'And of Water We Made Every Living Thing'

Water Scarcity - Over 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to be exacerbated in some regions as a result of climate change and population growth. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS.
Over 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to be exacerbated in some regions as a result of climate change and population growth. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS.
  • by Baher Kamal (madrid)
  • Inter Press Service

Religions apart, also UNESCO underlines the fact that “water is a unique and non-substitutable resource.”

Now comes the question if water is finite or infinite? UNESCO says that it is “of limited quantity.” And the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.

Essentially, it says, demographic growth and economic development are putting unprecedented pressure on renewable, but “finite” water resources.

Anyway, the reality is that, over the last decades, Planet Earth has been facing an alarming problem of water scarcity.

Indeed, it is estimated that over 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to be exacerbated in some regions as a result of climate change and population growth.

Why is water scarce?

Before going further, it might be convenient to report that there are several dimensions of water scarcity that can be summarised as follows:

– Scarcity in availability of fresh water of acceptable quality with respect to aggregated demand, in the simple case of physical water shortage;

– Scarcity in access to water services, because of the failure of institutions in place to ensure reliable supply of water to users;

– Scarcity due to the lack of adequate infrastructure, irrespective of the level of water resources, due to financial constraints.

Dangerously polluted

These three explanations are aggravated by another fact: water is not only scarce – it is also highly contaminated. See these findings by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN bodies:

  • Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. Microbial contamination of drinking-water as a result of contamination with faeces poses the greatest risk to drinking-water safety.
  • While the most important chemical risks in drinking water arise from arsenic, fluoride or nitrate, emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and microplastics generate public concern.
  • Safe and sufficient water facilitates the practice of hygiene, which is a key measure to prevent not only diarrhoeal diseases, but acute respiratory infections and numerous neglected tropical diseases.
  • Microbiologically contaminated drinking water can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio and is estimated to cause 485.000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.

To the above data, UNESCO reports that 80% of all industrial and municipal wastewater is released into the environment. And that 50% of all malnutrition is due to the lack of water, sanitation and hygiene.

Food under threat

This already catastrophic situation is so grim that, in addition to the life of humans, animals, plants -–in short ‘Every Living Thing’--, one of the sectors that most depend on water–crops is now highly endangered.

Indeed, since the 1950s, reminds the United Nations, innovations like synthetic fertilisers, chemical pesticides and high-yield cereals have helped humanity dramatically increase the amount of food it grows.

“But those inventions would be moot without agriculture’s most precious commodity: fresh water. And it, say researchers, is now under threat.”

Moreover, pollution, climate change and over-abstraction are beginning to compromise the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that underpin farming globally, reports the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).


Among the major causes that this international body highlights is that in some arid areas, there has been an increase in the amount of wastewater used to grow crops.

“The problem can be exacerbated by flooding, which can inundate sewage systems or stores of fertiliser, polluting both surface water and groundwater.”

Mounting risks

  • Fertiliser run-off can cause algal blooms in lakes, killing fish. Storm run-off and forest fires are further risks to farming and food security.
  • In some places around the world, pollution is also seeping into groundwater, with potential long-term impacts on crops, though more research is needed to establish the precise effects on plants and human health.
  • The amount of freshwater per capita has fallen by 20% over the last two decades and nearly 60% of irrigated cropland is water-stressed.
  • The implications of those shortages are far-reaching: irrigated agriculture contributes 40% of total food produced worldwide.

Now take a closer look at what is behind the decline of the world’s per capita freshwater reserves and how this is affecting farmers, as explained by the world body specialised in environmental issues.

Drought and aridification

Research shows that global warming is sparking longer-lasting droughts, like the record-setting dry spells that have gripped East Africa and the Western United States. This, say experts, is a prime example of climate change in the flesh.

According to the Global Land Outlook, a report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), over one-third of the world’s population currently lives in water-scarce regions.


Groundwater supplies 43% of the water used for irrigation. But improvements in drilling technology over the last few decades have led to its unsustainable extraction in parts of the world, such as India.

FAO estimates that 10% of the global grain harvest is being produced by depleting groundwater resources.

Saltwater intrusion

Intensive irrigation can lead to a rise in the water table, syphoning salt into the soil and the roots of plants, affecting their growth.

As well, the overuse of groundwater can combine with climate-change-induced sea-level rise to cause saltwater to penetrate coastal groundwater aquifers. This can damage crops and their yields and affect drinking water supplies.

UNEP estimates that around one-tenth of rivers around the world are affected by salinity pollution.

Land degradation

Humanity has altered more than 70% of the Earth’s land area, causing what the Global Land Outlook called “unparalleled environmental degradation”. In many places, the ability of soils to store and filter water is waning, making it harder to grow crops and raise livestock.

All the above also leads to the steady loss of biodiversity.

The markets and the short-term profits

The way nature is valued in political and economic decisions is both a key driver of the global biodiversity crisis and a vital opportunity to address it, according to a four-year methodological assessment by 82 top scientists and experts from every region of the world.

The Assessment Report on the Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature, released on 11 July 2022 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), finds that:

  • There is a “dominant global focus on short-term profits and economic growth, often excluding the consideration of multiple values of nature in policy decisions.”
  • Economic and political decisions have predominantly prioritised certain values of nature, particularly market-based instrumental values of nature, such as those associated with food produced intensively.
  • Although often privileged in policymaking, these market values do not adequately reflect how changes in nature affect people’s quality of life. Furthermore, policymaking overlooks the many non-market values associated with nature’s contributions to people, such as climate regulation and cultural identity.

Why is it now degraded faster than ever?

“Biodiversity is being lost and nature’s contributions to people are being degraded faster now than at any other point in human history,” said Ana María Hernández Salgar, Chair of IPBES.

“This is largely because our current approach to political and economic decisions does not sufficiently account for the diversity of nature’s values.”

© Inter Press Service (2022) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service