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World Water Day - 22 March 2007

Coping with Water Scarcity

This year’s motto focuses on managing and coping under scarcity, a condition that is becoming ever more common in different parts of the world. Foremost, it is associated with quantitative scarcity, either throughout the year or seasonally. Thus some parts of the world may have excess quantities of water for short periods of the year, e.g. during the rainy or monsoon seasons, but shortage for many more months. But scarcity may also have a qualitative aspect and often mean a scarcity of good quality water, even when total quantity may be satisfactory for different uses.


child drinking from a water fountain

Today 31 countries, accounting for under 8% of the world population, face chronic freshwater shortages. By the year 2025, however, 48 countries are expected to face shortages, affecting more than 2.8 billion people - 35% of the world's projected population. Among the countries likely to run short of water in the next 25 years are Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Peru. Parts of other large countries, such as China, already face chronic water problems.

Non-point sources of pollution and groundwater pollution are among the greatest threats for water quality, thus affecting quantity indirectly as well.

The main human uses of water have been schematically identified by the following ‘sectors’ and orders of magnitude in relation to total availability of fresh water:


  • Human consumption for drinking, personal hygiene etc. (in the order of 10%)
  • Urban and industrial use (in the order of 10-20%)
  • Agriculture (including irrigation) (in the order of 70-80%) – see the FAO database on Water and Agriculture.

This is in addition to what needs to be ‘left’ for nature, global biodiversity and ecosystems to function and provide the ‘life support system’ on earth.

Freshwater Stress 1995 and 2025. (2002). In UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library.

Human population densities do not correlate with water availability. They are, in many cases highest in areas less endowed with natural water resources. That does not need to be a problem, when looking at the challenges in an integrating way. So long as human societies can obtain sufficient freshwater for personal use and some ecosystem functions and generate enough wealth through their economic activities to buy in food from water-endowed regions, they may well be sustainable. This has usually been called ‘virtual water’. Oasis economies, entirely created by ingenuous human water management and culture, are at one extreme end of the continuum, enabling the import of food in exchange for the goods and services they offer. Where societies are unable to generate the resources necessary to trade in ‘virtual water’, they might either get by through remittances of migrating family/community members, international (food) aid for periods of time or have to relocate. There are both historical and current examples of such conditions.

As contribution to the EU Water Initiative, research collaborations within Europe and between teams from Europe and other regions of the world have investigated a large array of questions associated with water scarcity, how to understand it and what responses societies may to develop in search of sustainable development. Sustainable development is here understood to address environmental, social and economic dimensions in an integrated way and seeking a relationship with nature that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (from the 1987 “Brundtland Report” entitled Our Common Future). It has also been argued that such integrated water resources management under today’s conditions means critical engagement between all major social groups to ensure that the political processes underpinning water allocation and its governance are indeed sustainable (see the technical report on 10 years of international water research cooperation ( 982 KB ) and general public brochures in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish.

Here, a small sample of research collaborations funded by the Research Framework Programme of the European Commission is presented which address or have addressed different aspects of coping with water scarcity in different regions of the world.

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