Dwindling Water Supplies Around the World a Cause for Concern



Eastern Malay

Water is required for life, and fortunately the earth has a lot of it. Unfortunately, most of it is saltwater, unusable for consumption. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Environment Programme, only 2.5% of the 1.3 trillion cubic kilometers (km3) of water on earth is fresh, usable water.

Much of this is unevenly distributed and located far from human populations. Two-thirds of all fresh water is stored in glaciers and permanent snow cover, virtually inaccessible and unusable by the vast majority of those who are thirsty. The remaining one-third is found in groundwater (soil moisture, swamp water, permafrost and deep underground water reserves), as well as lakes and rivers. (This table gives an overview of water supplies by region.)

To look at it differently, we are stuck with one-third of 2.5% to support a world population that is adding one person every second. The water supply is not increasing, but the number of people who need to drink it is. Add to this the fact that many groundwater resources are shared between various countries, particularly between ones that are already water-stressed and which have rapidly growing populations. To illustrate this, two internationally-defined standards are shown in this same table.

The first, IRWR, totals each country's Internally-owned Renewable Water Resources. These are water supplies generated by surface run-off and groundwater recharge inside the country's borders. This is caused by the natural water cycle.

The second, ARWR, shows the Actual Renewable Water Resources that are theoretically available. This includes IRWR as well as water from upstream countries and volumes from agreements or treaties between countries. For both IRWR and ARWR, a “pc” column is given to show the per capita (per person) amount of water available. The “Sh%” is the shared percentage or the percentage of the actual water supplies that come from outside the country. Globally, twenty-one percent of all water supplies are shared, which means they are subject to disagreements, tensions and even wars.

Scientists slot countries into three categories (water-scarce, water-stressed and water- abundant), depending on how much water is available for withdrawal each year (based on ARWR per capita). Nations are water-scarce when available water is less than one thousand m3 per person per year and water-stressed when water is under 1,600 m3 per person per year. Nations having more than 1,600 m3 are water-abundant. Some twenty-five nations are considered water-scarce; another thirteen are considered water-stressed.

Column seven in the table, WW, represents Water Withdrawals, the amount each country uses yearly from its water supply. Some of this is lost forever; however, much of it can be reclaimed. Some water used to process waste (dishes or laundry for example) passes into sewers and from there into water treatment systems. It is then cleaned and put back into use again.

Column eight in the table, WW %, is Water Withdrawal as a percentage of the ARWR. Since some of this is lost forever, when WW% becomes too high it is a matter of concern. This table shows examples of this type of loss (from Vital Water, published by the UNEP), including the virtual loss of the Aral Sea, once one of the largest inland lakes in the former Soviet Union. This was caused by rerouting the rivers that fed it in order to irrigate cotton-producing lands. As a result, there has been significant environmental damage in the area.

Finally, column nine in the table, Acc%, shows the percentage of each country's population that has access to safe drinking water (this is taken from the World Christian Database). Today, more than a quarter of the world has no access. Given current trends, it is estimated that two out of every three people will live in water-stressed areas by the year 2025. In Africa alone, twenty-five countries will experience water stress by 2025. Further, water-borne diseases from fecal pollution of surface waters continue to be a major cause of illness in developing countries. Polluted water is estimated to affect the health of 1.2 billion people and contributes to the death of fifteen million children annually.

So far there have been no wars fought over water supply. This happy state is not likely to continue. Water is a sticking point between Israelis and Palestinians. Debate in North Africa over vital water supplies is often sharp and pointed. The devastation of the Aral Sea illustrates how water management can alter the future of a region. If one nation were to do this to another, it might be cause for war. Already there are accusations of water theft.

This is particularly critical for the unreached peoples of the world, as they are often found in places where water is particularly unavailable. The nations of North Africa and Asia are among the most water-stressed. It is ironic that those lacking water are also lacking the gospel of Jesus, who called himself “the living water.”

Christians should be engaged in issues related to water provision. They should be involved in finding new ways to provide safe, clean water for drinking, cooking and sanitation to the world's poor. Surely, the Jesus who was concerned enough at a wedding to turn water into wine would be equally concerned with turning dirty water into clean water so people could simply survive. This is indeed an important issue.

Justin Long manages strategicnetwork.org and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].