Water is renewable, but it’s not an unlimited resource. Pollution, climate change, and unchecked collections all contribute to water shortages around the world. Water scarcity is a major human rights issue and unless trends are reversed, the situation will worsen. Here are 10 facts about water scarcity from a human rights perspective:
#1 Humans can only access a small percentage of the world’s water
Around 70% of the planet is covered in water, but humans can only drink 2.5% of it. Most of the world’s water is ocean water. According to National Geographic, 1% of the drinkable 2.5% is easy to access. The rest is in snowfields and glaciers.
#2 Over 2 billion people don’t have reliable water services
According to a 2019 report from the WHO and UNICEF, 2.2 billion people don’t have access to safely-managed drinking water services. 144 million drink untreated surface water, which makes them vulnerable to a variety of diseases. Poor, rural communities are most at risk. While nearly 2 billion people have gotten access to drinking water services since the turn of the century, inequality persists.
#3 A quarter of the world’s population deals with “extremely high” water stress
A country deals with water stress when there isn’t enough water to sustain everyone. According to studies, 17 countries (which are home to ¼ of the world’s population) are struggling with “extremely high” water stress. In these areas, irrigated agriculture, municipalities, and industries take more than 80% of the available supply each year.
#4 The world is running out of water
Because of climate change and pollution, the world’s supply of drinkable water is quickly running out. The agricultural industry uses most of the world’s water and wastes huge amounts of it. More than 5 billion people will face water shortages by 2050 if things don’t change.
#5 A lack of clean water kills millions of children
Waterborne illnesses are a serious problem all over the world. According to UNICEF, a lack of clean water access leads to the deaths of 1.6 million kids each year. Most of these children live in developing countries and are younger than five years old. The health consequences of contaminated water include stomach problems, diarrhea, dehydration, and death. Adults suffer the effects of unclean water, as well. When the Vibrio cholerae bacterium contaminates water, people who drink it get cholera. Cholera kills between 21,000-143,000 people every year.
#6 Many people travel long distances for their water
In Asia and Africa, women must walk an average of 6 kilometers/3.7 miles for their water. Because of these long journeys, water consumption is much lower compared to areas where water access is convenient. Within the populations living more than 1 kilometer from a water source, over 880 million people in the world use less than 5 liters a day. According to the UN, most people living in Europe use between 200-300 liters a day.
#7 Millions of Americans don’t have good water systems
Clean water scarcity is not limited to developing countries. In the United States, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where their water systems don’t follow basic safety rules. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s drinking-water infrastructure a “D” rating. The group estimated that the US needs to spend $1 trillion over the next 25 years for upgrades.
#8 Water privatization raises prices
In many places, the water system is privatized. According to Food and Water Watch, these types of utilities charge 59% more than local government utilities. After looking at the water rates of 500 of the largest community water systems in the US, Food and Water Watch found that private companies charged $185 more than what local governments charge for the same amount. Over time, privatized utilities also increase water rates at around three times the rate of inflation. Both governments and low-income households face increased costs without better quality or access.
#9 Bottled water is a billion-dollar industry
Companies like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Nestle Waters reap huge profits from bottled water. They charge thousands of times more than public water systems do for the same amount. Where is the bottled water coming from? Companies take huge amounts from springs and aquifers, disrespecting the water rights of local communities. They also repackage tap water and sell it back to society. According to Food and Water Watch, 64% of bottled water is just tap water sold for 2,000 times the price. In 2018, the United States bottled-water industry brought in over $18 billion.
#10 The UN acknowledges that water is a human right
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly formally recognized that access to water and sanitation is a human right. In their resolution, the UN stated that everyone must have between 50-100 liters per day; the water must be safe; and the water must not cost more than 3% of the household income. Drinkable water must also be within 1,000 meters of the home and no further than 30 minutes away. Much progress is needed to make these principles a reality for all.