On the face of it, Earth has plenty of the stuff. We live on a water world: about three quarters of the earth’s surface is submerged. And, give or take a few H2O molecules, there's the same amount circulating through the water cycle now as there has been for thousands of years.
So why is there more and more talk about water scarcity?
99,7% is undrinkable
Of the world’s water, about 97% is salt water.
Of the 3% that is fresh water, most is locked up in ice caps and glaciers, or it’s sunk in the ground where it’s hard to get at.
All in all, less than 0,3% of the world’s water is available to us. Not just for drinking and sanitation of course – for agriculture, industry and energy production too.
And that 0,3% is shrinking all the time, as surface and ground water sources get polluted. Also, there are just more of us, every passing second. Watch world population grow.
1 in 6 people lack clean water
The UN has estimated that the minimum amount of clean, fresh water for a person’s basic daily needs (drinking, cooking and cleaning), is 20-50 litres. If you live in a context where you have clean piped water and a well-functioning sewage system, this is about the amount of water your household flushes down the toilet every day.
More than one in six people – 1.1 billion – don’t have access to this basic minimum. Two in five lack proper sanitation facilities. Every day, 3 800 children die from diseases associated with lack of safe drinking water and proper sanitation.
South Africa: one of the drylands
Water scarcity is most acute in the driest areas of the world - the drylands - home to over 2 billion people. Drylands include most countries in the Near East and North Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, large parts of China and India, and South Africa.
In this country, 12% of the population lack access to piped or well water and 35% lack proper sanitation.
This unacceptable state of affairs can be partly alleviated by improved infrastructure and stricter water use legislation. But there’s still only so much water, which means those of us for who can just turn on a tap have a practical, and moral, obligation.
5 easy ways to save gallons of clean water
Call a plumber. A dripping tap can lose up to 100 litres per day – about eight buckets of water. And toilet leak can waste up to 30 litres an hour. An ingenious way to check if your toilet is leaking: add a few drops of food dye to the cistern - if the colour seeps into the bowl, you have a leak.
Don’t flush. Flushing every time you use the toilet is unnecessary and is one of the most blatantly wasteful domestic uses of potable water.
Have a sponge bath. Or at least a shower. Showering uses only about a third of the water bathing does.
Go grey. Grey water doesn’t sound very appealing, but if you get into the habit of using it, you’ll never have to worry about your garden in summer again.
Keep it clean. Not much point in saving water if it’s quality goes down the drain. Are you a storm water polluter?
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated July 2010
United Nations, 2007, World Water Day
Read more about water and your health: Water Centre