Do you already know the environmental problem of water scarcity? It belongs without ifs and buts to the biggest environmental problems of our time. Since the earth is covered by about 71% of water₁, you might think that there is actually enough of it available. Unfortunately, however, only a fraction of it is actually drinkable. And it is already in short supply in many regions of the world, meaning that the environment and society are undergoing noticeable changes.
In this article, I would like to explain the problem of water scarcity and water shortages in detail and show you why we Germans are also partly to blame and how we can do something about it in our everyday lives.
Here is another short Table of contents for you:
What does water scarcity mean?
The term water scarcity refers to an acute shortage of drinkable fresh water in certain regions of the world, caused by high consumption, natural evaporation and pollution. Water shortage, water crisis or water emergency are also frequently used as synonyms for water scarcity.
As the following terms are directly related to water scarcity, I would also like to explain them to you at the beginning of this article:
- Direct water consumption: The water consumption that results directly from your everyday behavior. For example, when showering, brushing your teeth or flushing the toilet.
- Indirect water consumption: The amount of water used to produce your consumer goods. For example, for clothing or food.
- Virtual water: Water consumed, evaporated or polluted during the manufacture of products.
Examples of water scarcity
The best, albeit most shocking, example of the emergence and consequences of water scarcity is certainly the Aral Sea in Central Asia depicted. A satellite image of the nose shows the full extent of human activity using two images taken 14 years apart. Today, the eastern basin is completely dry. As early as the 1950s and 1960s, the water from the tributaries was used for agriculture before they dried up in the 1980s. The ecosystem of the Aral Sea changed, fish disappeared - and with them the fishing industry.
In Germany the water shortage is affecting some cities in East Westphalia, for example - a total of around 120,000 people are affected by the water shortage there alone.₂
Another European example of water scarcity is the French municipality of Vittel where the groundwater level drops drastically every year. The reason for this is the privatization of the water sources by the company Nestlé, which is not only the subject of worldwide criticism for this reason. Every year, around 750 million liters of water are pumped out of Vittel to be sold at high prices all over the world.₃
Water shortage facts, figures & statistics
To help you understand the true extent of water scarcity, I have collected some of the most important data on the environmental problem below:
- Each person consumes an average of around 1 million liters of water per year.₄
- 97.5% is salty seawater and not drinkable for us humans. This is why many people think that there is no such thing as a water shortage.₅
- Only 2.5% is drinkable freshwater. Unfortunately, only about 0.3% of this is directly accessible to us through rivers, streams and lakes. 68.9% percent of drinkable water is frozen, 30.8% is in groundwater and about 0.01% circulates in clouds, rain, snow and hail.₆
- 2.1 billion people worldwide have no access to clean drinking water.₇
- Around 884 million people have no basic water supply.₈
- In Germany, an average of 120 liters of water are consumed directly per capita and around 5200 liters indirectly.₉
- At 22.9 thousand km³, Sweden has the largest per capita freshwater resources in Europe.₁₀
- Around 4,000 km³ of fresh water is withdrawn worldwide every year, of which 70% is attributable to the agricultural sector, 20% to industry and 10% to the municipal level.₁₁₁
- We Germans consume around 4,000 liters of "virtual water" per capita every day.₁₂
- More than 70% of Germany's drinking water is extracted from groundwater.₁₃
Causes of water scarcity
In addition to natural factors such as the evaporation of water, the scarcity of available drinking water on earth is primarily due to man-made causes. I would like to briefly explain why so many people are literally left high and dry.
Growing world population
While around 4.45 billion people lived on Earth in 1980, this figure is expected to rise to 7.72 million by 2020.₁₄
This naturally also increases the demand for clean drinking water and food that needs to be irrigated. At the same time, however, the increase in consumption also means that more toxins are being released into rivers and groundwater.
You can find out more about this in the article Overpopulation - All about global population growth.
The consumer behavior of each individual, in addition to the climate change and the rapid growth of the world's population are the main causes of global water scarcity. Even if we often focus on direct water consumption when researching the causes, it is primarily indirect water consumption through the consumption of industrial and agricultural products that is responsible for the environmental problem of water shortages.
For example, animal feed has to be irrigated during cultivation and cows have to drink water. In this way, around 15,500 liters of water are required to produce one kilogram of beef. Even if this is hardly apparent at first glance, each product indirectly consumes much more water.
Climate change as a reason for the water shortage
In 2016, the average global air temperature was already 0.94°C higher than in the middle of the 20th century.₁₅ Global warming is progressing at a rapid pace and, in combination with the high water demand of the growing world population, is causing drought and ultimately global water scarcity.
Consequences of the lack of water
How does the scarcity of water affect human coexistence and the environment? The following ecological and social effects should be sufficient motivation for each and every one of us to do something about global water scarcity. Especially in view of the fact that life on earth is not possible without water.
Effects on the environment
If we consume and poison water and more water evaporates, this is not without consequences. You can now find out about the ecological effects of water shortages in the following points.
Rivers & lakes dry up
In Germany, the Schwarze Elster river in the south on Brandenburg's border with Saxony has already dried up due to prolonged droughts. An international example, as already described, is the Aral Sea. Global warming and excessive use for agricultural irrigation have completely dried up the eastern part of the lake.
Groundwater level drops threateningly
In Germany, too, water scarcity as a result of the increasing demand for irrigation is naturally leading to a drop in the groundwater table. In addition, there are economic interests, such as the pumping of privatized water sources by corporations like Nestlé. Here I refer again to the example of the French municipality of Vittel, where an extreme case of water shortage has occurred.
The lowering of the groundwater level then also has an impact on the water level of rivers such as the Elbe, which in turn results in the Environmental problem of species extinction results.
Extreme droughts on the rise
The combination of climate change and water scarcity is naturally also increasing the number and extent of drought disasters. Both in Germany and Europe, but especially in eastern Australia and in many sub-Saharan African countries, droughts are now a permanent feature of everyday life. In addition to dwindling freshwater reserves, this is also due to the lack of rainfall.₁₆
Species become extinct
Water is also the source of life for animals and plants. Increasing droughts and dried-up bodies of water ultimately cost millions of animals and plants their lives. The example of the Aral Sea is a good illustration of how water scarcity can wipe out entire ecosystems. Initially, fish populations declined until they finally became completely extinct, at least in the eastern basin of the lake.
Impact on society & economy
The laws of nature are supreme. And if the global water shortage has ecological consequences, then this naturally also has an impact on how we humans live together. Here are some of the most discussed effects of water scarcity.
Armed conflicts over drinking water
A good example of this is the construction of a dam in north-western Ethiopia. There, the resettlement of people, the destruction of nature and, above all, the sharing of water with Egypt is causing fierce social conflict.
If global water scarcity cannot be contained in the future, even more serious conflicts and water wars will arise both between and within countries.
Bottlenecks due to crop failures
As most plants and fields have to be constantly watered, the consequences of a water shortage are naturally also likely to include crop failures that threaten the existence of the company.
Example: The harvest of the "Vergenoegd" wine estate in South Africa has fallen by 1/5 within a year due to the water shortage. Famous wines can then no longer be delivered in the quantities requiredn.₁₇ This is a classic example of the economic impact of the water crisisas it can ruin entrepreneurs and annoy customers.
If there is no clean water available, plants cannot be watered and animals cannot be supplied with drinking water. One consequence of this is the World hunger.₁₈
Contaminated drinking water & diseases
As many people illegally dispose of waste and toxic substances in rivers and lakes, both privately and professionally, the amount of drinkable water is shrinking.
According to Unicef, around 4.5 billion people do not use safe sanitary facilities.₁₉ Diseases can spread more quickly and endanger young children in particular, whose immune systems are not yet fully developed. Diseases can spread particularly quickly due to flooding or a lack of clean drinking water in hospitals, for example.
Lack of water prevents school education
As children in Africa in particular have to walk longer and longer distances to the nearest water source every day, they are less and less able to go to school. In addition, only around 69% of all schools worldwide have basic access to drinking water.₂₀
Solutions - What to do about water scarcity?
In order to effectively counteract the increasing water shortage, consumers, business and politics must pull together. A conscious, sustainable lifestyle is, however, an important step in the right direction. Here I explain what you can do yourself and what is expected from politics and business.
What everyone can do against water scarcity
In addition to direct water consumption, indirect water consumption is the main cause of the environmental problem of water scarcity. Here are some tips on how to combat water shortages in everyday life.
Consciously save water
In the household you have many opportunities to effectively Save water. For example, use the following tips:
- Short shower: Depending on how long you shower for, this can use up as much as 100 liters of water. Keep it short and shower best cold - then the first challenge of the day has already been mastered and less energy consumed.
- Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth: Wooden toothbrush and turn off the tap again. Clean for three minutes and rinse briefly. What sounds relatively logical is unfortunately not the rule. But of course it saves a lot of water.
- Use rainwater: If you have the opportunity, collect some rainwater in a barrel and use the water to water the plants on the balcony or in the garden.
- Fill up the washing machine: Only switch the washing machine on when it is full. This makes the water and energy consumption really worthwhile and you don't have to start the machine every day.
- Drink tap water: The quality of water from the tap is very good throughout Germany. Therefore drink Tap water instead of water from plastic bottles. In this way, you stop, for example, the drying up of regions with privatized water sources.
There really are hundreds of ways to reduce direct water consumption in everyday life. Just be aware of where you use water. With this water consumption calculator you can simply calculate how much water you consume directly every day. I ended up with about 50 liters - there is certainly still some potential upwards.
Consume more consciously
As our personal daily water consumption is mainly due to our consumer behavior, we also have many opportunities to reduce it in our everyday lives:
- Regional & seasonal food: Use our tips to reduce your food waste so that you also reduce your indirect water consumption. Consciously buy regional and seasonal food, as oranges from Spain, for example, have to be heavily irrigated again and cause local water shortages.
- Eat less meat: Cattle drink thousands of liters of water and the feed also needs to be watered. Including cleaning the stables, 15,500 liters of water are used for one kilogram of meat.₂₁
- Clothes: Cotton for clothing is usually grown where it is hot and hardly ever rains. The fields are therefore irrigated with water from rivers and lakes, which dries them out. Fast Fashion therefore also causes water shortages, which is why you should value existing clothing or second-hand clothing more.
- Vacation: Even more important than saving water in Germany is saving water in vacation regions where water scarcity is more extreme. The best example of this is the water crisis in Cape Town.
As already mentioned in the statistics, every German consumes an average of 5200 liters of water indirectly through their consumption behavior. So try to make gradual improvements in this area as well and basically do something live more minimalist.
Tip: In the separate article, you will find valuable tips on how you can help the Counteract climate change.
Tasks of business & politics against water shortage
As water cannot simply be redistributed from one continent to another, worldwide cooperation between those responsible in business and politics is crucial in the fight against global water scarcity.
- Promotion of water projects (such as the Warka Tower, which collects water from fog drops, morning dew and rain).
- Protecting oceans and rivers (e.g. before Plastic waste in the environment)
- Stricter controls of industrial companies (with regard to water consumption and wastewater disposal)
- Watershed protection (such as before Deforestation, which serve as water reservoirs)
- Promotion of new irrigation methods in agriculture (e.g. drip irrigation to reduce evaporation)
The list of possible solutions is long. Ultimately, politics and the economy must also find new ways of living such as the vegan lifestyle promote. Because we are currently living beyond our means when it comes to drinking water.
Brief anecdote: When we were in Cape Town, we were urged by officials at the airport to save a lot of water during our stay. Sometimes we had no running water for 10 hours a day. In situations like that, you really realize how much water you really need.
Can the environmental problem of water scarcity be stopped?
The more urgent the problem, the quicker you can come up with creative solutions to solve the problem of Stop water shortage. However, we consumers, in combination with business and politics, can certainly achieve the greatest effect by promoting a consciously sustainable lifestyle. This is necessary because otherwise we face even worse consequences than we are already experiencing today.
"The wars of the future will be fought over water."Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary-General₂₂₂
The Y-Kollektiv channel has published the great documentary "On dry land - A city of millions is running out of water". about Cape Town in South Africa. I can really recommend this documentary to everyone, as it illustrates the consequences of the water shortage in a very tangible way.
Do you have any questions, tips or your own experience with the environmental problem of water scarcity? Then please leave me a comment below this article. Please also share this article with others to educate as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
PS.: In the Environmental protection blog there is a lot more information as well as tips & tricks for a sustainable everyday life. Have a look!