If a bucket contained all the world’s water, one teacup of that would be freshwater, and just one teaspoon of that would be available for us to use, from lakes, rivers and underwater reservoirs as groundwater.
In theory, this is enough to meet all the daily, basic needs of all the people around the world. Yet whether you are able to access that water for drinking, cooking, washing and other daily needs depends on who you are and where you live.
One in nine people do not have access to clean water close to home, and just under two thirds of the world’s population – 4 billion – live in areas of physical water scarcity, where for at least part of the year demand exceeds supply.
Water scarcity exists for two reasons. Physical scarcity means there isn’t enough water to go around. Socio-economic scarcity means there is water present, but it isn’t available to all because of lack of investment and political will.
If we were to measure nations’ water wealth and water poverty, not only by access to drinking water, but also by their access to water-intensive food, clothing and other products – the so-called ‘virtual water’ that is used in the cultivation and production of everything we eat, wear and use – the disparity becomes even more stark. Wealthy nations are able to import large amounts of water-intensive goods, which can then drive economic growth in poorer exporting nations. But if this is not done in a sustainable way, in extreme cases poorer nations then see their water supplies depleted by production for export, even as their own people do not have access to enough clean water for basic daily use. This impacts most on those who are already marginalised, for example people who are less physically able or who have caring responsibilities.
In 2015 the global community committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, which promises that by 2030 everyone will have a safe supply of water available whenever they need it. But progress on delivering safe drinking water to all is threatened: by the lack of political will and financing required to deliver, by the competing demands from industry and agriculture, and by climatic changes. The number of people living in physically water-scarce areas is predicted to rise to 5 billion by 2050, making this promise even more important, and more challenging.
In Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019 we reveal the countries where the most people live with physical water scarcity, how ballooning customer demands jeopardise water access for the poorest and most marginalised people, and how making thoughtful choices as consumers can help ensure access to water for basic needs is prioritised, wherever you are in the world.