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Water scarcity: A global crisis explained

Written by
Myrthe Zondag
March 14, 2022
min read

Water scarcity: A global crisis explained

​Our planet is covered by almost 70% of water. However, one of the challenges we are currently facing is water scarcity. This is defined as the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet the water needs in specific regions. Of this large amount of global water, only 1% is available as fresh water. According to UNICEF, 4 billion people experience water scarcity for at least one month per year and about five-hundred million people face water scarcity all year round. This Academy blog will provide you the necessary information to get a deeper understanding of this issue and explore the current developments within this industry that could help try to solve the global water crisis.

Water is essential to life, however there are more than 1 billion people that have no access to clean drinking water and more than 4.5 billion people lack sanitation. Obtaining clean water is especially a challenge in Africa. According to the UN, ‘water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and an increasing number of regions are reaching the limit at which water services can be sustainably delivered, especially in arid regions’. As a result of growing global demand for safe and fresh water, pressure on this scarce resource is only increased. Some of the main causes of water shortage will be discussed in the next chapter.


Usage in the agriculture sector

In many businesses fresh water is used for the production of products. Especially in the agriculture sector, much water is consumed to harvest resources. In general, agriculture usage accounts for 70% of total freshwater use, industry 20% and domestic use for 10%. To give an idea of the water consumption in agriculture a pound of steak requires over 7.500 litres of water in total, 720 litres of fresh water is needed for a regular bottle of wine and 70 litres of fresh water is consumed to grow a single avocado. 

The production of fruits and vegetables requires more water than certain areas can offer. An oft-mentioned example is the production of avocados. The market is one of the fastest expanding markets. To produce a kilo of avocados, about 283 litres of water is needed, according to the Danwatch research centre. In Petorca, one of the main supply areas of avocados which is known for its very dry climate, the required amount of water to produce one kilo of avocados is even larger. In this dryarea, the trees cannot be grown without supplementary irrigation. Due to regulations, plantations are forced to install illegal water lines to water the trees, causing rivers to dry and people to lack clean drinking water. 

Industrial use

The industry sector is also responsible for its large water use. Industrial products need water for nearly every step during production and manufacturing. Water is used, among other things, for manufacturing, washing, and transporting products. An industry that uses water excessively is the manufacturing of semiconductors, which are chips that are used for computers and phones among others. The large amount of consumed water to produce these chips was one of the reasons for Taiwan’s 2021 drought. To put this in more perspective, it takes more than 11.000 litres to produce a cell phone. Another large water consumer is the fashion industry. This was already addressed in an earlier academy post, which concluded that the textile industry consumes around 79 billion cubic metres of water per year. 


Household usage 

Humans require water for household needs, including drinking, personal hygiene and to prepare food. According to our Basic Water Requirement (BWR), set by the WHO, humans require between 50  and 100 litres of fresh water to maintain health. Many household activities such as cleaning, doing dishes, and flushing toilets use a lot of water. Domestic consumption differs between countries, with Americans using over 500 litres of water a day, which is 35 times more water than an average person living in Sub-Saharan Africa for example.


Water pollution

Where the high water usage causes water shortage, water pollution is also a cause for concern. Water is polluted by many substances such as bacteria, parasites, chemicals or toxic materials, causing water to be not drinkable. Many forms of pollution eventually end up in the water. For example, in the agricultural sector, the use of agrochemicals, organic matter, drug residues, sediments and saline drainage is common. Most of these chemicals will eventually come back into the hydrological system. This type of pollution is called bioaccumulation. Besides polluting our drinking water, these pesticides and other chemicals can cause water to become hypoxic (low oxygen), which causes marine life to die. Other forms of pollution also make their way back into our drinking water. Air pollution will eventually fall onto lakes or oceans and the land that is polluted can leach into underground aquifers, which end up in the ocean. Drinking water pollutants can endanger human health, as it may cause diseases such as cholera or typhoid. According to Harvard, many of these pollutants are again drunk by us or animals. In addition, the lower the water levels the higher the concentration of pollutants. The infectious diseases caused by poor domestic water kill over 4.500 children a day.

Developments in the market

Insights in these areas of water consumption lead to the awareness of our water usage and the increased water scarcity. So, what is our strategy for the future and what developments are currently available in the market? 

With an increase in the global population, water is expected to become even more scarce. According to the Water Resources Group, the water demand is expected to exceed current supply by almost 40%.. A lot of actions are present that are searching for possible solutions to face these challenges. To give you some insight into promising water management startups, we have looked some of these up for you to watch in the upcoming years. Many start-ups have been focusing on developing solutions in agriculture. Let’s have a look at some start-ups that aim to manage water in a better way.


-   Opti-harvest is an agricultural innovation company, which aims to speed up plant growth, so it eventually consumes less water. Their strategy is to give more sunlight to the plant with polymer tubes and panels.


-   Sunny Clean Water, created by engineers to evaporate water using solar energy in order to provide access to clean, safe and reliable water across the world.


-   Vivent, a Switzerland based company, produces Phytlsigns. With the use of machine learning, they monitor how plants react to different inputs, nutrients, water, pesticides etc. By doing this research they support farmers growing their plants with a lower input of water and give them more information about nutrients plants need to grow.


-   FLUID produces Smart Water Meters that help to control water consumption, including other services such as leak prevention and detection, energy reduction and a description of water consumption patterns.


-   British start-up Elentec recycles wastewater, removes contaminants and returns the water back in the system for groundwater restoration or for the reuse in agriculture and industry.  


-   Lifestraw produces a portable filtration system, which can filter 4000 litres of water, that eliminates bacteria and chemical compounds.


To cope with future water scarcity, changes will have to take place in the consumption of water, both by individuals as well as companies. In recent years luckily, industries have become more aware of their impact and some big companies have set targets to adjust their water management. 

Interested in what you could do to lower your water consumption? Check out this post

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