Industrial Activity is Draining the World of Fresh Water

When the Earth is 70% water, how is it that we're running out of it?
Trevor English

Water is one of if not the most essential natural resource to life, however, we're slowly running out of it. 

As the global population grows and freshwater reserves are being used at an increasing rate, should we be concerned with how much water we're using and whether our water supply will run out?

All this can seem perplexing unless we understand the actual problems at hand. The Earth as a whole is covered in roughly 70% water, so why couldn't we just scale up the use of desalination plants to supplement the dwindling fresh water supply? In actuality, doing that is a far more complicated and resource-intensive process than it may seem, though it may be a potential solution down the line. 

Understanding the water problem

There's another issue that we often don't think about, too. For many, when you think about water shortages, you think about not having enough to drink. However, in reality, the real problem would be not having enough food to eat.

For example, one cup of coffee takes roughly 34.3 gallons (130 liters) of water to produce, from growing the beans to processing the coffee. We might not have enough to wear, either, since it takes roughly 2641.7 gallons (10,000 liters) of water to produce the cotton for one pair of jeans.

We don't often stop to consider, but water is the underpinning to virtually everything in society – and its supply is both limited and dwindling. 

While the Earth has a fair amount of freshwater supply on the surface, and an even more significant amount under the ground, the issue is in part caused by the logistics of water. Water is difficult to extract from the ground and transport, so it is hard to get it to where it's needed. 

Roughly 850 million people on the planet lack regular and affordable access to clean drinking water. The keyword here is affordable. Desalination, as we mentioned before, does work to produce drinking water from seawater, but the price for water would absolutely skyrocket due to the high cost and intensive nature of the process.

Running out of fresh water isn't some far off thing, either. It's estimated that by the year 2050, many regions of the world will struggle with sourcing enough freshwater, according to The Guardian. Some estimates even move that deadline up to 2040.

freshwater use by years
 A United Nations report cites that by 2030 there will be 60% greater demand for freshwater, than there will be fresh water available, Source: James Dunn/Flickr


Between 2011 and 2016, California suffered one of its worst droughts in over 1,000 years when 1,900 wells in the area ran dry. But this is just a microcosm of what's happening globally. Of the 37 major underground aquifers in the world, 21 are receding with no signs of stopping. 

Climate change isn't making the problem any better too. While I'll begrudgingly let out a scientific sigh and let the reader of this post decide on the cause of climate change, the undeniable truth is that the world is getting warmer

This change is bringing droughts and heatwaves in some regions and floods and sea level rise in others. As this happens, more and more people are left without water in drought-stricken areas. While in areas of increased flooding, freshwater sources are becoming polluted either through the runoff of agricultural chemicals or the inflow of salinated water from oceans. 

One of the biggest case studies we have of a population running out of water is that of Cape Town, South Africa. They were overusing water for years, and in 2017 the city reached a crisis where they had begun to run out of water. In the end, the city narrowly averted the running dry of local water by forcing policies of rationing and water reuse. The city also commissioned desalination plants to produce water for the city while they worked on figuring out more long-term and sustainable solutions. 

water crisis warning
A water crisis warning sign in Cape Town, South Africa, Source: SpesBona/Wikimedia Commons

What populations are most likely to be impacted by a  water crisis?

One of the largest reasons the water crisis isn't being properly addressed at scale is the fact that it disproportionally affects poor and underserved populations. Desalination is a fairly scalable solution given the resources, but it causes water costs to skyrocket, something that poorer populations would struggle with unless they received substantial support. 

More affluent populations are also the ones that lead the way when it comes to water overuse, meaning they'd have to make the most sacrifice when it came to helping stop the water problem. It's the perfect storm in actuality, a problem that doesn't as harshly affect the people that are largely causing it. 


This does underscore something about the potential global water crisis, though - that it won't be the same in every particular region. Wetter climates with more access to fresh water will not be hit as hard as cities already built-in water-poor regions. When we say the world is going to run out of fresh water, we don't literally mean that all freshwater will be gone, just that it will be so scarce in some areas that sourcing it for large regions of the world will be very expensive or nearly impossible. 

Drawing back to the problem at hand too and the dichotomy between who is causing the water problem and who is most affected by it, there's no single governing system of freshwater supply on the Earth. Water is a decentralized, yet highly connected resource, so while controlling how it's used is very difficult, it is a problem that affects everyone. 

What can we do better to mitigate the problem?

Now that we've identified the problem and some of its causes – wasteful water usage, overuse, and climate change – we can now start working on solutions to the crisis at hand. The largest effects can be made by a change in how we think about water and water usage. Speaking just to culture in the US, water is highly-overused, compared to other regions in the world. There are too few water-saving devices in toilets, showers, sinks, and other water-using appliances. The United States has always had an abundance of water, meaning that the culture that developed around water use has been one of frivolity. 

On top of this, water-intensive crops like cotton and almonds, are often grown in areas with scarce water and rely on the use of aquifers which are not being replenished.

However, the sum total of the water problems aren't just culture, they're also infrastructure. A leaking tap can waste 79.2 gallons (300 liters) of water every year and in the UK, 792 million gallons (3 billion liters) of water leak out of pipes each day. That's a mind-blowing amount of leakage and waste that largest goes uncollected. And that's just in the UK. 

poster from the U.S. Office about water shortage
A poster from the U.S. Office of emergency management during WWII, Source: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Most people in the developed world view water as a basic human right, so they get rather perturbed at the idea of water metering and water restrictions. Regardless, all of that will become essential if the problem becomes bad enough. A problem we can delay or prevent if we manage our water better now. 


By 2025, just 5 years from now, it's estimated that half of the population of the world will be living in water-stressed areas.

The big water consumer we haven't spent much time talking about though, is agriculture. Solving the water crisis is going to take smarter, better-controlled agricultural practices. This means better-managed irrigation, genetically modifying crops for drought resistance and lower water uptake, and perhaps a centralized controlled system for where and how farmers cultivate and grow crops. 

Drawing back to seawater, it's important to note that the world is by no means remotely close to running out of salinated water. Seawater will always be there, and desalination will always be possible – for a price.

What this does though is disadvantage poor communities, and even just communities not geographically close to a salinated source of water. Desalination is a very geographically focused solution and one that doesn't work for every region.

Millions, if not billions, would die if we had to rely on desalination plants as the only solution for our food and water. This is why desalination plants are only part of the solution. 

While stopping or preventing the water crisis is something that will require actionable change by nearly every person on the planet, it's also something that will take a centralized approach and methodology.

As a society, we're not great at thinking more than a decade or so ahead of the present when it comes to addressing problems. Unfortunately, it's that kind of forethought that will be required to prevent the water crisis of the 2040s or 2050s. 

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