Are we running out of water? (2022)

Water seems the most renewable of all the Earth’s resources. It falls from the sky as rain, it surrounds us in the oceans that cover nearly three-quarters of the planet’s surface, and in the polar ice caps and mountain glaciers. It is the source of life on Earth and quite possibly beyond – the discovery of traces of water on Mars aroused excitement because it was the first indication that life may have existed there.

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The problem is that most of the Earth’s water resources are as inaccessible as if they were on Mars, and those that are accessible are unevenly distributed across the planet. Water is hard to transport over long distances, and our needs are growing, both for food and industry. Everything we do requires water, for drinking, washing, growing food, and for industry, construction and manufacturing. With more than 7.5 billion people on the planet, and the population projected to top 10 billion by 2050, the situation is set to grow more urgent.

Currently, 844 million people – about one in nine of the planet’s population – lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes, and every year nearly 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. Providing water to those who need it is not only vital to human safety and security, but has huge social and economic benefits too. Children lose out on education and adults on work when they are sick from easily preventable diseases. Girls in developing countries are worst off, as they frequently stop going to school at puberty because of a lack of sanitation, and girls and women travelling miles to fetch water or forced to defecate in the open are vulnerable to violence. Providing affordable water saves lives and reduces the burden on healthcare, as well as freeing up economic resources. Every £1 invested in clean water yields at least £4 in economic returns, according to the charity WaterAid.

It would cost just over £21bn a year to 2030, or 0.1% of global GDP, to provide water and hygiene to all those who need it, but the World Bank estimates that the economic benefits would be $60bn a year.

Is climate change making things worse?

Climate change is bringing droughts and heatwaves across the globe, as well as floods and sea level rises. Pollution is growing, both of freshwater supplies and underground aquifers. The depletion of those aquifers can also make the remaining water more saline. Fertilisers leaching nitrates into the supplies can also make water unsuitable for drinking or irrigation.

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Are we running out of water? (1)

Cape Town in South Africa provided a stark example of what can happen when water supplies come under threat. For years the city was using more water than it could sustainably supply, and attempts to curb wastage and distribute water supplies more equitably to rich and poor had fallen short of what was needed. By late last year, a crisis point had been reached. The city’s government warned of an imminent day zero, when the water supply would simply run out. Taps would run dry. There would be no more water.

In the event, day zero was narrowly averted, in part by public exhortations to use water more efficiently, rationing, changes in practices such as irrigating by night and reusing “grey” water from washing machines or showers, and eventually a new desalination plant.

Who is most at risk?

The poor are worst hit. Jonathan Farr, senior policy analyst at WaterAid, says: “Competing demands for water means that those who are poorer or marginalised find it more difficult to get water than the rich and powerful.” Many governments and privatised water companies concentrate their provision on wealthy districts, and prioritise agriculture and industry over poorer people, while turning a blind eye to polluters and those who over-extract water from underground sources. Sharing access to water equitably requires good governance, tight regulation, investment and enforcement, all qualities in short supply in some of the world’s poorest and most water-scarce areas.

The number of water-scarce areas is increasing: Cape Town is just the beginning. A ground-breaking new study based on data from the Nasa Grace – Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment – satellites over a 14-year period discovered 19 hotspots around the world where water resources are being rapidly depleted, with potentially disastrous results. They include areas of California, north-western China, northern and eastern India, and the Middle East. Overall, as climate change scientists had predicted, areas of the world already prone to drought were found to be getting drier, and areas that were already wet getting wetter.

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The authors were uncompromising: the results showed that “water is the key environmental issue of the century,” they said.

Who controls water?

There is no global governance system for water. Water is managed at a local level, and often poorly managed. The technology needed to help us use water efficiently and equitably exists, but often is not implemented. “In many instances, proper management of known technology [such as pumps, rainwater collectors, storage cisterns and latrines] rather than new technological solutions is sufficient to ensure users receive adequate services,” says Farr. “We have been solving the problem of getting access to water resources since civilisation began. We know how to do it. We just need to manage it.”

For instance, he notes, in many remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa, “there may be sufficient supplies of groundwater but there has not been enough investment in service delivery and service management to ensure that people can access this water”.

Water stats

How can freshwater resources be better managed?

Some of the most effective ways of managing water resources are also the simplest. Plugging leaks in pipes is a good example – ageing or poorly maintained infrastructure wastes vast quantities of water. A dripping tap can leak 300 litres a year. In the UK, the Environment Agency has warned of water shortages across the south-east of the country within a few years, if the 3bn litres a day wasted through leaks – enough for the needs of 20 million people – continues.

Water meters for domestic users in developed countries have been controversial, because they can penalise large families which have greater needs. But they provide a readily recognisable gauge to give households more information on their usage, and encourage them not to waste water, particularly as there are readily available technical fixes, from short flush toilets to spray taps and shower heads.

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Irrigation has enabled farmers even in arid regions to grow a wider variety of crops. Some methods of irrigation are highly inefficient – in hot countries, water sprayed on crops evaporates before it can reach the roots. An alternative is drip irrigation, a system of pipes that delivers water directly to the roots of each plant, but this is also prone to wastage.

Traditional methods can also be usefully restored in many regions, adds Marc Stutter, of the James Hutton Institute. He notes that in Rajasthan, in India, restoring traditional small dams called johads enabled the periodic rains to be held before they dissipated across the land. The johads led to “the miraculous revitalisation to a green landscape and the surface water returning”.

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Advances in sensor technology offer a new way forward. Field sensors, available for as little as $2 a year, can monitor the moisture content in soil, letting farmers know whether irrigation is needed and allowing them to calibrate the irrigation more finely than has previously been possible.

Science is also being brought to bear on the crops themselves. Plant biologists are breeding varieties less prone to drought, through natural selection, and in some cases using genetic modification.

But science and technology can only go so far. As with most water issues, the biggest problem is still governance and equity. Farmers will grow what they can to turn a profit, and many have little alternative than to use scarce groundwater resources. Without strong governance, this can lead to disaster as the depletion has a widespread effect on the whole local community.

What about floods?

Climate change will not only mean more droughts, but also more frequent floods. These can be devastating to agriculture and cities, especially coastal cities already under threat from rising sea levels and stronger storm surges.

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The World Bank estimates that the damage to cities from flooding will top $1tn by 2050 if strong action is not taken to equip cities to cope with the consequences.

Making the world more resilient to flooding involves more than just building walls and barriers such as London’s Thames Barrier, though these are still used. Increasingly, planners are finding ways to “make space for water”, and return to natural protections.

For instance, in tropical areas more than a fifth of the mangrove swamps that used to cling to the coastline have been destroyed, cut down to make way for agriculture and aquaculture. Restoring mangroves yields many benefits: they protect inland areas from sea level rises and storm flooding, and provide nurseries for fish, increasing fishing yields. Mangrove restoration projects are now operating in countries from Bangladesh and Indonesia, to Cote d’Ivoire and Suriname.

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Flood plains and water meadows also provide natural water storage, with land that acts like a sponge to soak up water, releasing it gradually over time. This can prove unpopular with farmers who want to grow crops on such land, but payments from the public purse can offset the cost to them. In the UK, for instance, projects are under way from Historic England and the National Trust.

Floating houses are another idea that is taking off, from the Netherlands to south-east Asia. The houses are built on floating platforms instead of foundations, but anchored to the sea or river bed, and a wide variety of modern designs are now available. Projects are already under way as far afield as Lagos and London’s Docklands.

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What next?

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Sustainable development goal six from the UN concerns water, stating that safe water and sanitation should be provided to all by 2030. But WaterAid’s Farr notes that at current rates, some countries will miss the deadline by centuries. World governments will meet at the UN this summer to discuss the progress.

According to James Famiglietti, co-author of the Nasa Grace study, some of the areas most vulnerable are “already past sustainability tipping points” as their major aquifers are being rapidly depleted, in particular the Arabian peninsula, the north China plain, the Ogallala aquifer under the great plains of the US, the Guarani aquifer in south America, the north-west Sahara aquifer system and others. “When those aquifers can no longer supply water – and some, like the southern half of the Ogallala, may run out by 2050 – where will we be producing our food and where will the water come from?” he asks.

Further reading

FAQs

Will we run out of water in 2050? ›

By 2050, 1 in 5 developing countries will face water shortages (UN's Food and Agriculture Organization). Between 2050 and 2100, there is an 85 percent chance of a drought in the Central Plains and Southwestern United States lasting 35 years or more.

What year will we run out of fresh water? ›

At the current pace, there will not be enough freshwater available to meet global energy needs by 2040. The world's changing climate has been linked to an increased incidence of droughts that can greatly diminish freshwater supplies in a region.

Can we create water? ›

Theoretically, this is possible, but it would be an extremely dangerous process, too. To create water, oxygen and hydrogen atoms must be present. Mixing them together doesn't help; you're still left with just separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Is Earth losing water? ›

Water flows endlessly between the ocean, atmosphere, and land. Earth's water is finite, meaning that the amount of water in, on, and above our planet does not increase or decrease.

How much longer can we live on Earth? ›

The upshot: Earth has at least 1.5 billion years left to support life, the researchers report this month in Geophysical Research Letters. If humans last that long, Earth would be generally uncomfortable for them, but livable in some areas just below the polar regions, Wolf suggests.

How long until all water is gone? ›

The first three-dimensional climate model able to simulate the phenomenon predicts that liquid water will disappear on Earth in approximately one billion years, extending previous estimates by several hundred million years.

Was the Earth once all water? ›

Earth may have been a water world 3 billion years ago. Calculations show that Earth's oceans may have been 1 to 2 times bigger than previously thought and the planet may have been completely covered in water.

Does water expire? ›

In short, no. Bottled water doesn't “go bad.” In fact, the FDA doesn't even require expiration dates on water bottles. Although water itself doesn't expire, the bottle it comes in can expire, in a sense. Over time, chemicals from the plastic bottle can begin to leak into the water it holds.

Is there DNA in water? ›

River water, lake water, and seawater contain DNA belonging to organisms such as animals and plants. Ecologists have begun to actively analyze such DNA molecules, called environmental DNA, to assess the distribution of macro-organisms. Challenges yet remain, however, in quantitative applications of environmental DNA.

How old is our water? ›

The water on our Earth today is the same water that's been here for nearly 5 billion years. So far, we haven't managed to create any new water, and just a tiny fraction of our water has managed to escape out into space. The only thing that changes is the form that water takes as it travels through the water cycle.

Will we ever run out of food? ›

According to Professor Cribb, shortages of water, land, and energy combined with the increased demand from population and economic growth, will create a global food shortage around 2050.

Are oceans drying up? ›

Don't worry. The oceans aren't going to dry up. At least not any time soon, so no need to add it to the list of things to worry about.

Does the Earth create new water? ›

“Today the atmosphere is rich in oxygen, which reacts with both hydrogen and deuterium to recreate water, which falls back to the Earth's surface. So the vast bulk of the water on Earth is held in a closed system that prevents the planet from gradually drying out."

What is the chance of human extinction? ›

Humanity has a 95% probability of being extinct in 7,800,000 years, according to J.

How Many People Can Earth Support? ›

Earth's capacity

Many scientists think Earth has a maximum carrying capacity of 9 billion to 10 billion people.

How long can you live in 2050? ›

By the group's estimates women would to live to be 89 to 94 on average instead of the government's estimate of 83 to 85 years. For men, the group expects they will live to be 83 to 86 instead of the government's projection of 80 years average life expectancy in 2050. S.

What countries will run out of water? ›

5 Countries Most Threatened by Water Shortages
  • Libya. Libya's troubles are twofold in that it is undergoing a period of political upheaval while also suffering from lack of water and other resources. ...
  • Western Sahara. ...
  • Yemen. ...
  • Djibouti. ...
  • Jordan.

Which states are running out of water? ›

For the second year in a row, the US states of Arizona and Nevada will face cuts in the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the Western United States endures an extreme drought, federal officials have announced.

What would happen if the Earth ran out of water? ›

Without water, there would be no humans, no animals, and no plants. The water we drink, i.e., the one that is clean and safe for consumption, actually makes up just 3% of our global water supply. All of the groundwater, rivers, and lakes are supposed to provide for the entire Earth's population.

How did Earth get so much water? ›

Currently, the most favored explanation for where the Earth got its water is that it acquired it from water-rich objects (planetesimals) that made up a few percent of its building blocks. These water-rich planetesimals would have been either comets or asteroids.

Can water be created or destroyed? ›

The Hydrological Cycle: Water Is Neither Created Nor Destroyed, It Is Merely Transformed. The title of this article paraphrases the famous sentence of French chemist Antoine Lavoisier in his “Law of Conservation of Mass.” He sustained that mass is neither created nor destroyed in chemical reactions.

How old is water in the ocean? ›

The ocean formed billions of years ago.

At this time, about 3.8 billion years ago, the water condensed into rain which filled the basins that we now know as our world ocean.

Can we artificially produce water? ›

Yes, one can take Hydrogen and Oxygen and react them in appropriate conditions and form water vapor. This can then be condensed (by cooling) to liquid water. This is the best way to produce the most purified water that has no other ions that are normally present in water we know.

How can we create water? ›

The actual reaction to make water is a bit more complicated: 2H2 + O2 = 2H2O + Energy. In English, the equation says: To produce two molecules of water (H2O), two molecules of diatomic hydrogen (H2) must be combined with one molecule of diatomic oxygen (O2). Energy will be released in the process.

Can water be made again? ›

Although we can't “make” more water, we can make the best of the water we have by conserving and protecting it.

Can we create fresh water? ›

Water Science School Home. Go! Humans cannot drink saline water, but, saline water can be made into freshwater, for which there are many uses. The process is called "desalination", and it is being used more and more around the world to provide people with needed freshwater.

Videos

1. Are We Running Out Of Drinking Water?
(The YEARS Project)
2. Will The World Ever Run Out Of Water?
(Seeker)
3. Why California is Running Out of Water
(RealLifeLore)
4. Explained | World's Water Crisis | FULL EPISODE | Netflix
(Netflix)
5. Are we running out of water?
(World Economic Forum)
6. Are We Running Out Of Drinking Water?
(Llewellyn Productions)

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