The top 5 causes of global thirst

November 29, 2018
Photo by Kieran McConville

Nothing survives without water — it’s the most basic fact of life. Humans in particular need a steady and clean supply, something which is becoming more and more challenging as the world heats up, access is limited by conflict, and populations swell. But all is not lost.

When we talk about extreme poverty or world hunger, we’re also talking about global thirst. Less than 1% of the world’s water supply is usable for us as humans (the rest is saltwater, in the form of ice, or underground). And of that 1%, we have to share it between 7.7 billion people around the globe. This leaves 844 million people without access to clean water and 2.3 billion people without access to basic sanitation services. This sets people up for a cycle of global thirst that feeds into both world hunger and global poverty.

John Karyou catches rainwater during the rainy season in Liberia

John Karyou catches rainwater during a downpour in his village in Liberia. Photo: Kieran McConville

So how do we break the cycle? There are a number of root causes of thirst and poor water resources that can impact everything from harvests to public health. Addressing these root causes will help us to find more efficient ways of making the most out of that 1%. As a starting point, here are 5 causes of global thirst.

1. Unsafe drinking water

Sometimes water can be plentiful — but water that is safe to drink is another story. Many areas of the world have poor systems for dealing with wastewater — water that is affected by human use such as household, hospital, or industrial processes. As the UN notes, this is especially prevalent in low-income areas of cities and towns. At a global scale, 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused, which by the UN’s numbers leaves 1.8 billion people using water that can be contaminated by faeces, and therefore at risk for contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio.

Enow and Budha gather water in Northeastern Kenya

Severe drought in Kenya has forced Enow Wanyo and Budha Tura to gather water from a muddy puddle, 30 minutes from their village. People and animals are competing for water that is often contaminated. Concern is providing aquatabs to sterilize the water. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

Children like Liliana in Mulombwa, DRC, often miss school due to these ailments. To offset this ripple effect, we work with communities to build sustainable water pumps — but also on hygienic measures like boiling drinking water, the importance of handwashing, and keeping household plots tidy.

2. Climate change and drought

Experts suggest that, over the next decade, environmental changes caused by global warming are likely to increase the vulnerability of poor people. In a number of African countries where Concern works, the regularity of drought is increasing the risk of both acute and chronic hunger. Soil fertility is a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa: 80 percent of farmland is affected by severe degradation, which is causing major nutrient loss and soil erosion.

Water being delivered to a community in Northern Ethiopia where rain had not fallen in any appreciable quantity for 3 years.

Water being delivered to a community in Northern Ethiopia where rain had not fallen in any appreciable quantity for 3 years. Photo: Kieran McConville

Flooding can also cause water scarcity (creating unsafe drinking water, as noted above), playing into the effects of El Niño and La Niña. These natural disasters are at the source of other issues around world hunger and poverty. While drought can cause large crop failures, so can flooding. Flooding washes away seeds, and saturates soil with water so that crops cannot grow. If heavy rains follow periods of drought, precious topsoil can be washed away, too. In these situations, people may be threatened with water scarcity, as well as food insecurity and, in areas of the Horn of Africa where agriculture is a key source of income, a threat to their livelihoods.

3. War and conflict

The ongoing conflict in Syria has led to a country that was once well-developed lapsing into a water crisis caused by destruction of the country’s infrastructure — especially the municipal water systems. The lack of this poses a serious risk to public health.

A water pump and tower in Syria

One of six Concern installed pumps connected to a water tower in Syria, supplying 7,000 people with clean water.

Since 2014, we’ve been working with Syrians to fill a preventative health care gap by contributing to the reduction of waterborne diseases, installing generators and chlorinated water sources, reducing the presence of disease-carrying insects, and distributing culturally appropriate hygiene supplies. Our hygiene and water system rehabilitation work continues, now supported by sewage system rehabilitation and community clean-up campaigns. Offsetting this level of global thirst, which brings with it diseases carried by insects and water contamination, has protected 100,000 citizens to date, delivering at least 15 liters of water a day to people for drinking and household needs.

Additionally, Concern is improving water quality through chlorination and the distribution of aquatabs, and controlling sandflies in an effort to curb leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that causes skin sores and has been nicknamed the “Aleppo boil” because of its prevalence inside Syria after the outbreak of war. So far, we’ve provided 200,000 people in Syria with access to safe drinking water.

4. Water waste

A section of a 3km water pipe extension being installed by Concern in rural Sierra Leone

A section of a 3km water pipe extension being installed by Concern in rural Sierra Leone. Photo: Michael Duff

Different from wastewater (see #1), water waste is more common in areas like the United States where we often ignore dripping faucets, over-water our lawns, or keep swimming pools and hot tubs which are comparative luxuries to the developing world. Earlier in 2018, Cape Town managed to avert “Day Zero” — the day in which they would need to turn off all water taps for its 4 million residents — by limiting water use and focusing on the necessities first.

Leaky pipes aren’t a triviality, either: Speaking with Vox, water management expert Shafiqul Islam estimates that these minor annoyances can account for anywhere between 30 and 40% of a city’s lost water. The average family can waste 180 gallons per week, or 9,400 gallons per year, due to household leaks. Add this all up and we’re looking at roughly 900 billion gallons of water lost annually.

Cape Town isn’t the only city facing a Day Zero: London, Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Istanbul, Tokyo, and Mexico City are also at risk in the near future. Our actions can help affect change across oceans.

5. Lack of water infrastructure

Whether through deliberate destruction (as seen in many wars and conflicts) or unwitting mismanagement, many governments lack the infrastructure to properly invest in their water resources, allowing clean water to reach those that need it most. Losses related to water insecurity cost the US an estimated $470 billion per year.

While water infrastructure is a resource that has high financial implications, the value of water is taken for granted and, as the UN notes in its High Level Panel on Water, “is typically capital intensive, long-lived with high sunk costs. It calls for a high initial investment followed by a very long payback period.”

A Concern team assembles a mobile drilling kit, which is used to provide new water sources for conflict-affected communities in Kouango, Central African Republic. Photo: Kieran McConville

This pattern has recently played out in Syria and the Central African Republic, where conflict has toppled the water systems. Countless water points were left unusable due to violence, disrepair, and overuse in the Central Republic with some water sources purposely contaminated by armed groups who placed the remains of the deceased inside of community wells. As of 2017, this left 70% percent of the country’s population without access to safe drinking water, and three out of four people lack adequate sanitary facilities. That’s a total of 2.2 million people who lacked water, hygiene, and sanitation assistance. Fortunately, in cases like the CAR, solutions don’t necessarily need to be high-tech. We’ve brought clean water solutions to villages using people-power. The use of manually operated “village drills” remove the need for electricity. They’re also 33% cheaper than typical mechanized drills, and can be transported to remote areas and assembled on site.

What Concern is Doing to Help

Concern works to ensure that the two of the most basic and essential building blocks of a safe and healthy life — clean water and sanitation — are available to those who need them most. Learn more about how we’re is helping communities cope with climate change, access clean water, and build sustainable solutions for their needs. You can make your own impact by supporting our efforts working with the world’s poorest.

Children from Satla Bheel village in Pakistan enjoy drinking water from a water system installed by Concern. Photo: Black Box Sounds/ Concern Worldwide.