Is the world running out of water?

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Sam James - Marie waters her garden at home in Ambatoantrano, Madagascar, using water from a gravity fed system.

Vincent Casey, Senior WASH Advisor at WaterAid UK, addresses a question commonly asked about the cause of the water crisis.

The question of whether the world is running out of water is frequently asked in news headlines. There is an adage in journalism which states that ‘any headline ending in a question mark can be answered with the word “no”’. It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British journalist. So…is the world really running out of water?

No, it is not.

Water is a renewable resource that moves within the hydrological cycle. It does not – and will not – run out. The problem is that we live within a hydro-illogical cycle whereby the decisions required to avert drought, misery, disease and hardship are seldom taken until it is too late.

There is certainly a severe water crisis, which is often characterised as a problem of insufficient quantities of water. However, a water scarcity narrative that presents the problem solely as one of water running out is not helpful to finding appropriate solutions.

Some places are short of water…

Many situations do exist in which consumptive water use, particularly connected to intensive agriculture, results in water shortages, and there are many cities that must tap into additional water sources if they are to adequately supply their growing populations. As demand rises and different water use sectors converge, the WASH sector itself needs to pay greater attention than it currently does to quantities of water available.

…but that’s far from the whole story

There are, however, aspects of the water problem, other than the quantity available, that are well known but overlooked in popular narratives.

The water crisis manifests in different ways depending on who you are, where you are and what you need water for. In countries with relatively high rainfall such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and eastern parts of Nicaragua, poor and marginalised people experience water insecurity not always because there are insufficient water resources available but because they do not have access to the services required to capture, store, treat or adequately deliver clean water to their homes. Services they do have, such as dug wells, may only provide seasonal supplies. A lack of storage and demand management during dry periods can lead to shortages.

The situation is similar in many remote rural parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where there may be sufficient supplies of groundwater but there has been insufficient investment in service delivery and service management to ensure people can access this water on an ongoing basis. Poor construction quality and inadequate attention to ongoing service management arrangements also stifle water access.

Poor water quality, another aspect of the water crisis, is a ubiquitous and immediate hazard affecting people considered to have sufficient water resources and basic water supply services as well as people who do not. Extreme weather events and flooding make bad water safety situations worse.

The service quality problem

One aspect of the water crisis that presents itself as a colossal challenge to the WASH sector is service quality. There are still hundreds of millions of poor and marginalised people who lack any kind of basic water supply service, but there are also hundreds of millions of people who are considered to have a basic water supply yet suffer from a terrible service.

Data collected on the level of service provided by hand pumps installed on boreholes as part of the UPGRO Hidden Crisis research programme show regular service interruptions, long periods of service downtime, poor water quality and low water availability. These service-level challenges are not confined to hand pump-based supplies. It is well known that many piped water supply schemes also deliver a low-quality service.

Poor service levels don’t always have their origins in the absolute volume of water resources available, but rather in weak governance arrangements, corruption, low institutional capacity to deliver and manage services, poor-quality implementation, a lack of formal mechanisms for users to voice complaints and selection of inappropriate service options.

Is there a technical solution to the water crisis?

Media articles frequently present new innovations such as water filters, fog harvesters and mobile phone apps as the solution to the global water crisis. Again, Betteridge’s law of headlines applies.

The water crisis is not solely a technical problem, so a technical solution alone will not solve it. Technical solutions for the purification and delivery of water have been around for thousands of years – the first documented use of water treatment was in the era of Pericles in the 4th century BC. Prior to that the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians developed systems for delivery of water.

Modern water technologies, such as large-scale coastal desalination, offer governments the opportunity to bring new water into the equation; this is particularly attractive when wanting to avoid making awkward political decisions about demand management or reallocation of water to different sectors.

Any good technology requires good management, and this in turn requires a political, legislative and financial enabling environment, coupled with a lack of corruption. This environment does not exist in many locations suffering from water stress, plus the cost of conveying large quantities of desalinated water to distant inland locations is prohibitive.

Different solutions for different places

The response to the water crisis must therefore differ from place to place, and be based on a sound analysis of the context. Ultimately the solution will involve a combination of policy, legislative, institutional, financial and technical changes, coupled with changes to user behaviour.

The area requiring the greatest innovation is management arrangements, rather than technology. These must be formulated and implemented by people with the mandate to ensure users receive adequate services. Often this is governments, but it can also be the local private sector, civil society and service users themselves.

The WASH sector must do more to resolve the challenge of poor service levels. WaterAid works with and through international, national and local organisations to push for improvements to water and sanitation services for poor and marginalised people. This often means working with national and local governments, the local private sector, civil society and service users to identify appropriate service options and management arrangements, coupled with the policy and legislative changes required to sustain them.

Examples of our work on this issue can be found at:

Sustainability case study Ethiopia >

Sustainability case study Timor Leste >

Sustainability case study Nicaragua >

Sustainability case study Malawi >