any harmful bacteria and remove chemical pollutants.

Water gathered from unprotected sources contains harmful biological and chemical contaminants, and places users at risk. Frequently, water which is of a sufficiently high quality at the point of collection is contaminated before it is used, due to the fact that it has to be carried and stored before use, or because of unhygienic practices.

Water provision cannot be separated from sanitation and health. This is because one of the primary causes of contamination of water is the inadequate or improper disposal of human (and animal) excreta. This often leads to a cycle of infection (resulting primarily in diarrhoeal diseases) and contamination, which remains one of the leading causes of illness and death in the developing world.

Providing for daily water requirements is a burden on households with inadequate services in a number of ways, in addition to direct health threats. Often water has to be carried long distances to the house, which takes time and effort – a burden undertaken mainly by women and children. In urban and urban fringe areas, water is frequently only available from vendors at a price, which is usually several times more expensive than the water provided through formal services and is of poor quality.

Inadequate water supplies are both a cause and an effect of poverty. Invariably, those without adequate and affordable water supplies are the poorest in society. The effects of inadequate water supply – disease, time and energy expended in daily collection, high unit costs, etc. – exacerbate the poverty trap. Provision of basic daily water requirements is yet to be regarded by many countries as a human right.

Environmental / Species extinction

Human interference with natural water systems has resulted in the extinction and endangerment of thousands of animal and plant species. Human beings share water with millions of other species.

In many parts of the world, salinity threatens the quality of our water systems. Declining water quality adversely affects agriculture and the health of biodiversity. Rapidly falling water tables and water levels in reservoirs have resulted in an increase in the destruction of ecosystems, and loss of species.

Water belongs to the earth and all species. Water – like air– is necessary for all life. Without water, human beings and other living things would die and the earth's systems would shut down.

Any decisions about water usage should not be made without full consideration of impact to the ecosystem.

Go Back   Return to Water Supply Topic