Water Scarcity – Some Things You Need To Know

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Aerial view of the Mona Reservoir (2014)

Jamaica has been suffering from the grips of drought and concomitant water shortage crisis. In fact, it would appear that the situation is ongoing, because not much has changed since last year, when water levels in various catchment areas depleted to dangerous lows and the National Water Commission (NWC) reported that the water in its storage facilities would only last for another 15 days at most if it did not implement restrictions.

However, our situation is not unique, as many cities and countries around the world have been hit by similar conditions.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “water scarcity occurs when the demand for freshwater exceeds supply in a specified domain. It is manifested by partial or no satisfaction of expressed demand, economic competition for water quantity or quality, disputes between users, irreversible depletion of groundwater, and negative impacts on the environment.”

The FAO’s 2012 report, Coping with Water Scarcity: An Action Framework for Agriculture and Food Security, identifies water scarcity as a social construct, because its causes are related to human interference with the water cycle. The United Nation’s Coping with Water Shortage strategy paper also says,

“Scarcity may be a social construct (a product of affluence, expectations and customary behaviour) or the consequence of altered supply patterns stemming from climate change. Scarcity has various causes, most of which are capable of being remedied or alleviated. A society facing water scarcity usually has options. However, scarcity often has its roots in water shortage, and it is in the arid and semiarid regions affected by droughts and wide climate variability, combined with population growth and economic development, that the problems of water scarcity are most acute.”

A dry riverbed through which water was running just weeks ago
A dry riverbed through which water was running just weeks ago

To assess scarcity, hydrologists typically look at the population-water equation. An area is experiencing water stress when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres (m3) per person. When annual water supplies drop below 1,000 m3 per person, the population faces water scarcity, and below 500 m3 “absolute scarcity.” Water scarcity is characterised by:

  • a physical lack of water availability to satisfy demand
  • the level of infrastructure development that controls storage, distribution and access
  • the institutional capacity to provide the necessary water services

Here are some quick facts:

  1. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and, although there is no global water scarcity as such, an increasing number of regions are chronically short of water.
  2. Around 700 million people in 43 countries suffer today from water scarcity.
  3. By 2025, 1.8 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.
  4. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater use, and more than 90 per cent of its consumptive use.
  5. Globally, domestic water use represents only about 10 percent of all water uses, but has a very low consumption rate – most domestic use is returned to the environment with little evaporative loss even if quality is degraded.
  6. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage (where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers).
  7. With the existing climate change scenario, almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa (Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water-stressed countries of any region.) In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.
  8. Access to clean water actually impacts upon the successful achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  9. More than 1.4 billion people live in river basins where the use of water exceeds the minimum recharge levels. In the next 12 years, water withdrawals (diverted or otherwise removed from a surface or ground source) in developing countries are predicted to increase by 50 per cent.

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