Water Stress: A Global Problem That’s Getting Worse

Water Scarcity and Water Stress

Water stress or scarcity occurs when demand for safe, usable water in a given area exceeds the supply. Water stress can cause wide-reaching damage to public health, to economic development, and to global trade. It can also drive mass migrations and spark conflict. Today, billions of people face some form of water stress.

Water scarcity is often divided into two categories: physical scarcity, when there is a shortage of water because of local ecological conditions; and economic scarcity, when there is inadequate water infrastructure.

Experts say that even when there are significant natural causes for a region’s water stress, human factors are often central to the problem, particularly regarding access to clean water and safe sanitation.

Even high-income countries experience water stress. The U.S. water systems face outdated infrastructure and rapid population growth, causing crises in cities such as Newark, New Jersey.

Even if a water-stressed community has access to potable water, people may need to travel great distances or wait in long lines to get it—time that could otherwise be spent at work or at school.

Water scarcity also makes agriculture much more difficult, threatening a community’s access to food.

Cooperation on Water Management

Countries often cooperate on water management. Still, there are places where transboundary waters cause conflict. For example, the White and Blue Nile Rivers flow through multiple countries in eastern Africa. Egypt claims the rights to most of the Nile’s water, but other states dispute this claim. Ethiopia began construction of a massive hydroelectric dam that Egypt says drastically cuts its share of water.

The United Nations warns of the increasing vulnerability of conventional water infrastructure. It suggests climate-focused alternatives, such as coastal reservoirs and solar-powered water systems.

Governments and partner organizations have made progress in increasing access to water services: Between 2000 and 2017, the number of people using safely managed drinking water and safely managed sanitation services rose over 10 percent.

Climate Change and Water Stress

Climate change will likely worsen water stress worldwide. Rising temperatures will likely lead to more extreme weather events, including floods and droughts.

Agriculture could suffer as rainfall becomes more unpredictable and rising temperatures accelerate the evaporation of water from soil. A changing climate is also expected to bring more floods, which can wipe out crops. Rainfall runoff can sweep up sediment that can clog treatment facilities and contaminate other water sources.

Water stress can affect global flows of goods and people. Climate stress is also pushing some people to migrate across borders. The United Nations predicts that water scarcity in arid and semi-arid regions will displace hundreds of millions of people by 2030.

Source: Water Stress: A Global Problem That’s Getting Worse
Council on Foreign Relations. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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