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                                       TOPIC 4.2: ACCESS TO FRESH WATER

Our water resources are under pressure. More reliable information is still needed regarding the quality and quantity of available water, and how this availability varies in time and from place to place. Human activities affect the water cycle in many ways, which needs to be understood and quantified to manage water resources responsibly and sustainably.

It has become evident that:

  • Changes in climate are affecting water availability

  • Pollution, water diversions and uncertainties about the abundance of water are threatening economic growth, environment, and health.

  • Underground water is often being overexploited and polluted.

  • To augment water supply, traditional techniques – such as rainwater collection – are now being supplemented by newer technologies like desalination and water reuse.

  • Political support is needed to improve information collection that can in turn enable better decision making about the management and use of water.

Significant Ideas

  • The supplies of freshwater resources are inequitably available and unevenly distributed, which can lead to conflict and concerns over water security

  • Freshwater resources can be sustainability managed using a variety of different approaches

Big questions:

  • What strengths and weaknesses of the systems approach and the use of models have been revealed through this topic?

  • Tow what extent have the solutions emerging from this topic been directed at preventing environmental impacts, limiting the extent of the environmental impacts, or restoring systems in which environmental impacts have already occurred?

  • How are the issues addressed in this topic of relevance to sustainability or sustainable development?

  • In what ways might the solutions explored in this topic alter your predictions for the state of human societies and the biosphere some decades from now?

  • How does a systems approach help in our understanding of unequal access to water resources?

  • To what extent are there solutions for increasing greater access to freshwater resources?

  • Outline the opportunities and barriers to managing freshwater resources sustainably.

  • Suggest how and why, access to freshwater resources is likely to change in the future.

Knowledge and Understanding

4.2.U1 Access to an adequate freshwater supply varies widely
[Consider examples of unequal distribution and inequitable supply.]

  • Outline the common uses of freshwater by people.

  • Analyse the factors contributing to an unequal and inequitable supply of fresh water

  • Explain the term “water scarcity”

Water is an important part of our daily lives and not just for drinking: when we wake up, we might take a shower, or sip coffee or tea; quench our thirst with all types of beverages; water our gardens; wash the laundry and the dishes; and by the end of the day, the average person in a Western society has consumed some 150–200 litres of freshwater.

The household water consumption is a mere teaspoonful in a bathtub when compared with the amount of water used by agriculture and industry. The USA alone uses more than 500 billion litres of freshwater every day to cool electric power plants, and roughly the same amount is needed to irrigate crop fields.

​In striking contrast, more than one billion people in developing nations do not have access to safe drinking water and two billion do not have adequate sanitation

12 Facts About Water In Developing Countries (From UN reports)

  1. 884 million people in the world lack access to safe water supplies.

  2. More than 840,000 people die each year from water-related disease.

  3. Almost 2 in 3 people who need safe drinking water survive on less than $2 a day.

  4. In many developing countries, millions of women spend several hours a day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources.

  5. Every minute a child dies of a water-related disease.

  6. Tackle a campaign to make the world suck less.

  7. Diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally, or approximately 2,300 people per day.

  8. More than 1/2 of all primary schools in developing countries don't have adequate water facilities and nearly 2/3 lack adequate sanitation.

  9. Clean water is one aspect of improving sustainable food production in order to reduce poverty and hunger.

  10. More than 80% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated, polluting rivers, lakes and coastal areas.

  11. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions.

  12. Every $1 spent on water and sanitation generates $8 as a result of saved time, increased productivity and reduced health care costs.

4.2.U2 Climate change may disrupt rainfall patterns and further affect this access

  • ​Outline how climate change may alter rainfall patterns and therefore effect water supply

Temperature and moisture are among the key variables that determine the distribution, growth and productivity, and reproduction of plants and animals. Changes in climate can influence species in a variety of ways, but the most completely understood processes are those that link moisture availability with intrinsic thresholds that regulate productivity and reproduction.

The changes in climate that are anticipated in the coming decades will have diverse effects on moisture availability, ranging from alterations in the timing and volume of streamflow to the lowering of water levels in many wetlands, the expansion of thermokarst lakes in the Arctic, and a decline in mist water availability in tropical mountain forests.

4.2.U3 As populations, irrigation and industrialization increase, the demand for fresh water increases

  • Discuss the factors contributing to an increase in water demand.​

Irrigation, industrialization, and population increase all make demands on the supplies of fresh water. Global warming may disrupt rainfall patterns and water supplies. The hydrological cycle gives humans fresh water but we are taking up so much water from the underground aquifers that there is no time for it to replenish.

The demand of water has increased in both MEDCs and LEDCs, as populations are increasing as well as agriculture changing and expanding industry. MEDCs need more water as they wash more often, water their gardens, and wash their cars. This means that the increasing use of water is making the demands higher. Water is not an infinite resource and has to be controlled more carefully, and new water resources need to be found.

Water can be managed if individuals and communities make changes and this should be supported by the government. Water should not be over used or wasted so that it is insured it can be enough for everyone.

This can be reached by:

  • making new buildings water efficient (rainwater for sanitation and showers)

  • fitting new homes with more water-efficient appliances (dishwashers and toilets)

  • expand metering to encourage households to use water more efficiently

  • in some rural areas drought resistant crops should be planted to reduce the need for irrigation

  • organic fertilizers cause less pollution and bio-control measures can be used to reduce crop pests

​As populations grow, greater demands are made on water resources. Water resources are now becoming a limiting factor in many societies, and the availability of water for drinking, industry and agriculture need to be considered. Many societies now are dependent on groundwater which is non-renewable.

As societies develop, water needs to be increased. The increased demand for water can lead to inequity of use and political consequences. When water supplies fail, populations will be forced to take dramatic steps, such as mass migration. Water shortages may also lead to civil unrest and wars.

  • India has 4% of the world’s freshwater, but 16% of its population. Demand will probably exceed supply by 2020, as urban water demand is expected to double and industrial demand to triple. Hydrologists calculate that 43% of precipitation never reaches rivers or aquifers, and water tables are falling rapidly as 21 million wells abstract water.

  • China has 8% of the world’s freshwater but must meet the needs of 22% of the world’s population. Two-thirds of Chinese cities do not have enough water all year round, and national water supplies are likely to reach stress levels by 2030. China uses irrigation to produce 70% of its food, mostly in the north and northeast, where the Yellow River and major aquifers are running dry. Huge engineering projects transfer water to this area from the water-rich south.

4.2.U4 Freshwater supplies may become limited through contamination and unsustainable abstraction

  • ​Explain the limitations to meeting water demand.

Humans must drink potable water. In HICs water can be purified, for example in the Lea Valley, London, where wastewater is cleaned and used to recharge aquifers. Contaminated water carries diseases such as cholera, which is one of the diseases responsible for the high infant mortality rates in LICs. The 7th Millennium Development Goal (MDG7) aims to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. This goal can be achieved through reliable supplies and waste treatment technology.

With a warmer climate, droughts and floods could become more frequent, severe and long-lasting. Droughts can have devastating effects on agriculture, livestock and water supplies, causing famine, malnutrition and the displacement of populations from one area to another.

The land may become starved of nourishment or contaminated with mineral salts, so that even when it does rain the ground cannot support much vegetation growth. With climate change expected to reduce rainfall in some places and cause drought in others, some regions could become ‘economic deserts’, of no use to people or agriculture.

The Pearl River in China is highly polluted.

  • The Delta, which accounts for 10% of China’s GDP, has undergone rapid urbanisation. The rapid growth of cities has contributed to environmental degradation in the Delta.

  • Polluted water is killing crops in the Pearl River Delta.

  • Cities are rich enough to treat the water but they do not allow farmers to use the treated water, so people are forced to drink the polluted water. Those who do fall sick.

  • 9,000 tonnes of heavy metals, 66,000 tonnes of nitrates and ammonia and 60,000 tonnes of petrol are deposited into the sea every year by the river.

  • The World Bank has approved a US$96 million loan to reduce water pollution.

  • Guangzhou has built 30 water treatment plants which aim to cut sewage by 85%.

4.2.U5 Water supplies can be enhanced through reservoirs, redistribution, desalination, artificial recharge of aquifers and rainwater harvesting schemes. Water conservation (including grey-water recycling) can help to reduce demand but often requires a change in attitude by the water consumers

  • Evaluate strategies used to meet an increasing demand for water.​

​Most water-short regions of the world with dry climates have long-standing water conservation traditions. These are being maintained or supplemented with demand-management practices. To meet increased demands, water resource management practitioners are augmenting the limited natural water supply with desalination, water reuse, enhanced groundwater recharge and inter-basin transfers.

Rainwater harvesting
Rainwater has been collected for thousands of years in many parts of the world. Today, this technique is used in Asia to replenish underground supplies. It is relatively inexpensive and has the advantage of allowing local communities to develop and maintain the required structures themselves.

Diverting Surface Water
Diverting surface water into the ground can help reduce losses from evaporation, compensate for variations in flow, and improve quality. Middle East and Mediterranean regions are applying this strategy.

Dams and Reservoirs
Dams and reservoirs have been built to store water for irrigation and drinking. Moreover dams can provide power and help control floods, but they can also bring about undesirable social and environmental impacts.
Transferring water between river basins can also help alleviate shortages. China, for instance, already has major interbasin links, and is planning more. The impact of these projects on people and the environment must be monitored closely.

Wastewater is now reused for different purposes in many countries, especially in the Middle East, and this practice is expected to grow. Worldwide, non-potable water is used for irrigation and industrial cooling. Cities are also turning to water re-use to supplement drinking water supplies, taking advantage of progress in water treatment. More...

Desalinated water – seawater and other salty water that has been turned into freshwater – is used by cities and by industries, especially in the Middle East. The cost of this technique has dropped sharply, but it relies heavily on energy from fossil fuels and hence raises waste management and climate change issues. More...

4.2.U6 The scarcity of water resources can lead to conflict between human populations, particularly where sources are shared

  • ​Define water stress.

  • Distinguish between water stress and water scarcity


When the demand for water overtakes supply and several stakeholders wish to use the same resource, there is a potential for conflict. Competing demands for water for irrigation, power generation, domestic use, recreation and conservation can also create tension both between and within countries.

The Middle Eastern water conflicts are exacerbated by low seasonal rainfall and growing population sizes. In the western part of this region, Israelis, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians are in dispute over shrinking water supplies. Security of water supplies was not the cause of the Arab-Israeli War, but was a contributory factor. Water in this region comes from two sources: the River Jordan (and its lakes) and three important aquifers.

The division of these water resources between the neighbouring states is an ongoing challenge. In the eastern part of the region, Turkey plans to build dams to store and use water in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This is strongly opposed by Syria and Iraq, where reduced water supplies threaten to hold back economic development and food production.


The River Danube is a trans-boundary source, but international agreement has stopped conflicts.

  • The Danube flows through 17 countries, and rises in the Black Forest Mountains in Germany and flows for 2,850km to the Black Sea.

  • It provides drinking water for 10 million people and the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, comprising 13 member states and the EU, was set up in 1998 to promote and coordinate sustainable and equitable water management, including conservation, improvement and rational use of the water of the river, its tributaries and groundwater sources.

The River Nile is over-used, so conflict in the near future is likely.

  • The Nile flows through 10 countries for 6,700km, draining more than 3 million km2, about one-tenth of the entire African landmass, and is formed by three major tributaries, the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara.

  • The primary problem facing the Nile and the countries has to do with the scarcity and over-use of the water.

  • Before dams were built on the river, the discharge at Aswan varied widely throughout the year.

Application and Skils

4.2.A1 Evaluate the strategies that can be used to meet an increasing demand for fresh water.

Around the world, human activity and natural forces are reducing available water resources. Although public awareness of the need to better manage and protect water has grown over the last decade, economic criteria and political considerations still tend to drive water policy at all levels. Science and best practice are rarely given adequate consideration.

Pressures on water resources are increasing mainly as a result of human activity – namely urbanisation, population growth, increased living standards, growing competition for water, and pollution. These are aggravated by climate change and variations in natural conditions.

Using water resources sustainably is challenging because of the many factors involved, including changes in climate, the natural variability of the resource, as well as pressures due to human activity. At present, most water policy is still driven by short-term economic and political concerns that do not take into account science and good stewardship.


State-of-the-art solutions and more funding, along with more data on water resources, are needed especially in developing nations. To assess the state of our water resources, we must fully appreciate the roles of different parts of the water cycle – such as rain, meltwater from glaciers, and so on. Otherwise, it remains difficult to develop adequate protection and mitigation strategies.

Poor water quality and unsustainable use of water resources can limit the economic development of a country, harm health and affect livelihoods. On a positive note, more sustainable practices are starting to be adopted. When managing water resources, more attention should be paid to increasing existing natural resources and reducing demand and losses.


 The traditional response to rising demand for water was to store surface water in reservoirs, divert flow to dry regions and withdraw groundwater. Now these methods are increasingly supplemented by water reuse, desalination and rainfall harvesting. Certain regions are even going to the extreme of exploiting non-renewable groundwater resources.

Some countries have programs to reduce demand and losses from urban water distribution systems but more efforts are necessary. However, this will involve changes in behaviour requiring education and political commitment. Such efforts to conserve water and reduce demand are not only useful in regions where water is in short supply, they can also bring economic benefits in wetter regions.

4.2.A2 Discuss, with reference to a case study, how shared freshwater resources have given rise to international conflict

​As demand for water hits the limits of finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations that share transboundary freshwater reserves. More than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes unless they move quickly to establish agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers, and underground water aquifers. The articles and analysis below examine international water disputes, civil disturbances caused by water shortages, and potential regulatory solutions to diffuse water conflict.

Case Study
At the heart of tensions between India and Bangladesh is the water supply from the River Ganges.

  • For most of its 2,500km length, the Ganges flows through India, but the last part of its course takes it through Bangladesh before passing into the Bay of Bengal.

  • In 1974 India opened the huge Farakka Barrage, just 11km from the Bangladeshi border. Further upstream, a series of dams divert water into irrigation systems and many of India’s largest cities use the river to carry wastewater from domestic and industrial sources.

  • Bangladesh is being deprived of much-needed water and has to suffer the effects of India’s pollution of the river.

  • The reduced flow of the river is affecting irrigation and food production. Fish stocks and the fishing industry are declining. Navigation and water-borne trade are becoming harder because of lower river levels, which are also increasing salinization. The delta is eroding because less silt is being carried and deposited. Seawater incursion is increasing as the delta dries out.


Classroom Material
Water Case Study Activity
Three International Water Conflicts to Watch
Water Wars and International Conflict
Effect of Human Activity on Groundwater article

Case Studies
Bottled Water Case Study
Canada Case Study
Colorado River Case Study
Fish kill Case Study
Israel Case Study
Jordan Case Study
The Aral Sea Case Study
Tigris Euphrates Case Study
Wealth of Water Case Study

Useful Links
FEW Research. org
UN International Year of Water
UNEP: Vital Water Graphics
Transboundary Waters
UN Global Water Issues
Human Appropriation of the World's Fresh Water Supply - Global Change
Water Withdrawals for Irrigation by Country - FAO
Global Water Project
Flush Zero

In The News
Access to clean water and sanitation around the world – mapped - Guardian July 2015
Eight radical solutions for the water shortage - BBC April 2012​
South Dakota Scientists Help Restore Water in Armenia - USGS April 2016
Climate-driven water shortages could take severe toll on global economies, warns World Bank - Business Green April 2016
China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe - Scientific America Mar 25, 2008
Groundwater greed driving sea level rises  - New Scientist 25 September 2011
Sharing The Colorado River - University of Arizona August 1, 1997
Jordan River Information - a number of publications in PDF format from Friends of the Earth Middle
Water use boosts California quakes - BBC News 14 May 2014
The history of the Aral Sea - from 
A Warmer World Might Not Be a Wetter One - NASA Oct.17,2005
World Water Assessment Program - UNESCO
Drought-Ravaged Malawi Faces Largest Humanitarian Emergency in its History - Center for Strategies and International


Studies, August 2, 2016


  • Unequal access to fresh water can cause conflict between countries that have an abundance of freshwater and those that do not.



  • Aid agencies often use emotive advertisements around the water security issue—to what extent can emotion be used to manipulate knowledge and actions?



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Freshwater (4.2)

Is there a Freshwater Crisis? - Scientific American
Problems for the global Freshwater systems-WWF
Water Scarcity Threats- WWF
3 Gorges Dam article - Case Study
Check out links to videos of people who have designed ways to capture fresh water from a variety of sources including humidity, air, wind, etc.. 
Warka Water Towers


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