Water Issues from a Global, National, and Local Perspective


untitled (Sila Dhamma ) / CC BY 3.0

By Nathaniel Uchtmann

Water is prominent on the list of global crises that are predicted to present major challenges to human populations at scales ranging from local to global. In the coming decades, water is thus expected to acquire an increasingly important position on the global agenda. Even today, water-related human morbidity and mortality, which results from widely divergent levels of both water quality and quantity, is already widespread, and almost 80% of the global population faces exposure to high threat levels of water insecurity (Vorosmarty et al 2010). The impacts of water shortages are particularly acute in the developing world, where rising populations and climate change are expected to cause severe water shortages for one-third of the population in this century (Lall 2008).

Yet, despite such findings, awareness of the global water crisis is far from commensurate with the scale of the problem. One reason, according to former UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis, is that “the people suffering the most from the water and sanitation crisis—poor people in general and poor women in particular—often lack the political voice needed to assert their claims to water” (UNDP 2006, p. vi). Additionally, the mainstream academic community involved with hydrology and water has largely ignored the issue and holds widely divergent opinions regarding whether and when the world will run out of water (Lall 2008). But according to one analyst, broad agreement does exist that  “there will be significantly increasing water scarcity that will turn ‘water’ into a key, or the key, limiting factor in food production and livelihoods generation for poor people (…) virtually throughout rural Asia and most of Africa” (Rijsberman 2004, p. 8).

Our understanding of global water issues can be greatly increased by examining three sub-issues: safe drinking water; pollution and degradation; and water scarcity (Lall 2008).

“Safe” drinking water implies that water is largely free from impurities and microorganisms that frequently cause disease or death. Unsafe drinking water significantly limits human progress—close to half of all people in developing countries suffer from health problems caused by water and sanitation deficits at any given time (UNDP 2006). To address this burden, the WHO outlines corrective measures, such as providing access to sufficient quantities of safe water, providing facilities for disposal of sanitary waste, and introducing sound hygiene behaviors (WHO 2011b). The cascade of ensuing benefits from government investment in water and sanitation is so powerful that it can even be labeled as preventive medicine, with apt analogies drawn to immunizations (UNDP 2006).

Major sources of water pollution are usefully divided into “point sources” and “non-point sources”. Far greater progress has been made in reducing the detrimental consequences from point sources (a definite source of pollution, such as a pipe), at least where sufficient political will and funds are available. In contrast, pollution from non-point sources (diffuse sources , such as farms) has proven to be more difficult to control due to greater costs, and because the effects are easier to ignore—perniciously affecting downstream ecosystems and gradually accumulating in water bodies and food chains (Lall 2008).

Water scarcity “refers to a situation when the water supply is inadequate in relation to the water demand for basic human and ecological necessities, including the production of food and other economic goods”. Scarcity is the principal component of the three-fold water crisis because it can drive or exacerbate both access and pollution (Lall 2008). The Human Development Report highlights the social, rather than environmental, origins of water scarcity: “the heart of the global water crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability” (UNDP 2006, p. 2).

The interdependence of water issues is reinforced by the following observation: “For the first time in human history, human use and pollution of freshwater have reached a level where water scarcity will potentially limit food production, ecosystem function, and urban supply in the decades to come” (Jury & Vaux 2007, p. 2). Studying water’s interconnected issues usefully illustrates the increasing global competition over scarce necessities with widely-variable distribution.

Global Framework and Recent Developments

In July 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that safe and clean drinking water and sanitation constitutes a human right essential to the enjoyment of life and all other human rights (WHO 2011a). Yet, “around 1.1 billion people globally do not have access to improved water supply sources” (WHO 2011b). Predictably, this failure leads to high rates of sickness and death among young children from preventable diseases, and arguably qualifies among the 20th century’s greatest development failures (Gleick 2004-5). Further, water’s role reaches far beyond measures of human health: clean water and sanitation rank among the most powerful drivers for human development by extending opportunity, enhancing dignity, and helping to create a virtuous cycle of improving health and rising wealth (UNDP 2006).

There has been progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goal  for safe drinking water—the world will meet or even exceed the drinking water target by 2015 (with an estimated 86% of populations in developing regions having access to improved sources of drinking water, compared to 71% in 1990) (UN 2010). Unfortunately, the target for basic sanitation is out of reach because the estimated number of people lacking access to improved sanitation (2.6 billion in 2008) is projected to rise to 2.7 billion by 2015 (UN 2010).

Local Challenges and Opportunities

Local examples can illuminate the challenges and opportunities surrounding complex global water issues. “In Africa, the world’s second-driest continent, the availability and access to water is more crucial to existence than it is almost anywhere else on Earth. Poverty is widespread and although it is rapidly urbanizing, the majority of its population is still rural-based and dependent on agriculture” (UNEP 2010, p. 13). In sub-Saharan Africa, 69% of the population has no proper sanitation facilities, and 40% has no reliable access to safe water (UNEP 2010).

Kenya, a sub-Saharan African nation with statistics that mirror the UNEP baseline, is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Unsurprisingly, water heavily impacts major sectors of Kenya’s economy, including tourism (World Bank 2004). “Kenyans use water for drinking, energy generation, livestock production, agriculture, tourism, industry, and many other livelihoods. Lack of adequate, good-quality water is therefore a significant obstacle to development” (World Resources Institute 2007, p. vii). Kenya experiences particularly high child morbidity and mortality due to exposure to unsafe water (World Resources Institute 2007), and water pollution significantly contributes to increased civil strife: “Both surface and groundwaters receive urban pollution from wastewaters and sewage and chemicals from agricultural runoff. As well, declining and degraded water supplies have led to conflicts among different users, such as between pastoralists and farmers, upstream and downstream users, humans and wildlife, among others” (UNEP 2010, p. 107).


Water access and water scarcity are effective symbols of the ubiquitous interconnections and interdependencies of the global society. Given that the bulk of global water resources are consumed by agriculture, water pollution and shortages are directly traceable to lifestyles in the “developed” world. “It is estimated that 30 percent of all water in global food today comes from a country other than the one in which the food is consumed. This fraction is anticipated to grow, meaning that global market forces will play a role in both the supply and demand for local water resources” (Lall 2008, p. 9). Fortunately, the water crisis is not inevitable and does not result from limited availability. Instead, its roots lie in both institutions and political choices: “[l]ike hunger, deprivation in access to water is a silent crisis experienced by the poor and tolerated by those with the resources, the technology and the political power to end it…. Success in addressing [water and sanitation challenges] through a concerted national and international response would act as a catalyst for progress in public health, education and poverty reduction and as a source of economic dynamism” (UNDP 2006, pgs 1-2). Recognition of this reality will benefit the whole of humanity.

Gleick, P. H. “The Millennium Development Goals for water: Crucial objectives, inadequate commitments.”
Jury, W. A. & Vaux Jr., H. J. “The Emerging Global Water Crisis: Managing Scarcity and Conflict Between Water Users.” Advances in Agronomy. Vol. 95, 2007, pp. 1-76.
Lall, U. “Water in the 21st Century: Defining the elements of global crises and potential solutions.” Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2008, vol. 61, no. 2. pp. 1-17. http://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/files/jia/1-17_lall.pdf
Rijsberman, F.R. “Water Scarcity: Fact or fiction?” 2004. Proceedings of the 4th International

Crop Science Congress. www.cropscience.org.au/icsc2004/pdf/1994_rijsbermanf.pdf

UN Department of Public Information. Goal 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability Fact Sheet. September 2010. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG_FS_7_EN.pdf
UNEP. “Africa Water Atlas.”2010. http://na.unep.net/atlas/africaWater/downloads/africa_water_atlas.pdf
UNDP. 2006 Human Development Report. “Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis.” http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR06-complete.pdf
Vorosmarty, C.J. McIntyre, M.O. Gessner, O. Dudgeon, D. Prusevich, A. Green, P. Glidden, S.

Bunn, S.E. Sullivan, C.A. Reidy Liermann, C. & Davies, P.M. “Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity.” September 30, 2010. Nature 467, pp. 555–561. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v467/n7315/full/nature09440.html

World Bank. “Towards a Water-Secure Kenya: Water Resources Sector Memorandum.” April, 2004. http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2004/04/23/-
World Health Organization. 2011. “Recent developments on the recognition of safe and clean water and sanitation as a human right.” http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/recognition_safe_clean_water/en/
World Health Organization. 2011. “Water Supply, sanitation and hygiene development.” http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/hygiene/en/
World Resources Institute. “Nature’s Benefits in Kenya: An Atlas of Ecosystems and Human Well-Being.” 2007. http://pdf.wri.org/kenya_atlas_fulltext_150.pdf
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