New Internationalist

Water - The facts

Issue 354

Over the past century our water consumption increased tenfold. According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water, while some 2.4 billion lack proper sanitary provision.


  • On our blue planet 97.5% of the water is saltwater, unfit for human use.
  • The majority of freshwater is beyond our reach, locked into polar snow and ice.
  • Less than 1% of freshwater is usable, amounting to only 0.01% of the Earth’s total water.1
  • Even this would be enough to support the world’s population three times over, if used with care.2
  • However, water – like population – isn’t distributed evenly. Asia has the greatest annual availability of fresh-water and Australia the lowest. But when population is taken into account the picture looks very different.

Where’s it going?

Our increasing thirst is a result of growing population, industrial development and the expansion of irrigated farming. In the past 40 years, the area of irrigated land has doubled.3

Signs of stress

  • By the mid-1990s, 80 countries home to 40% of world population encountered serious water shortages. Worst affected are Africa and the Middle East.
  • y 2025 two-thirds of the world’s people will be facing water stress. The global demand for water will have grown by over 40% by then.1
  • The only ray of hope is that the growth in actual use of water has been slower than predicted.3

In sickness and in health

  • Dirty water is the cause of numerous diseases, but improving hygiene and sanitation are equally important in order to curb water-related diseases.

Diseases of contamination

There are 4 billion cases of diarrhoea worldwide each year and 2.2 million avoidable deaths – that’s a death every 14 seconds.1 Most diarrhoeal deaths occur in the Majority World and just being able to wash one’s hands with soap and water can reduce diarrhoea by 35%.2

Insect-related diseases

Malaria, borne by water-breeding mosquitoes, is the biggest killer, causing 1-2 million deaths a year. At any given time 100 million people suffer from the disease.1


Intestinal worms infect about 10% of the Majority World population. About 200 million people are affected by schistosomiasis (bilharzia), with 200,000 dying each year. After a peak in the late 1980s, guinea- worm infections have been declining as water sources are better monitored.1 & 3

Needing and Getting

By contrast the average US citizen uses 500 litres per day, while the British average is 200.2

The recommended basic water requirement per person per day is 50 litres. But people can get by with about 30 litres: 5 litres for drinking and cooking and another 25 to maintain hygiene. The reality for millions comes nowhere near.

The rural poor

People in rural areas are four times more likely than those in cities to have no safe supply of water. The burden falls unequally on women who sometimes have to walk for hours to fetch water. A jerrycan of water with a capacity of 18 litres weighs 20 kilos.

The urban poor

They are less likely than the well-off to be connected to mains water supplies and pay on average 12 times more per litre. In Jakarta, Indonesia the poor pay water vendors 60 times the price of water from a standard connection; in Karachi, Pakistan, 83 times; and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Nouakchott, Mauritania, 100 times.4


Viewed in percentage terms both water supply and sanitation provision have improved in the last decade.

However, the actual number of people in need has barely changed due to the rise in world population.3

Tapping groundwater

Some 97% of liquid freshwater is stored underground in aquifers. People, especially in rural areas, are increasingly dependent on groundwater – up to 2 billion people, a third of the world’s population, rely on it.1

Aquifers are most severely depleted in parts of India, China, the US, North Africa and the Middle East. It can take centuries for aquifers to recharge, so the world is currently running a groundwater overdraft of 200 billion cubic metres a year.

Pollution is a major problem, resulting from human and farm animal waste, naturally occurring toxins, as well as the over 10 million different synthetic chemicals in use today.

  1. UNEP, Global Environment Outlook 3 (Earthscan 2002).
  2. Rob Bowden, Water Supply: Our Impact on the Planet (Hodder Wayland 2002).
  3. Peter Gleick et al, The World’s Water 2002-2003 (Island Press 2002).
  4. Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2001 (WW Norton 2001).
  5. Peter Gleick, The World’s Water 2000-2001 (Island Press 2000).
  6. Lester R Brown, State of the World 2001 (Earthscan 2001).

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  1. #3 jacklynn short 08 Nov 13

    we need more details more in dept

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This article was originally published in issue 354

New Internationalist Magazine issue 354
Issue 354

More articles from this issue

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  • Going off the mains

    March 1, 2003

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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