The global clean water crisis looms large

Water scarcity will intensify with climate and socioeconomic change, disproportionately impacting populations located in the Global South.
Published in Earth & Environment
The global clean water crisis looms large

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Humans require clean water for drinking and sanitation purposes (widely recognised as a basic human right), but also for the production of food, energy and manufactured goods. Yet, mismatches between our water demands and the avaliable supply occurs across all world regions for at least part of the year – a condition termed water scarcity.

Current and future exposure to water scarcity

In my latest work, published in Nature Climate Change, we have quantified water scarcity considering human demands for clean water with respect to both the amount and quality of water that is locally avaliable. We used state-of-the-art global hydrological (PCR-GLOBWB2) and water quality (DynQual) models to simulate the availability, quality and demands for water resources under present-day conditions and until 2100 based on various plausible trajectories for climate and socioeconomic change.

Our results suggest that approximately 55% of the global population are currently exposed to clean water scarcity in at least one month per year, which rises to as high as 66% by the end of the century (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Percentage of the global population exposed to water scarcity at least one month per year from 2005-2100, based on indicators considering water quantity only (WS) and including water quality (WSq)

Regional patterns

While global water scarcity is projected to intensify in the future, both the changes and impacts will not occur equally across all world regions. Future increases in water scarcity in Western Europe and North America, for example, are concentrated in just a few months of the year – predominantly driven by water quantity aspects. Conversely, water scarcity increases in developing countries are typically more widespread in space and persist for a larger portion of the year. These are typically driven by a combination of rapid population and economic growth, climate change and deteriorating water quality.

Quality: the invisible part of water scarcity

Water quality – despite being crucial for safe water use – remains an under-represented component of water scarcity assessments. While technological advancements in global hydrological modelling have enabled researchers to assess the mismatches between water demands and availability at high spatial and temporal resolutions, water scarcity assessments still predominantly focus on water quantity aspects only. Therefore, a key aim of this study was to normalize considering water quality as an inherent part of water scarcity assessments – and in the design of management strategies for alleviating water scarcity.  

Future outlook

Inadequate availability of clean water, relative to our requirements, is widely perceived as one of the major risks to mankind in terms of both likelihood and severity. Our work highlights that, alongside substantially reducing our water demands, we must place an equally strong focus on eliminating water pollution in order to turn the tide on the global water crisis.

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Water Quality and Water Pollution
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Environmental Sciences > Water > Water Quality and Water Pollution
Water Policy
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Environmental Sciences > Water > Water Policy