What Is Water Scarcity?

Drought in California has put pressure on the state's water supplies.

The low water level of California’s South Lake reservoir reflects the pressure that the state’s drought conditions have put on water supplies.

Acute drought conditions and dwindling natural water resources are focusing more attention on what continues to be a worldwide problem: a lack of access to fresh, potable water for drinking and sanitation.

Water scarcity can be defined as a lack of sufficient water, or not having access to safe water supplies.

Water scarcity is a major problem in many parts of the world.

A child helps his father carry water containers as they fetch drinking water in Bangladesh. Because the area is surrounded by saline water, scarcity of drinking water is a major problem.

Water is a pressing need in many areas of the world. That scarcity is spreading as water is needed to grow and process food, create energy, and power industry for a continually growing population. Climate change is a key contributing factor.

Clean, potable water is an essential ingredient of a healthy human life, but 1.2 billion people lack access to water according to recent estimates from the International Water Management Institute cited in The World’s Water: Volume 8, edited by Peter H. Gleick. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages, according to World Wildlife Fund. Available freshwater supplies worldwide continue to dwindle. By 2030, water demand is forecast to increase by 40 percent, according to Even Kuross, a management consultant based in Oslo, writing in Fair Observer. The world population is expected to reach 9 billion, placing pressure on water supplies.

Physical Water Scarcity

Physical water scarcity occurs when there isn’t enough water to meet demand. Roughly 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in physical water scarcity, which The World’s Water: Volume 8 defines as areas in which water withdrawals exceed 75 percent of river flows. Another 500 million live in areas “approaching physical scarcity.” This could be the result of dry or arid local conditions, but distribution also plays a role. The Water Project points out the Colorado River basin as a prime example “of a seemingly abundant source of water being overused and over managed, leading to very serious physical water scarcity downstream.”

Population growth around the world is putting ever more pressure on water supplies.

* Data extracted from The World’s Water: Volume 8. Average footprint for period between 1996 and 2005 expressed in cubic meters per person per year.

Water Economics

There is another equally challenging source of water scarcity: economic factors. The Water Project explains:

In the developing world, finding a reliable source of safe water is often time consuming and expensive. This is known as economic scarcity. Water can be found […] it simply requires more resources to do it. […] Economic water scarcity is by far the most disturbing form of water scarcity because it is almost entirely a lack of compassion and good governance that allows the condition to persist. Economic water scarcity exists when a population does not have the necessary monetary means to utilize an adequate source of water.

Economic water scarcity is predominant throughout Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 1.6 billion people around the world live in areas of economic water scarcity, with 780 million people living in areas with no basic water services. Compounding the lack of infrastructure investments are political and ethnic problems. These continue to grow in number worldwide and have become more intense as water becomes increasingly scarce, writes Brian Richter in the book Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability. Inadequate water supplies can also contribute to political and economic instability.

Population Pressure

The Worldwatch Institute’s Supriya Kumar told Voice of America that water scarcity will continue worsening worldwide as the global population continues to grow:

Over 1.2 billion are basically living in areas of physical water scarcity. And almost 1.6 billion face economic water shortage. And these are really extreme numbers. And as our population continues to grow there’s just going to be more problems. And we’re going to really have to face drastic measures in order to make sure the people have access to water.

In the biennial compendium of freshwater information and data, Gleick writes that one key challenge inherent in quantifying the problem is that data is not gathered reliably or consistently. Some of the latest water use data available is actually 20 or more years old. Without reliable, baseline data, many key issues cannot be adequately addressed by policymakers.

Water Scarcity Solutions

There are several available solutions able to effectively address water scarcity. These include water reuse, storage, management, conservation, and numerous water treatment technologies such as desalination. Typically, one or more solutions or approaches must be adopted in tandem to be effective, whether the solution is adopted by a water-reliant corporation or a government entity. The crux of the issue is balancing available supply with demand or consumption. Adding water supply through reuse or desalination, for example, isn’t a panacea. Without water management and strategies for adequately addressing demand, which continues increasing, the solution is incomplete.

Let’s look at a few of these solutions, as well as how and where they are being implemented.

Aquifer/Groundwater Recharging

Groundwater is water that collects below the earth’s surface in fissures and crevasses, then moves into aquifers. An aquifer is a body of permeable soil or rock that contains or transmits groundwater. Typically, aquifers fill or recharge from rain or snowmelt when the water flows downward until it reaches less permeable rock.

In times of drought or water scarcity, there is little water available naturally to refill or recharge existing groundwater supplies, which can become depleted by overuse. Groundwater withdrawals have tripled in the past 50 years, according to 2012 United Nations estimates cited in The World’s Water: Volume 8. Areas with the highest groundwater withdrawals include parts of China, India, and the United States. Roughly 67 percent of all water withdrawn is destined for agricultural use, 22 percent is allocated for domestic use, and 11 percent goes for industrial use.

In some areas, including Australia and California, groundwater or aquifer recharging is being explored to help bolster water supplies. The process involves the injection or infiltration of excess surface water into underground aquifers. In conjunction with such projects, some watersheds are being restored with native plant species in wetland areas to support aquifers’ natural recharge capabilities. Water may be treated before it is injected. The water can be stored underground until it is needed.

There are numerous other water storage options available, including dams, lakes, reservoirs, and other types of surface water storage. Tanks can also be used for temporary water storage. Storing the water on the surface has any number of challenges associated with it, including flooding, pollution by natural and manmade sources, and losses from evaporation or seepage. Over-drawing these resources can mean there are inadequate supplies in drought periods.

Water Reuse and Zero-Liquid Discharge Technology

Several interrelated strategies and approaches to water reuse can also alleviate water scarcity for municipalities and industries. These include water recycling and reuse, and the use of zero-liquid discharge systems. When water is used at an industrial site in a closed-loop system (water in the facility is continually used and treated, then reused again without being released into the sewer or discharged) it typically is referred to as zero-discharge.

Recycled, or reclaimed, water can be used in a variety of applications across industries, both inside facilities and in the community. Typical uses for recycled water include surface irrigation for orchards and vineyards, golf courses, landscaped areas, and food crops. Other uses include the recharging of groundwater, preservation or augmentation of ecosystems such as wetlands or riparian habitat, and in industrial processes. Nonpotable water can be used for toilet flushing, irrigating landscaping, washing vehicles and streets, and other similar purposes.

Such systems allow wastewater — once viewed as a useless, disposable commodity — to become a valuable resource. RWL Water, which has worldwide experience in the advanced treatment of wastewater and process water for reuse, has created systems for water reuse across various industrial, agricultural, and municipal processes. Its water treatment technologies are capable of producing pure and ultrapure water for reuse in various applications, including power generation, beverage bottling, food production, and agriculture irrigation.

RWL Water designed and built a complete, multistage on-site water treatment system with zero liquid discharge for the Compañía Minera Doña Inés de Collahuasi SCM, or Collahuasi Copper Mine. This extensive mining operation extracts and refines copper and molybdenum ores. The operators sought to effectively treat the mine wastewater and maximize water reuse. The facility treats 216 cubic meters an hour.

The food and beverage industry also uses water reuse and zero-discharge technologies. In fact, such technologies can improve their overall cost of operations as well as make them resilient in periods of water scarcity. In a March 2012 interview with Food Manufacturing, Henry Charrabé, president and chief executive officer of RWL Water, explained:

Food plants require a large volume of water to process foods, clean plant equipment and remove waste products. […] The enormous amount of wastewater that must be treated is a burdensome cost for many food manufacturers. This is why water and wastewater treatment present both a challenge and an opportunity for food plant operators.

A PepsiCo Frito-Lay facility in Casa Grande, Arizona, is reportedly the first U.S. food processing plant able to produce drinking-quality process water for reuse. The snack food manufacturing plant, which processes potatoes and corn, has a 2,460-cubic-meter-a-day process water recovery treatment system, which has helped Frito-Lay reduce its annual water use by 378,541 cubic meters. It only landfills less than 1 percent of its waste, making it a near-net-zero waste facility.

Water reuse — whether it is greywater or recycled water — can save fresh water for human consumption in times of water stress and water scarcity. In Australia, for example, greywater use would reportedly save more than 1 trillion liters of fresh drinking water annually. Although some consumers are skeptical about drinking recycled water, vocal advocates — including Microsoft founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates — continue to demonstrate there is nothing to fear from drinking properly treated water.


An increasingly popular solution to fresh water scarcity is treating saline or brackish water sources through a process known as desalination or desalinization. This process can treat saltwater from the ocean or groundwater containing salt concentrations that make the water unfit for human consumption. Fresh water, for example, is defined as water with less than 1,000 ppm of salt. Highly saline water contains between 10,000 ppm and 35,000 ppm of salt.

Many nations are increasing their investments in desalination with a goal of having new, more reliable water sources to meet explosive, growing demand. These include the United Arab Emirates, nations with limited available water supplies such as Cyprus, and water-stressed areas of the United States. There are an estimated 16,000 desalination plants in operation, the largest of which are located in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

In the United Arab Emirates, for example, water demand is expected to double between 2011 and 2020. Most of that demand is being filled through desalination, with roughly US$3.27 billion spent annually for desalination. Abu Dhabi reportedly produced 650 million gallons of water a day in 2011.

The Cyprus Development Authority has built several plants in the nation to address the country’s water shortage, including three constructed by RWL Water. Two of these produce a total of 32,000 cubic meters of water per day, while a seawater reverse osmosis plant with a 50,000 cubic meter capacity called the Episkopi plant will also serve Limassol residents.

Unfortunately, desalination relies heavily on power-hungry, fixed facilities. Masdar, for example, estimates that seawater desalination requires about 10 times more energy than is needed for pumping well water.

But there are any number of solutions available to overcome these conventional obstacles. Some larger desalination facilities may be designed, for example, to include a cogeneration plant — a greener source of power for treatment. But RWL Water is already providing affordable solutions. It custom-designs, manufactures, and supplies state-of-the-art, full-scale desalination plants with capacities from 20,000 to 100,000 cubic meters a day. It also provides modular, containerized water treatment plants for the municipal sector. Financing options are available, including leasing, build-operate-transfer, and public-private partnerships — are available for these and other water treatment facilities.

Water Management

The management of water resources using existing policies and regulations is a science and art known as water management. Water management seeks to address any number of water-related challenges, including water resources management, water reuse, water rights, and others. It addresses the effects of any number of natural events or human interventions on natural water resources such as damming or dredging to influence a river’s flow. It also seeks to address the long-term, cumulative effects of water policy decisions on the economy, institutions, and environment. This may be through the development of policies regarding domestic water supplies, the pollution and overdrafting of groundwater supplies, wetlands restoration, or issues such as water imports and exports.

Although water management is commonly viewed as a task for national or regional governments, it is increasingly practiced at the state, provincial, or local level. Companies and industries are also adopting water management best practices to help them thrive and become better resource stewards.

One of the biggest obstacles limiting effective water management is politics and bureaucracy. A prime example can be seen in the Western United States, where increased demand and scarcity are making state and regional officials increasingly protective of their water rights.

Infrastructure Monitoring and Repairs

Another key in the water savings puzzle is the ongoing need worldwide for infrastructure monitoring and repair. Leaking pipes mean water is lost through delivery systems. These small amounts become increasingly larger over time with additional losses possible through burst pipes and mains. Monitoring aging infrastructure and creating new technologies — such as wirelessly-controlled smart valves and pipe defect and leak-detection sensing devices — are helping, but these need to be used in concert with water policies such as routine reporting and repair plans.

How big is the problem? In the United States an estimated 2.1 trillion gallons per year — about 16 percent of the water used in the nation daily — is lost through outdated and leaky infrastructure, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology. In Europe, the estimated value of water lost through leaky infrastructure is roughly €80 billion per year, according to the Community Research and Development Information Service.
Contributing to the problem is inadequate or limited funding available for infrastructure repair or replacement. Even in the United States, investments of more than $1 trillion are needed to repair and expand the nation’s aging drinking water infrastructure, according to a 2013 American Water Works Association report. Estimates for repairing and upgrading wastewater treatment systems throughout the nation were similar. The organization also noted delaying investments on key infrastructure repairs dramatically increases the eventual costs. To address these issues in some areas, water utility privatization has been advocated. The World Bank, for example, estimated that public-private partnerships resulted in reducing water losses — from leaks, theft, and inaccurate measurement — by 15 percent.

Water Conservation

Water conservation is deemed critical to stemming water scarcity. Although there are concerns about its efficacy, it is needed to reduce demand. Typically, conservation efforts are publicized and encouraged in times of drought, but in reality, conservation is key to sustaining the supply-demand balance, especially in areas expected to have continued population growth.

Effective conservation efforts can be seen in areas such as Zaragoza, Spain, which instituted its Water Saving City project in 1997 with a goal of reducing domestic water use by 1 million cubic meters per year. The net effect has been a “water scarcity impact” of 1.176 cubic meters of water per year, according Water 2030. This is a per capita water use reduction of roughly 51 liters, down from 150 liters a day in 1997 to 99 liters a day in 2012, despite a 12 percent population increase.

Despite this and similar successes, conservation is frequently pummeled in the environmental media for being ineffective, especially in the absence of meaningful water management policy and low water prices. Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California Riverside, was quoted in the The Redlands Daily Facts as saying that critics say even the success of mandatory water restrictions is “a function of the good will of the public, also the probability of getting caught misbehaving.”

The founder of the Environmentalist Foundation of India, Arun Krishnamurthy, observed in The Guardian:

Most conservation efforts start with a bang, and fizzle out over the months or years due to a lack of support. This could be a lack of money, of public awareness, or even the in-depth knowledge needed to proceed further.

Ultimately, addressing water scarcity effectively requires the combined efforts of consumers, water managers, researchers, and public officials. Finding a suite of effective and affordable solutions is often the goal. Brian Richter, director of Global Freshwater Strategies for The Nature Conservancy, told Colorado Public Radio:

You have to balance use with availability and consider cost and effectiveness. […] Water conservation or efficiency of use in industry and agriculture are the least expensive [options for addressing water scarcity] with the least impact on the environment.

What’s Next?

The 2030 Water Resources Group concluded:

There is no single water crisis, nor a simple solution. Different countries and different water basins face unique problems, sometimes even within the same region. With finite limits to local water, the critical challenge becomes how we can manage those resources to safely deliver the water needed to fuel growth, as well as for meeting the needs of people and the environment.

For more information about effective, custom water and wastewater treatment solutions designed to address your specific water scarcity challenges, please contact RWL Water to determine the water, wastewater, or reuse solution that best meets your needs.

Image by Tom Grundy/123RF.
Image by Tareq Salahuddin.

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