Water Fact Sheet Looks at Threats, Trends, Solutions

Published: May 23, 2010

“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.” 
– Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac 1733

On the subject of water, three key trends confront us: climate change will affect rainfall and runoff patterns and seriously impact our water supplies both in the United States and abroad; 780 million people in the developing world still don’t have access to clean drinking water – and pressure from pollution, wetland destruction, and climate change is threatening to make this worse; and the dangers of water privatization demand greater scrutiny from governments and the public.

New approaches to the way we manage water are key to meeting these challenges. Water managers, policy-makers, and the general public must recognize that today’s threats will become tomorrow’s tragedies without swift action to combat climate change, protect wetlands, guard against the dangers of privatization, and use our water efficiently. The good news is by improving how efficiently we use water we can protect the environment, provide for agriculture and industry, and ensure there is plenty of clean drinking water for people around the world.


Facts on the World’s Water

  • The Earth has 1,386,000,000 km3 of water total but only 2.5 percent of that is fresh water (35,029,000 km3 or 9,254,661,800 billion gallons of fresh water).
  • Less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water (or 0.01 percent of all water) is usable in a renewable fashion.
  • The average person needs a minimum of 1.3 gallons (5 liters) of water per day to survive in a moderate climate at an average activity level. The minimum amount of water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation is 13 gallons (50 liters).
  • The average person in the United States uses between 65 to 78 gallons of water (250 to 300 liters) per day for drinking, cooking, bathing, and watering their yard. The average person in the Netherlands uses only 27 gallons (104 liters) per day for the same tasks.
  • The average person in the African nation of Gambia uses only 1.17 gallons (4.5 liters) of water per day.

Trend: Climate Change Impacts Threaten Water Supplies and Economy

Delaying action to combat climate change and plan resilience strategies for inevitable changes could threaten water supplies, both in the U.S. and around the world. Climate change will disrupt traditional weather and run-off patterns and could increase the frequency and severity of drought and floods, changing when and where we get snow and rain. In the western U.S., if our snow pack melts too quickly or if water that falls as snow turns to rain, we’ll see more flooding in the winter and less water during the summer when we need it most. This is one reason why taking effective action now to reduce greenhouse gas emisions is so important.

Facts about Climate Change in the United States:

  • There is an increased risk of severe floods and droughts associated with climate change.
  • Snowfall and snowmelt will be significantly affected in the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest, leading to changes in the timing and amount of runoff.
  • Rising sea levels will threaten coastal aquifers and water supplies. Vulnerable regions include Cape Cod, Long Island, the coastal aquifers of the Carolinas, and the central coast of California.
  • Climate change, by increasing temperatures in lakes and streams, melting permafrost, and reducing water clarity, could seriously threaten fish and other animals that live in water as well as harming critical habitat like wetlands. More about the impacts of climate change on water…


Trend: Growing Threats to World’s Water Demand New Approach

Freshwater is essential for human survival, for agriculture and for the survival of our planet’s plants and animals. But pollution, climate change, water-related disease, and the destruction of our natural world all threaten the purity and availability of our most precious resource. Despite the pressing nature of these threats, water institutions and policymakers have, so far, been largely unable to develop the tools and approaches needed to address these problems.”The best way to solve emerging threats to the world’s fresh water is by rethinking how we use and manage our scarce resources,” said Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. “We must look at ways to increase our efficiency of use, instead of just building more dams and reservoirs. Improving the efficiency of our water systems, taking real steps to tackle global warming, and opening the policy debate over water to new voices can help turn the tide.”

Facts about Emerging Threats to the World’s Water:

  • An estimated 780 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation. As a result, 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes.
  • In the past century over half of all wetlands on the planet have been lost to development and conversion. Wetlands are important to the health of natural systems and people because they act as filters and flood buffers.
  • Water pollution is a serious threat to the world’s water. Microbes, salts, and pollution from agriculture and industry all contribute to the problem.
  • Global warming will likely have major impacts on the world’s freshwater resources. Some areas will suffer more frequent and severe droughts; other places will face more frequent and severe floods. More about Threats to the World’s Freshwater Resources…

Trend: Dangers of Water Privatization Demand Greater Scrutiny

Water privatization – turning the operation, control, or ownership of public water supplies over to corporations – is increasing both overseas and in the United States. In the U.S., cities like Stockton, California, Jersey City, New Jersey, New Orleans, and Atlanta have all experimented with water privatization. Though certain types of privatization can help water utilities become more efficient or provide water – especially to those in the developing world who currently lack basic services – there are a host of dangers. “There is little doubt that the headlong rush to private markets has failed to address some of the most critical issues and concerns about water,” Dr. Peter H. Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute. “Our assessment shows that rigorous, independent review of water privatization efforts are necessary to protect the public. Water is far too important to human health and the health of our natural world to be placed entirely in the private sector.”

Facts about Water Privatization:

  • Communities around the nation are experimenting with water privatization including: Lee County, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans; Jersey City, New Jersey; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Peoria, Illinois.
  • Twenty years ago, Americans drank around one gallon (under 4 liters) of bottled water a year, mostly from office coolers. Today, on average each American drinks around 30 gallons (115 liters) each year, mostly from single-serve plastic bottles that we throw away.

Solution: Using Water More Efficiently Key to Meeting Future Demands

As the trends show, there are many serious threats to the world’s supply of fresh water. But the good news is that we have a solution that can help us solve, or at least make headway, on all of these problems: improving efficiency. Work at the Pacific Institute indicates that California residents are using almost 35 percent more water than they need to be. And, previous work has shown that there are a host of innovative techniques that can be applied to the residential, commercial, and agricultural sectors to improve our efficiency and conserve water.

Facts about Water Efficiency:

  • Many technologies that are already available can help us save enough water to hedge against climate change and reduce stress on threatened natural resources while still allowing us to meet our needs for agricultural, industrial, and residential use.
  • By 2020, enough water can be saved from indoor residential uses alone to meet the needs of over 5 million people.
  • Proper irrigation can save another 450 thousand-acre-feet (KAF) of water per year. This is enough to satisfy the needs of another 3.6 million people (1 acre-foot supplies two households of four people for a year).