Water security at a crossroads

Image by Arto Marttinen. Sourced via Unsplash.

One of the most significant challenges in the 21st century is water security. Even though the Earth is covered by water, the majority is not consumable, as it is salt water. Most fresh water is trapped in glaciers, so available sources are limited to rivers, lakes and underground reservoirs. Freshwater for human consumption is a rare and precious commodity. The fresh water available for agriculture and industry is also limited, and pressure on existing supplies is increasing as populations grow, human activity expands and supply streams are destroyed by mismanagement and overuse.

The most of the fresh water used by humans is for agricultural processes, which account for seventy per cent of all water demand, while industrial processes account for twenty per cent. The remainder goes to domestic use. As populations grow, more water is used, and much of it is contaminated as a result. It is not recycled, perhaps not even recyclable, and no longer suitable for human consumption.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 844 million people lack access to safe drinking water.1 A further two billion people consume water that has been contaminated by faecal matter, and the situation is likely to get worse.2

By the year 2025, more than half of the world’s population will reside in water-stressed regions, and climate change is already having effects on a global scale.3 Sao Paulo, Brazil, the fifth most populated city in the world with more than 20 million people, experienced daily 12-hour water cutoffs during 2015.4 In Australia, one of the world’s driest countries, available water is expected to drop significantly as rainfall patterns change, and already limited fresh water supplies become increasingly scarce.

There is a significant disparity in water usage between developed and underdeveloped nations. According to the United Nations, people need a daily supply of 20-50 litres of water, but in countries such as Rwanda, the average amount of water used by residents is just 15 litres.5 In comparison, people in the US use on average of 575 litres daily, while Australians use approximately 500 litres.6 If everyone were to use water at rates similar to that of Australia and the US, we would need to triple the current freshwater supplies.

Even as alarm bells are ringing, some countries are ignoring them entirely. Colombia, for instance, has the second largest biodiversity in the world.7 Half of the number of páramos (alpine tundra ecosystems) in the world are found in Colombia. It also contributes to 70 per cent of the water supply in the Andean region. Despite the ecological and social significance of the páramos, the Colombian government has allowed multinational corporations to mine metals from the area for many years. Lead from mining activities has seeped into surrounding water bodies and contaminated them. In exchange for mining revenues, Colombia has traded away a vital natural resource.8

Australia faces a similar problem. Even though Australia ranks highly on the environmental performance index,9 Sydney’s water supply was recently contaminated by mining activities in nearby Wollongong.10 Dr Ian Wright, a water scientist in Australia, tested water from Berrima Colliery and noted that the pollution levels were worrying.

On a larger scale, the global issue of water pollution by plastics contamination continues to raise the alarm. Recent studies show more than 83 per cent of all tap water in the world contains plastic fibres.11 Concerns are now raised about the use of plastics and their impact on water resources.

A call for a change!

The problem of water insecurity is not limited to low-income nations. In fact, high-income nations using water resources without appropriate constraint, are likely to face water resource challenges which require significant social and economic reform. New approaches to water policy are inevitable and imperative.

Governments across the globe need to reform water management – policies, regulation and market infrastructure. The focus needs to be placed on regulations to change the way we use water. Rules should be designed to protect water resources, using fair multinational agreements and driving sensible water use. Available water resources should be distributed equitably and carefully with the goal of ensuring sustainability. This includes reducing the amount of water consumed and contaminated. A number of innovative approaches have already been adopted by some countries; aware of the issue and committed to action which will improve the sustainability of water resources. These emerge from the widespread realisation that protection of water resources has become a critical global issue. They offer insight into the possibilities for improved water management in other jurisdictions.

El Salvador, for example, has set itself apart from all others by banning the mining of metals.12 This historic step will protect El Salvador’s water from continued pollution. The benefits of earning mining revenue do not outweigh those from the enjoyment of clean and safe drinking water. In Cape Town, South of Africa conservation measures have reduced water consumption by 30 per cent, even with significant population growth (30%) in recent years.13

As water security becomes a critical global issue, the efforts of these governments and communities provide useful examples of the potential for change. Successful reforms have been achieved by promoting water management regulations and programs to change consumer behaviour. Action was taken at a national level in El Salvador, and at a community level in Cape Town, where people were persuaded to use less water and to adopt water-efficient technologies to reduce consumption.


1. World Health Organization. (2018). ‘Drinking-water’. Health Fact Sheet (February 7, 2018). Access here.
2. Unicef Australia. (2017). ‘2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home’.  Unicef Australia [website] (13 July, 2017). Access here.
3. Whigham, N. (2017). ‘The approaching crisis: Is the world running out of water?’ News.com [website] (June 8, 2017). Access here.
4. Purvis, K. (2016). ‘Where are the world’s most water-stressed cities?’ The Guardian (July 29, 2016). Access here.
5. United Nations Development Programme (2006). Human Development report. Beyond the scarcity, Power, poverty and the global water crisis. New York, USA: UNDP.
6. Ibid.
7. Helen Barrett, Steve Bernard and Andres Schipani. (2013). ‘Colombia’s biodiversity’. Financial Times (June 3, 2013). Access here.
8. Sidell, L. (2014). ‘Protecting Colombia’s Santurbán Páramo’ [blog post]. Centre for International Environmental Law (November 6, 2014). Access here.
9. Environmental Performance Index. (2018). Global metrics for the environment. Yale University [website]. Access here.
10. Cockburn, P. (2017). ‘Aggressive’ Dendrobium mine causing ‘grave, severe’ impacts on Sydney water catchments’. ABC News (September 14, 2017). Access here.
11. Lui, K. (2017). ‘Plastic Fibers Are Found in 83% of the World’s Tap Water, a New Study Reveals’. Time (September 6, 2017). Access here.
12. NY Editorial Board. (2017). ‘El Salvador’s Historic Mining Ban’. The New York Times (April 1, 2017). Access here.
13. Mahr, K. (2018). ‘How Cape Town was saved from running out of water’. The Guardian (May 2018). Access here.

Betssy Quintero is an economist and candidate to a Master of Sustainability at the University of Sydney. Her dedication to sustainability was rewarded with a full scholarship to complete Masters studies. Her capstone project examined organic agriculture as an option to achieve sustainable food security, anticipating climate change and prioritising the conservation of soil and water resources. Her interests include food systems, agricultural diversification, and waste management.

This blog post is a part of the SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.