Fresh water is renewable, but without substitute. Essential to life on Earth, access to it remains very unequally divided. In addition to its massive use by intensive agriculture, industry and the energy sector, the very unsustainable modes of consumption and growth in emerging countries are leading to a strong increase in the demand for water, while soil deterioration and climate change only worsen water stress. The preservation of water resources thus takes on geopolitical, environmental, economic, social, and cultural dimensions.

Fresh water is a renewable but non-substitutable resource, essential to life. Access to it remains very unequal, determined by the location of underground aquifers and drainage basins, societies’ ability to manage them, and the various ways in which water is appropriated, used and distributed.

Annual global consumption represents one-seventh of the fresh water available and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) has assessed the human right to water at a minimum of 20 liters per person per day. And yet 840 million people – 90% of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – have no access to drinking water (a protected supply less than 30 minutes from their home), 2.1 billion have no drinking water access in their homes and 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation services (toilets, hand-washing facilities).

Access to basic drinking water services, 2015

Source: Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene,

Comment: The Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene of the WHO and UNICEF collects data on water, purification, and hygiene in the countries and regions of the world. This map of access to drinking water services shows the extent to which this facility is far from universal. In many African countries, only part of the population has access and between 20% (in Eritrea) and 60% of inhabitants still have none, even though the hatching indicates a positive change between 2000 and 2015 because the 50% target was reached.

Despite significant progress since the 1990s, 1.8 billion people still have contaminated water supplies and more than 800,000 (over 40% of them children under age 5) die each year from diseases caused by unsafe water (diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, etc.).

By 2050, more than 40% of the world’s population could be living in regions affected by water shortage (in India, China, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s dry zone, Australia, the western US, etc.). Nine countries (Brazil, Russia, the United States, Canada, China, Indonesia, India, Colombia and Peru) hold 60% of global water reserves, while Asia, home to nearly 60% of the global population, holds just 30% of the total.

With respect to water use, intensive agriculture accounts for 70% of the total (including evaporation from irrigated agricultural land), industry for 20% (with manufacturing foremost), and household consumption for 10%. Demand for water is rising fast – driven by energy production, consumer behaviors (meat consumption, food waste, etc.) and the growth of emerging countries.

Water stress

Situations of water stress (< 1,700 m 3 per person per year) or scarcity (< 1,000 m 3) mainly impact the most underprivileged populations and are aggravated by excessive withdrawals of surface water, inadequate public resource management policies, various forms of pollution, urbanization, urban sprawl and population growth – as well as the effects of climate change (leading to more frequent and severe droughts and flooding).

Projected water stress in 2040

Source: World Resources Institute,

Comment: Based on the ecological footprint model, the water footprint was devised to gain a better understanding of water stress. It includes blue water (pumped from groundwater), green water (used by plants to produce biomass), virtual water (contained in agricultural or manufactured and traded products) and grey water (used to remove pollution from effluents and recycle them). The map is based on data from the American think tank World Resources Institute, and shows water stress projections for 2040, which are arrived at by connecting up the total annual water abstraction and the total renewable resources available each year. The highest figures indicate more competition between users and affect a large section of the global population: the western United States, Mexico, the west coast of Latin America, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Western Asia, and the north of China.

These factors exacerbate soil degradation (erosion, acidification, runoff, nutrient loss, contamination, biodiversity loss, etc.).

Wastewater treatment levels vary in line with levels of development: 70% of wastewater is treated in high-income countries, 38% in upper middle-income countries, 28% in lower middle-income countries and just 8% in low-income countries. This can lead to a degradation of surface water, underground water and marine ecosystems (via organic pollution, eutrophication, deoxygenation, etc.).

For many years, water was seen as mainly a geopolitical issue and in terms of the tensions revolving around water systems (cross-border river basins, sharing of territorial waters, water conflicts, etc.), but since the 2000s there has been a growing awareness of the scale and diversity of the challenges to be confronted in this area.

In consequence, water was included among the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015. Projects involving “nature-based solutions” (utilizing the natural water cycle) are multiplying, aiming to preserve wetlands and their ecosystems, to enhance natural water retention, to manage rain and runoff water sustainably in urban and periurban areas (creating permeable or “sponge” cities) and to use water as a source of energy.

Public vs private management

National governments, municipalities, multinational corporations, international organizations, NGOs, community water organizations, users, researchers: a host of different actors are involved in water management and the relationships between them are complex. Water management encompasses catchment management, purification, storage, distribution, wastewater collection, water treatment and recycling. Worldwide, 90% of the water we use is under public management, the remaining 10% involving public services contracted out to private operators for specific time periods, sometimes under public-private partnership (PPP/concessions – the French model), or private initiatives (water vendors selling door-to-door, standpipes, management of mini-networks, etc.), or companies running privatized public services (the US/UK model).

Remunicipalization of water management, 2000-2015

Source: Water Remunicipalisation,

Comment: Having been a favored recipient of public-private partnerships (PPP) over several decades, water and sanitation services became one of the main sectors affected by remunicipalization (between March 2000 and March 2015, 235 cases in 37 countries, for more than 100 million people). The map was drawn up using data from the Water Justice project set up by a research and advocacy group for equitable, democratic, and sustainable water provision (Corporate Europe Observatory and Transnational Institute). It shows that high-income countries are more prone to such remunicipalization.

Many NGOs, local and international, are working to improve the management of water resources in rural communities and urban shantytowns. International and regional organizations are making similar efforts, often in a fragmented way: the UN’s thirty or so bodies in this area were brought together under a single banner, UN Water, in 2003. The World Water Council – a self-styled international organization and think tank with links to the private sector – has also been active in this field since 1996. It hosts a World Water Forum every three years.


To quote this article

" Water – a precious resource " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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