Will the world run out of water?

Trevor English Trevor English January 10, 2024

6 min read

Water is one of the most abundant natural resources on the planet. However, it’s also one of the scarcest. While paradoxical, and despite the world’s seeming wealth of water spanning the globe, access to clean, drinkable water is dwindling as the world undergoes climate changes and increasing water pollution makes many sources unusable.

We may not run out, but the Earth faces some big challenges with water management.

Put simply, Earth has an abundance of water, likely never to run out, even from extreme forecasts, so why then even ask the question? The challenges the world faces in “running out of water” are complex, and as we dig into them further, we’ll see that the topic is rife with dynamic global adversities that are unsolvable by just one entity. So, let’s understand what’s really being asked with this existential question, and underscore what humanity can do to reach a place of sustainability. 

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Reframing the problem of water

According to the World Health Organization, in 2021 over 2 billion people, roughly a quarter of the world’s population, lives in a water-stressed country. Underscoring the issue further, 1.7 billion people globally currently consume water that is untreated and contains dangerous contaminants like feces.

This problem of access to water is presented in polarizing perspectives, making the challenge even harder. For much of the world, access to “safely managed” water has been growing over the years, increasing from 62% in 2000 to 74% in 2020. This is an encouraging trend, which is underscored further in the chart below from World Bank and the WHO. 

Source: Worldbank/WHO

However, on the other side of the spectrum is a rapidly growing population of people without access to safely managed water, with the sources they do have being rocked by pollution and changing climates. 

Water overuse is also one of the leading issues for access to clean water. Stated by NASA, there are currently 19 global heavily populated hotspots, from California to China, where water access has been markedly dwindling in recent years. As water is overused and underground reservoirs are depleted, the soil actually compresses from the weight of the world above it, decreasing the Earth’s natural ability to replenish these sources, making future problems even harder to overcome. 

It’s with this data that we can understand the problem of “running out of water” a little better. The world itself has an abundance of H2O, the molecule, likely never to run out, but humanity’s access to drinkable versions of it faces mounting – but surmountable – hurdles.

With 7.5 billion people on the planet, projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, a growing number of people will be born into places without access to this vital resource. So what can we do?

Based on estimates from UNESCO, it would cost just 114 billion dollars per year to provide access to clean water globally to everyone who needed it. With a cost well under 1% of global annual GDP, why haven’t we solved it?

Who is in control?

With water, there’s no central governance. Access to water is managed at local levels, often without central guidance, meaning overuse, pollution, and mismanagement are common problems faced by communities globally. This lack of central control is part of what makes solving the challenge of water access so hard. The world knows collectively how to ensure access to clean water resources – we’ve been doing it for centuries – but without central control and administration, getting this information out, and the funds to implement it, is easier said than done.

Notably, in places like Africa where communities struggle with access to clean water, there may be sufficient supplies of groundwater in underground reservoirs to sustain the growing population. There simply hasn’t been enough investment in components of the water puzzle like delivery and management to gain access to these vital resources. As Earth.org outlines, most of Africa is not faced with physical water scarcity, but rather economic water scarcity.

Managing our water resources

With problems outlined, the solutions understood and quantified, what can we do to bring about better water access as fast as possible? Managing freshwater resources is a vital step. 

Leak detection and mitigation is huge for places with existing clean water networks. In the United Kingdom, the Environment Agency noted that 3 billion liters per day are wasted through leaks, something that drastically impacts water availability in the region. This wasted water then leads to overuse, one of the core challenges we discussed earlier.

CSO spills in the UK are a big deal, but software can help solve this hardware problem.

For this problem too, the world knows how to solve it. We have advanced hydraulic modeling tools and leak detection capabilities that engineers can use to find these leaks and fix them, but the challenge draws back to funding and consistency in approach.

Managing irrigation water is also a significant component of ensuring sustainability in regions. Some methods of irrigation, especially in arid hot countries, are highly inefficient. Roughly 25% of irrigated water is lost to heat and wind.

When the issue of climate change arises, it’s not just an issue of drought. In fact, a changing climate also brings more extreme and frequent floods, which can devastate agriculture and cities. While the issue of flooding might seem like a good thing in ensuring access to water, floods often do paradoxical things to water supplies.

In regions with combined sewer networks, flooding events can cause overflows of sewage into clean water sources. Additionally, floods often sweep up large amounts of hazardous chemicals and debris into clean water sources that again, too, increase pollution and make water sources less clean. The issue of flooding is one that affects not just developed nations with existing access to clean water, but also growing regions with more basic freshwater sources. 

We know where it will be worst. The question is: what will we do about it?

Much of the water resource management challenges we’ve discussed are applicable to already developed regions – what about other regions with basic or no access to clean water? The challenge here is more monetary. In addition to providing engineering and management resources, funding needs to be provided to regions to drill wells and establish access to existing water. This is why organizations like Water.org, WaterAid.org, and the Water Project, among many others, exist to direct funding to solving these problems. There’s an educational component here as well. As more people understand sustainable water resource management, the societal barriers that need to be overcome to solve these challenges drop, too.

Addressing the question at hand

So, will the world run out of water? Put simply, no. We have plenty on the globe, but ensuring that the world’s population has access to it will require some work. 

The world can secure access to clean water through effective and sustainable water resource management, aided by the growing availability of advanced hydraulic modeling tools, and through societal pressures that aid in global water resource funding. Solving the challenge of access to freshwater could save 1.4 million people annually. 

Water is the world’s most vital resource. The world knows how to access it and deliver it to the people who need it. We won’t run out of water, but this vitally important resource demands vitally important efforts to establish access to it for generations to come.

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