The World's Lifeblood

Carolyn Whelan

From the beginning of time, water has played a central role in our energy, religion, health and wealth. Noah shuttled life onto a vast ark to save the world from devastation, Greek God Poseidon ruled over the high seas, and millions have engaged in sacred bathing and ash scattering rites on the Ganges river.

Huge cities and civilizations were founded on important tributaries like the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates where prosperity brought by river-fed fertile land enabled communities to progress in politics, the arts and science. The English, French and Spanish empires garnered property, power and great riches from their shipping prowess. And new water-based trade routes on the Mississippi and Amazon established New Orleans and Manaus as important trading cities and opened up the interior to logging, fishing and mining. San Francisco, Paris, Rotterdam and Shanghai also prospered because of their proximity to water.

As affluence brought free time for recreation, hammams, public baths, pools and spas morphed into gathering places for exercise, exchanging ideas and socializing, particularly in Turkey and Japan. Later, water-based sports including swimming, sailing, canoeing and rafting grew in popularity, along with the peaceful association with ponds and lakes for leisure and reflection. And modern tales and movies like Huckleberry Finn and Chinatown have immortalized the adventure and tension linked to water transport and supply.

Today tensions are high around the globe, particularly along trans-border river basins in developing countries. The Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt, for example, are at odds over stretched water supplies for irrigation and hydropower in the Nile. Other trends including climate change, industrialization, younger and growing populations, the balkanization of some countries, war and the refugees they create, and a migration from rural areas to cities suggest a rise in water-based conflicts stemming from the scarcity these shifts may bring. Water’s key role in preventing and curing epidemics like malaria and diarrhoea in Africa and Asia has doctors clamoring for cleaner water supplies and many more latrines in poorer countries. Water also cools factories, heats homes, feeds farmland and powers turbines, making it an essential ingredient for agriculture, industry and energy.

Looking ahead, Arctic states are sparring over water rights in their backyards, where melting ice sheets cover vast reserves of diamonds, gold and gas. And the world is turning to water-based energy and ethanol from crops like corn that drink up water to cut C02 emissions and wean their economies from foreign oil. Never have supplies been more stretched nor natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Asian Tsunami and Cyclone Nargis more compelling of our attention, suggesting that water-focused stories will make the front page for years to come, even when the politically more pressing issues of the “Great Recession” have passed.

Below is a quick overview of the cycle, history, politics and players in the world of water, plus hydro-based challenges, conflicts and opportunities around the globe. A list of resources and water stories to watch follows.

Water – the Basics

The hydrological cycle and water supply

Water cycles from precipitation to infiltration, run-off, evaporation and transpiration. With some 326 million cubic miles of water on, below and above the earth’s surface water is an abundant resource. But because nearly all (97.5 percent) of that is saltwater in oceans and two-thirds of the balance is frozen in ice and permafrost, the quantity of replenishable water available to the world’s 6.7 billion people is actually quite small. To put this in perspective, if all the world’s frozen and liquid water were poured into a bucket, just one teaspoon would be drinkable. Rivers, for example, make up only one-ten thousandth’s of the world’s total water supply.

Beyond non-polar and salt water, groundwater, which is the source of most of the world’s drinking water, and surface and atmospheric water – in lakes, wetlands, rivers and soil – is a paltry 0.4 percent of the world’s total water supply.

Water reservoirs serve many purposes. Glaciers in mountain ranges like the Himalayas, Rockies, Urals, Alps and Andes store ice over the winter which in warmer weather supplies distant regions with water through seasonal runoff. Though surface waters hold a tiny part of the world’s freshwater, they provide 80 percent of the world’s annual renewable surface and groundwater. Lakes, which cover 2 percent of the non-polar world, store most surface freshwater – forty times that found in rivers or streams. (The world’s 145 biggest lakes contain 95 percent of all lake freshwater, with Lake Baikal in Russia holding over a quarter of the lake total.)

Roughly 263 rivers have drainage areas that cover 45 percent of the non-polar world, led by the Amazon, which carries nearly one-sixth of the world’s water to the oceans, and the Congo, which makes up a third of Africa’s river flow. Wetlands like bogs, swamps and marshes span four times the area lakes cover but hold only 10 percent of the total water found in lakes. But they act as sponges, absorbing excess water and releasing it during dry spells.

About 96 percent of the earth’s unfrozen freshwater is groundwater which feeds springs, streams and wetlands, keeps the earth’s surface stable and serves as a key source of drinking water. Roughly 60 percent of withdrawn groundwater is used for farming in dry and semi-arid areas; globally, up to 40 percent of drinking water comes from groundwater. The world’s biggest non-renewable groundwater systems are in North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Australia, and under permafrost in Siberia. Groundwater exploitation is a concern in the Middle East, Southern and Northern Africa, in Asia and in Cuba, and in dry areas with high population densities.

Water is unevenly distributed around the world. North and Central Americans have 15 percent of the world’s water but just 8 percent of its population, versus 8 percent and 13 percent in Europe; 26 percent and 6 percent in South America; 36 percent and 60 percent in Asia; and 11 percent and 13 percent in Africa. Two thirds of the world’s people get just a fourth of all rainfall. And 40 percent of the earth’s surface is arid or semi-arid, receiving just 2 percent of total water run-off. As a result, roughly 500 million people live in countries with severe water stress or scarcity. Current water withdrawals add up to about 13 percent of the world’s renewable water sources; about half the total withdrawn is consumed. Quantities withdrawn and consumed are projected to double within twenty years, but still fall below the critical 40 percent water consumption to supply ratio. If the entire world consumed water at richer country per capita rates, the world would use up 90 percent of its water supply by 2025. Shrinking water supplies in some regions due to drought wrought by global warming portend a looming crisis.

Today, around 2.7 billion people in sixty countries struggle against water scarcity. Many of the world’s 150 million environmental refugees will reside in Africa by 2050. (Africa’s urban population is also projected to more than triple to 500 million in 2020 from 138 million in 1990.) Two-thirds of the world faces water shortages within twenty years, when water use is expected to rise by 40 percent The Middle East already struggles with water stress due to a fourfold increase in its population since 1950 – a number expected to grow by 60 percent by 2050, for water supplies per person that will fall by half. By then, globally, up to seven billion people are expected to suffer from water scarcity, many in poorer countries which may have entrenched water supply customs for irrigation, households, fisheries, agriculture and funerals, or gender and inheritance laws limiting land and water use to certain families. In Tanzania, for example, studies show that formal water rights play a role in only 171 of 2,265 water extractions, with older customs dictating most withdrawals. Customary water rights make up about 70 percent of global water rights for irrigated agriculture.

Water Sector Structure

Water is a natural monopoly due to the high capital costs required to source, purify, store and pipe drinking water to households from reservoirs and groundwater, and to transport sullied water out to sewers and wastewater treatment plants. The universal recognition of water as a free public good essential for health and hygiene means making money on water is a challenge, due to the expensive infrastructure required – roughly double the capital needed for electricity delivery. Though private companies are becoming more involved in treating and improving the efficient supply of water (see below), heavy government involvement and stringent regulations in the water sector means privately-run utilities provide drinking water to only about 19 percent of the world’s people.

Water uses


North Americans consume roughly 600 liters of water a day, on average, for their basic needs such as showering, drinking, cleaning and cooking – about double what Europeans use, and forty times the consumption of Sub-Saharan Africans.

Globally, of the 884 million people who lack access to safe drinking water, roughly 323 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa and 78 million are in South-east Asia. Domestic use of water for drinking, bathing and household use, globally, accounts for roughly 9 percent of the total.

Health and hygiene

Clean water is said to flow towards the rich, and wastewater towards the poor – and the numbers bear it out. More than 2.6 billion people around the world have no access to sanitation facilities, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa (63 percent of its inhabitants) and Asia (69 percent of those in rural areas.) Women, slum dwellers and indigenous people often suffer most.

Safe water is important because water-borne diseases lag only heart and respiratory diseases and childbirth complications for the number of deaths they bring in poor countries – and 90 percent of those diseases stem from unsafe or insufficient water supplies and sanitation. About 1.8 million deaths each year are caused by diarrhoea (mostly in children under five) and Malaria, which is vector-borne, is responsible for an additional 1.3 million lives lost , mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. But nearly two-thirds of deaths from diarrhoea cases could be curbed or cured with ample, safe water and sanitation, as could most other oft-fatal ailments including cholera, hepatitis A, giadiasis, E-coli, typhoid, salmonella, bilharzias, dengue, guinea worm, hookworm and trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness, which impacts 146 million people around the world.

Worldwide, experts estimate water-related ailments cost roughly $38 billion in lost productivity. More than 5,000 children die daily from diseases linked to unsafe water, sanitation or insufficient hygiene. Other studies suggest that each dollar invested in providing or improving sanitation services brings about $9 in returns.


Agriculture soaks up around 70 percent of the world’s water, mostly through irrigation. Most water is used for farming or fiber in emerging economies, which may suffer from malnutrition due to their enormous populations. Some crops are water-intensive, as are cattle. Producing one kilogram of rice, for example, requires around 3,450 liters of water, more than triple the 1,000 liters an equivalent amount of potatoes requires.

Around 850 million people, most in poor countries, are undernourished. Due to growing populations and affluence boosting demand for higher quantities of and quality of protein-rich food, food production is pegged to rise 67 percent between 2000 and 2030. But thanks to better water and farming productivity by 2030 the world will need just 14 percent more water to grow sufficient food. (Since the 1960s, the amount of water required to produce the same amount of food has fallen by half; better crop yields from genetic breeds, drought-resistant crops, pest control and other improvements help. In Israel, for example, 84 percent of treated sewage is used for agricultural irrigation).

Downsides to the agricultural use of water include polluted or degraded water sources from toxic chemicals, sediment and pollution; damaged fish spawning grounds; higher irrigation system costs, water run-off; and soil erosion. For example, poor silt drainage from the UK’s Dartmoor and Bodmin Moors hurt salmon spawning in the Tamar, Fowey and Camel Rivers.

Agriculture kicks in 70 percent of water pollution and is the primary culprit behind groundwater depletion, particularly in the grain-rich prairies. Collectively, quantities of water depleted from groundwater supplies in India, China, the U.S., North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are about twice as much as that that runs in the Nile where water tables are already falling – a problem many of the world’s other estuaries face. In the agro-intensive areas of the Punjab in India and China’s North Plain, for example, water tables are falling by as much as three meters a year.


Industry is the major consumer of water in wealthier nations. Worldwide, industry consumes about 19 percent of all water used, to clean, heat and cool processes; to cool power plants; to separate oil from tar sands; to carry dissolved substances; as a raw material; as a solvent; and as a key part of the product (as in hot and cold beverages). Industries that rely directly on water include chemicals, beverages, fishing, tourism, food processing, hydroelectricity, steel-making, water-based transport, oil and gas, pulp and paper manufacturing, and the semiconductor and machinery sectors.

Global revenue from water-related industries such as services and products linked to reef habitats including tourism, fish and marine life for food are estimated at $375 billion annually. The good news centers around gains in industrial productivity. Producing a ton of steel today, for example, requires four tons of water, versus 200 tons in 1920, for a 50-fold increase in productivity per given unit of water. The food and chemicals industries have also made great strides in improving water productivity. Consider Coca-Coca. It boosted its water productivity by 19 percent in just five years. Dow Chemical cut its water consumption per ton produced by a third from its 1995 levels while Nestle reduced its water use by 29 percent from 1997 to 2006, as it nearly doubled the amount of food it produced.

The bad news is the pollution and water degradation industry often brings. Factories discharge wastewater into treatment plants and sewers but also into streams, rivers and seas. Though richer countries have made great headway in cleaning water in rivers, ponds and lakes, studies point to declining river quality in rapidly industrializing economies. And as these nations urbanize, more sewage, sludge and chemicals are spilling into watersheds and ponds. Experts estimate that 90 percent of sewage and 70 percent of industrial waste in developing countries is dumped untreated into water, which often contaminates water supply. (About half the world’s rivers are already seriously depleted or polluted.) Chemical, toxin and human waste discharge into waterways, the sea or both via sewers can infect fisheries, irrigated land and drinking water and irrevocably alter fragile ecosystems and the animal and plant life they harbor. Of particular concern is a doubling and tenfold rise in nitrogen levels in oceans and some rivers, respectively, from fertilizer, animal waste and sewage.

In Lake Victoria, for example, population growth, sewage discharge, overfishing and chemical pollution from the mining industry have driven more than 100 fish species into extinction, and continue to threaten important wetlands and migrating birds that winter there, and fish yields of 500,000 tons valued at $400 million. A January 2000 dam breach in Romania triggered a 100-ton cyanide, copper, zinc and lead spill into the Somes, Tisza and Danube Rivers and the Black Sea. The deluge contaminated drinking water supply, killed fish, and adversely impacted the tourism industry. And in 2005, a benzene spill in Harbin, China, contaminated the water supply for the city of 3.8 million, following a chemical plant explosion upriver.

Worldwide, of 25 areas where biodiversity is seriously at risk (due to dams, pollution, logging, tourism, mining, dredging, overfishing, irrigation and other human activities) around 23 are in or near coastal zones, mainly in Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and South America. Coral reefs alone (many in the Pacific and Indian Oceans) hold 25 percent of the world’s marine fish; some have up to 1,000 species per square meter. Losses from the erosion of coastal habitat can be substantial. After new ports were built in Tangiers and Morocco, and beaches disappeared, a large portion of its $20 million a year in tourism income evaporated.

Globally, the number of freshwater fish species in 2000 is half what it was in 1970. Nearly one-third of amphibians are also threatened. Among freshwater species facing threat due to tourism, mining or other industrial activities are the spot necked otter, Malagasy Web-footed Tenrec, and the Giant Otter Shrew in Cameroon. Deforestation is also of concern because one-third of the world’s biggest cities rely on water in protected areas for a large share of their drinking water.

Sulfur and nitrogen emissions from industrial plants also impair water quality through acid rain by lowering PH levels. This may affect the aquatic food chain and thus reduce biodiversity. Among countries which suffer disproportionately from acid rain include industrial regions in China, India, Korea, Mexico, South Africa and Vietnam due to their more lax emission laws and oversight. Acid rain also crosses borders: Japan and Canada are affected by Korean and US emissions, respectively. In the US, the Adirondacks in New York and 15 percent of all lakes in New England suffer from acidification.

Another concern is the release of pharmaceuticals into watersheds. Remnants of antibiotics and other medicines are leaching into groundwater via human and animal excreta and landfills, potentially impacting groundwater supply. Manure in the form of fertilizer also seeps into streams. Cleaning up groundwater can take years.

Recent positive water-related developments include industrial water reuse after treatment, for farming, heating and cooling, which can cut costs, use of freshwater, and pollution linked to wastewater discharge. Chipmaker Intel, for example, reduced its water use for industrial applications by 35 percent through on-site wastewater recycling and a more efficient water infrastructure. Construction industry applications for wastewater include dust control, soil settling, aggregate washing and concrete production. Domestic wastewater (from showers, sinks and washing machines, for example) is also used for fighting fires, washing cars, toilets and gardening.


The fishing industry relies on a steady source of water to replenish fish stocks. Overfishing can adversely affect fishing habitats and water supply by depleting natural estuaries and lakes in man-made fishponds. Salt water fishing is less of an issue for water supply because there is an abundant supply of sea water, though fish catches are expected to decline over time, due to changes in ocean currents, habitats and water temperatures from global warming.

Globally, fisheries produced more than 140 million tons of fish in 2006 with an export value of US$71.5 billion (95 million tons from natural fisheries, mostly from marine sources), a number that has steadily risen due to the proliferation of aquaculture. Otherwise known as fish farming, aquaculture accounts for 43 percent of all fish and fish products consumed by humans today.

Roughly 49 million tons of fish are produced annually at man-made ponds, many in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Tanzania, Thailand and Uganda. Some 227,000 fisherman produced nearly $300 million in fish products at fisheries in West and Central Africa in 2003. Fish is an important source of protein in countries in which cereals are a primary staple.

Overfishing and the introduction of invasive species can dislodge plants, invertebrates and insects, affect food sources for marine life, and trigger infection, disease, abnormalities and death in streams and oceans.


The high seas and canals were the first highways of the world, enabling the transport of goods, riches, scientists and ideas. Railways, airplanes and asphalt roads have since supplanted rivers as the most important commercial arteries. But several waterways continue to play a disproportionate role in carrying cargo. They include the Congo and Nile rivers in Africa and the Middle East, and the Amazon river in South America.

In 2006 35 thousand billion-ton miles of cargo were carried by seaborne trade, comprising over 90 percent of global trade, nearly half of which crossed oceans. Inland water-based transport is also important to Europe, the US and Asia. In 2003 some 125 billion ton-kilometers of freight were carried over 35,000 kilometers of waterways in Europe; that figure is 1 billion tons and 500,000 passengers carried over 280,000 kilometers in Asia annually, and 656 million tons shipped via 25,000 kilometers of US waterways in 2000. That year China alone shipped 690 million tons of goods by water, over the 119,000 kilometers its more than 5,600 rivers cover.

Increasingly, cities and countries are looking to water-based transport as an alternative to sending of goods by road or rail. On average, cargo ships can carry 31 percent and 2.5 times more weight using the equivalent amount of fuel than what would be consumed by train or truck, respectively, CO2 emissions from ships are, similarly, about 60 percent and one-sixth of those emitted by rail or road for the same weight of cargo.

Downsides to water-based transport include the potentially harmful effect of dredging canals and building dikes on a natural water habitat. Water navigation can also reduce water depth and be the source of toxic chemical leaks into ecosystems.


Energy is intricately entwined with the use of water. Energy powers the pumping, transport, treatment and disposal of water. At the same time, water is a key source of energy. In the US alone, 40 percent of freshwater used daily goes into power generation, most of which returns to its source.

Roughly 19 percent of the world’s electricity is generated by hydropower. More than 20 countries rely on hydropower for 90 percent of their electricity, including Brazil and Norway. Hydropower offers great hope to energy-hungry Africa, which has tapped into only 7 percent of its potential. (Cameroon, the Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia already get 80 percent or more of their electricity from hydropower, but the continent only produces 22 percent of its electricity from hydro.) Because just three out of four sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity, harnessing hydropower from the mighty Zambezi river is particular promising.

Hydropower is generated from dams, pumped storage and ‘run of river’ systems. Though dams offer great promise for water storage and hydroelectric energy, their popularity is waning in the wake of the massive dam projects of the 1990s in Africa, Asia and Latin America which displaced tens of millions of people, disrupted ecosystems, flooded farmland and destroyed downstream areas. In China alone (where nearly half the world’s dams are located), construction of the Three Gorges Dam forced one million people to abandon their homes. Shoreline erosion, reduced water supply and flows influencing nutrients and native fisheries are also of concern. Some 160 to 320 dams are still being built annually, but the rate of large dam construction has slowed; some plans for dams have been shelved entirely and older dams are being decommissioned. Nearly half of new dams are on four major rivers: the Yangtze (China), Rio de la Plata (Argentina and Uruguay), Tigris-Euphrates (Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and the Ganges-Brahmaputra, which crosses India, Bangladesh and Tibet.

Those living close to large dams are also at risk for malaria from mosquitoes who carry the disease from the stilled waters in which they breed. With many small dams planned for Sub-Saharan Africa, populations residing nearby will be at risk. Building of the Indira Gandhi Pariyojana Dam in Rajasthan, for example, has already triggered a spike in annual malaria cases to 300,000 from several thousand before. Desert ecosystems are also changing due to more humidity, brought by more rainfall and water-intensive services, like pools, fish-farming and reservoirs.

Other less destructive and lower cost schemes like water diversion are being explored to boost and share water supplies between regions. There is talk of linking the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers through a canal to cut flooding and improve irrigation in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China; China has rerouted seven rivers and the redirecting of another seven are under discussion, including a 450 cubic kilometer cubed diversion of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

Water Provision/Structure

In the developed world

Private water companies first supplied water services to the more affluent areas of England in the 1500s, the U.S. in the 1700s and France in the 1800s. Though access was initially limited to wealthy residents (near-universal coverage remained elusive until the 20th century), modern water management techniques took root in Europe and the U.S. during the public health movement of the 1890s. Then, massive government-backed resources strived to ensure broader water service coverage, to cut mortality rates from water-borne diseases and to supply water to fire brigades. Shortage problems were normally solved by boosting supply from watersheds and other sources.

Today, most water services in richer countries are controlled by governments, serviced by local utilities and are highly regulated, with most costs recovered from households in a metered system. Financing was first provided by governments, through bonds, taxes or loans. Then in the 1990s the industry globalized, and privatization grew in popularity as a way to cut costs, boost efficiency and streamline operations. Through public-private partnerships often overseen by global giants like Germany’s RWE, the UK’s Thames, and France’s Suez, Saur and Vivendi Environment, private companies took control of water provision in many countries, in both the developed and developing countries of the world. Those firms used a concession model in which they financed construction of local water systems in exchange for the right to operate the systems and charge fees. From the mid- to late 1990s, about 36 water supply or waste management systems were privatized a year, spawning the creation of some 2,350 private water-focused companies that exist today, up from nearly none in 1990. By 2000, 93 countries had begun privatizing water services.

But though the water distribution infrastructure improved in many nations due to heavy capital investment, communities fought price hikes they deemed unfair. Studies show that water disconnections in the U.K., for example, were correlated with more dysentery, and that poorer residents were sharing baths and washing clothes less often because of higher water costs. In tandem, concerns about water security, corporate ownership and scarcity in the face of climate change took root, unleashing a backlash against private ownership and oversight of water sources.

Today the pendulum has swung back towards public ownership and control of water supply. The number and size of new concessions have fallen since 2000, largely replaced by operation and management contracts often spearheaded by local firms and managed by small publicly owned water utility companies – and local authorities play a larger role. New private companies tend to focus on upgrading plants to boost water piping, processing, and reuse through better fittings and fixed leaks, and cutting costs through water conservation. For an idea of what’s possible consider that up to 60 percent of water supply may be lost from leakage, and new toilets use 66 percent less water than earlier lavatories. Private companies also increasingly handle wastewater services, and entrepreneurs, communities and local organizations are often seen as stakeholders. And small private companies still provide water and wastewater services to plants or commercial facilities under contract.

In tandem, faced with the problems of privatization on one side and funding shortfalls to build and maintain systems on the other, some governments are seeking to regionalize their systems. Municipalities are banding together to share systems, data and expertise and to cut costs and build scale for a constant and reliable water supply in the face of uncertainty across borders. (The savings can be considerable. Three communities in Minnesota, for example, saved between 30 percent and 50 percent of bulk chemical and back-office costs by sharing services.) Other systems are also being decentralized to allow for on-site, point-of-use services, to cut the time and cost of water delivery.

And to boost water supply in areas where sources are dwindling, firms that can supply new technology and services to treat seawater, brackish groundwater, and waste water are forming. Among low-energy technologies, services and products that have fallen in cost to improve treatment and supply are closed loop water-to-wastewater systems (which treat wastewater for reuse at a home or plant), microfiltration, reverse osmosis, electro dialysis, microbial fuel cells, increased water supply from desalinization and more water efficient appliances. New dishwashers and washers, for example, cut water use by as much as a third.

With water shortages looming, private equity funds are also looking to water as a potentially profitable area of investment, by purchasing raw water supply assets in and around ponds, lakes and rivers, with an eye to leveraging their investments as demand picks up. Pictet Asset Management’s Global Water Fund, for example, holds about $4 billion in water supply, technology and services assets worldwide. The fund, the world’s largest to focus on water, is overseen by private Swiss bank Pictet & Cie. Today water is a $463 billion market, including irrigation equipment, household water appliances, packaged water, industrial water and water utilities, and demand is growing in the Asia-Pacific and Middle Eastern regions, which have aging and strained water supply infrastructures, and the resources to upgrade them.

Richer countries are also grasping the importance of improving the quality and amount of data on water supply and weather patterns within their own borders to prepare for looming catastrophe linked to climate change. Municipalities are mulling more sophisticated precision instruments, hydrological measuring systems, and satellite and remote sensing systems to closely track weather patterns around the world. And to ensure up-to-date and more calibrated information reaches those that need it most, such water data collection and analysis normally gathered by research institutes is increasingly being shared with municipal governments so that they can better manage water supply and distribution.

In the developing world

By contrast, due to the high capital cost of building and maintaining utilities in the poorer regions of the world, water has tended to flow past slums and villages to more affluent areas. In Brazil, India, China, Paraguay and Indonesia small companies often supply water and water treatment services to those who can afford them from trucks and via home bottled water delivery.

Some $3 billion a year in aid flows from OECD country development agencies into global water projects, with up to $1.5 billion more in non-concessional lending, primarily from the World Bank. Roughly 3 out of 4 of those aid dollars goes to water supply and sanitation, mostly in large projects for urban areas. Little goes to water policy or planning, and just 12 percent of that went to countries in which more than half the population suffers from unsafe water sources.

Some progress occurred at the turn of the last century in the world’s middle-income countries such as Chile, Tunisia and Malaysia, where aging urban water infrastructure was upgraded at great cost. Some $25 billion was spent on water supply and sanitation for developing countries by the private sector between 1990 and 1997 – mostly in Latin America and Asia (Africa received less than 1 percent) for over 80 times what the private sector spent over the prior six years. But, as in Europe and the US, a backlash against full-cost pricing – or passing the entire cost of water services onto customers – ensued when companies cut essential services to poorer households unable to foot the bill. Chilean water tariffs, for example, rose 40 percent in four years after its water system was privatized.

From 2000 onwards, currency swings and protests in cities like Cochabamba, Bolivia; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, pushed water service multinationals to cut many contracts and pull out. (Courts in Argentina and South Africa have demanded reconnection of water services to poor households negligent in bill payment.) By 2004 nearly 40 percent of all private investment in water privatization projects initiated between 1990 and 2004 in low or middle-income countries was cancelled or in distress – leaving water funding to aid agencies and management to national governments and local authorities. Examples include Saur leaving Mozambique and Zimbabwe; Suez shrinking its investment in emerging economies; and Thames Water ending its involvement in Shanghai’s water management services.

Those companies now focus on North America, Asia, and the Middle East. A few countries continue to draw private sector investment in water services, including Brazil, India and China. China alone is expected to spend $247 billion a year on such equipment and services through 2030, through both government and private sector investment.

Today’s debate focuses on local water management and service provision, appropriate technology and pricing for poorer communities, higher water use efficiency, and transboundary water basin resource management. New business models are emerging in which wealthier areas and governments subsidize the cost of minimum supply and service provision to lower income households— in essence treating water as it is in wealthier countries, as an essential right and public good. That said, funding to the water sector in developing countries is stagnating or falling. In 2004, for example, water projects in developing countries attracted just shy of $2 billion from the private sector, down sharply from the $2.7 billion on average it spent annually on average from 1990 to 2004, according to the World Bank. Moreover, 90 percent of funds and 70 percent of projects were concentrated in only three middle-income or rapidly industrializing economies: Mexico, Chile and China.

Since the cost of water systems remains high, many smaller and low tech systems are gaining ground. These harness natural forces, such as rainwater collection in cisterns and gravity-propelled irrigation at industrial or agricultural sites. Peri-urban areas (those between suburbs and rural areas) in India are moving towards ‘point-of-use’ systems like chlorine water disinfection and mini-reverse osmosis to purify water, and ecosanitation to reuse waste matter as compost. Such decentralized systems, sometimes used to attract tenants to new buildings, tend to be less costly and complicated and require less energy to operate. And in rural areas, solar powered pumps, purifiers and heaters; double-walled plastic water storage tanks; water efficient shower heads; and closed loop systems recycling waste water to grow crops and cool industrial processes are also being deployed to fast-track water supply and sanitation to remote villages at lower costs. (Roughly three of four 29 million domestic solar water heaters in 2003 were in developing countries including China, India, Egypt and Turkey.) Other projects focus on more efficient use of water and wastewater. New policies and incentives in some areas of India, for example, encourage on-site wastewater systems for new large generators of water including factories and housing complexes. Desalination of seawater through thermal processes, reverse osmosis and distillation have also helped boost freshwater supplies in the Arabian Gulf region, though some of these processes can be energy intensive.

In tandem, global agencies have recognized the important role water plays in health, food and energy. To meet several of the United Nation’s Millennium Development goals, great efforts are underway to bring basic water services to emerging economies. Those goals in which clean water plays a key role include halving the portion of the population without access to safe water and sanitation and those suffering from hunger; reducing the maternal mortality rate by 75 percent; cutting the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds and halting and reversing the number of people dying of malaria and other major diseases by 2015 from 1990 levels. According to the UN, doubling the number of people with access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation would cost roughly $10 billion a year, or about half the amount spent annually on bottled water. To put this in perspective, India spends eight times more on its military than basic water services; that figure is 47 times in Pakistan.

Future Challenges

Climate Change

The impact of climate change on water supply and weather – and the resulting problems stemming from global water scarcity or surpluses– are expected to become acute in the not-so-distant future.

Higher temperatures and erratic weather patterns linked to climate change portend famine and drought in the arid areas of Africa which already suffers from malnutrition, while more flooding and erosion are expected in coastal zones, bringing destruction and disease from mosquitoes breeding under higher temperatures in newly waterlogged areas. In Northern climes, faster flowing headwater from glacial melt and less seasonal output later as ice caps dry out is expected. These changes could wreak havoc for many industries like farming, fishing and energy that rely on regular water flow. The poor will be most affected for the disease stagnant water brings in tropical areas, and because farmers in the interior will have little recourse or recompense when water supplies dry up.

Among regions expecting drier weather are the inland areas of Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South Australia, Patagonia, Mexico, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Southwestern U.S., where dustbowl-like conditions are expected by 2050. Water levels in the U.S.’s Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River are already falling, affecting millions in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Southern California who rely on water from those reservoirs for drinking, energy, tourism and biotechnology. (Intensive drawing on dammed water sources in the Colorado river suggests water tables may never recover.)

Among coastal areas vulnerable to increased flooding are those in the U.S., Bangladesh, China, India, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines and along the small island states of the Pacific region. Ten of the world’s most densely populated cities are in coastal zones. Mangroves, coral reefs, lagoons and river deltas are also at risk.

Glacial decline is worrisome, too, since much of the melting ice evaporates before it reaches farmers in dry areas. Ice lost in glaciers from 1990 to 1999 was three times that of the prior decade. Some predict that glaciers in Tibet will disappear by 2100, a potential catastrophe because 300 million people in the dry western part of China rely on water from glacial runoff. Other affected glaciers include the Quelccaya Glacier, the Peruvian Andes’ largest ice-cap, which has lost 30 percent of its ice in just 33 years. Studies also suggest that wetlands and retreating glaciers in China threaten water supplies from the Yangtze River for hundreds of millions of people. Europe and North America will also be impacted. European ice sheets in the Alps and Pyrenees are among those that have experienced the biggest global loss.


Half of urban dwellers today are in Asia and 900 million people in cities live in slums, where rapid urbanization has outpaced the state’s ability to supply basic services. (Many of China’s and India’s rivers are considered ‘running sewers’). Often overlooked are city peripheries and peri-urban sprawl because they may lack the critical mass to justify the cost of building out a water infrastructure, particularly for cities with under 100,000 people. (Half the world lives in small towns and large villages). Most urban centers in poor countries have no sewers, and nearly half of populations in low- and middle-income countries suffer from one or more disease linked to unsafe or insufficient water or sanitation.

Most of the increase in urban populations over the next thirty years will occur in Africa, Asia and Latin America. By 2015, 961 million and over a billion urban residents will need access to better water supply and sanitation, respectively.

Recent moves to decentralize and involve communities in sanitation supply is a source of hope. For example, India’s National and Slum Dwellers Federation and its Mahila Milan savings cooperative spearheaded a community-led toilet design and build program in the 1990s, when funding and space for toilets was low or unavailable.

Refugees/Displaced People

Most of the world’s 10 million refugees are also in poor countries, where insufficient and unsafe water and sanitation are the norm. This seeds the conditions for epidemics in dense, rapidly settled enclaves, particularly among children. Some 60,000 children died from water shortages and water-borne disease, for example, after a million Rwandans fled their homes following genocide in the neighboring Congo in 1994. Up to a half of disease in refugee camps stems from poor or insufficient water and sanitation; roughly 40 percent of refugee children skip school to help fetch water.

Women and children and water

Water plays an important role in gender, education and entrepreneurship. Many women and children in the world’s poorer countries walk miles a day for water; African women spend more than a quarter of their time fetching water. The burden they bear, physically, by placing themselves in areas of danger at dark, and in terms of lost time, keeps them from studying and starting small businesses. Physical ailments include backaches, exhaustion and miscarriages. Moreover, missed school days due to water collection are estimated at 443 million worldwide for the roughly 1 hour and forty minutes spent per week collecting water. As a result many NGOs are pushing for a more participatory process in the ownership, collection and allocation of water, to improve hygiene, household incomes, education and to empower women. A hopeful sign is improved sanitation: Studies show that 11 percent more girls go to school when they can access appropriate and separate sanitary facilities.

Cross-border water conflicts

Some 263 trans-border water basins cover 45 percent of the earth’s surface and cross 145 countries. They impact 40 percent of the world’s population with 60 percent of all river flows. Important tributaries crossing five or more countries include the Volga, Amazon, Rhine, Ganges, Zambezi, Congo, Niger, Danube and Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Tensions are simmering in areas highly dependent on irrigation for farming including South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plain, North America’s High Plains and the North China Plain. Overviews of some recent ‘water wars’, those in the making and other important water clashes are below.


  • Botswana’s claims on the Okavango River Basin for ecotourism projects clashed with Namibia’s plans to pipe water to its capital city
  • In 2006, fighting over water, livestock and land between Kenyans and Ethiopians led to dozens of deaths
  • In 2007, clashes between livestock herders and farmers in Burkina Faso, Ghana and the Ivory Coast over dwindling water supplies following lower rainfall forced 2,000 to flee their homes


  • On India’s Cauvery River, a dispute over downstream versus upstream use of water for irrigation resulted in riots and death, and withholding of key water data from authorities
  • In 2007, riots by farmers in India contesting plans to divert water from the Hirakud Dam to industry led to minor injuries

Latin America

  • In 2000, mass protests against water price hikes in Cochabamba, Bolivia, following the privatization of the city’s waterworks led to the army’s intervention and 100 injuries
  • In Mexico, in 2004, members of the Mazahua tribe stormed a water plant and shut off some water supply, to contest use of water from their land

North America

  • Yurok Indians in Oregon clashed with public officials in 2003 over claims that 33,000 salmon died in the Klamath River because water normally released to enable salmon spawning was diverted for irrigation purposes

Brewing Conflicts

River basins nudging areas with both high population density and low capita incomes where conflicts may arise include the Ca (in Laos and Vietnam); Cross (Cameroon and Nigeria); Drin (Albania, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro); Fenney (India and Bangladesh); Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma and China); Han (North and South Korea); Indus (India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan); Irrawaddy (India, Burma and China); Karnaphuli (Bangladesh and India); Red (China, Laos and Vietnam); Saigon (Cambodia and Vietnam); Song Vam Co Dong (Cambodia and Vietnam); and Yalu (China and North Korea).

Large development projects in the pipeline for the river basins of the Amazon, Asi-Orontes, Ganges, Incomati, Indus, Irrawady, Kunene, La Plata, Mekong, Niger, Nile, Okavango, Orinoco-Caroni, Po, Salween, Senegal, Song Vam Co Dong, Tigris, Volta and Zambezi could also trigger unrest. Below are some brewing conflicts:


  • Melting glaciers in Kashmir feeding the six rivers of the Indus Basin threaten water supplies for India and Pakistan. The countries have already sparred over control of those six rivers, particularly over India’s plans to build a navigational lock on the Jhelum River
  • Ongoing conflicts persist over upstream and downstream use of the Syr Darya river, which flows into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, impacting water supplies for hydropower and irrigation
  • Kazakhstan has expressed alarm over planned water diversions by China (from the Irtysh and Ili Rivers) and Russia (from the Ob and Irtysh Rivers, in Siberia)
  • India and Bangladesh continue to clash over the latter’s earlier diversion of the Ganges with no minimum water flow guarantees or cushion for drought years
  • Due to expected population growth of up to 50 percent by 2025, conflict between rice farmers and fishermen is likely in the Lower Mekong River basin which stretches across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Drought in 2003 led to seasonal fishing yields which were one-seventh that of the former year

Middle East

  • Syria’s plan to redirect the Jordan River ignited tensions with Israel in the 1960s which could flare up again
  • Israel’s allocation of water to the Gaza Strip and West Bank are another potential source of conflict
  • Palestine and Israel continue to spar over alleged illegal wells in Palestine and reports of Israel tapping into Palestine’s underground water supplies
  • Turkey, Syria and Iraq quibble over ownership of water in the Euphrates River, where dams built by all three countries threaten water supplies, particularly for downstream recipient Iraq
  • Arid Yemen suffers from intense water stress today, a problem likely to worsen if the population doubles as expected by 2026

Other potential flash points


  • Lake Chad in West Africa shrunk sharply by the 1990s to one tenth its 1960s size due to overgrazing, deforestation, irrigation and drought. Wetland homes for hippos and hyenas vanished, the annual fish catch fell by the 1980s to less than one quarter its 1970s levels, crops failed and livestock died. Though lake levels have risen, climatologists predict more drought due to climate change, exacerbating poverty, fish yields and threatening the ecosystem of rare species.
  • Freshwater flows fell and salt levels rose in South Africa’s Incomati River after dams were built, damaging downstream ecosystems of Mozambique’s estuary, and plants important for locals’ livelihoods


  • Over 25,000 people suffered from depleted fisheries along the Mekong River Basin following the 1994 construction of Thailand’s Pak Mun Dam and still await reparations
  • Traditional water managers in several Indian states were marginalized after water management was transferred to the state. As a result former water managers’ local knowledge about monsoons, drainage, crop use and irrigation was lost, resulting in deteriorating irrigation infrastructure and clogged canals
  • Studies point to corruption in India’s water sector, with 41 percent of water customers polled confirming that they had made payments to falsify water meters. Roughly 30 percent also said they had made extra payments to speed up water repairs. Kickbacks cited were up to 11 percent of a contract’s value
  • Over 20 percent of 25,000 wells tested in Bangladesh were found to have high levels of arsenic

Latin America

  • Bottled water: Mexico lags only the U.S. in its water bottle consumption, holder of the top slot. Bottled water purchases soared 250 percent in China from 1999 to 2004, and grew threefold in India and nearly doubled in Indonesia over that time. Today bottled water is a $100 billion industry

Recent water stories and ones to watch

  • The fight over water use rights in the Arctic
  • Energy versus habitats and livelihoods. Massive hydroelectric projects in Asia and Africa are bringing power to energy-starved regions. But populations are displaced and livelihoods lost when diverted waterways flood fields and submerge homes
  • Access to fresh water. As the earth’s atmosphere warms and weather patterns shift, formerly tropical regions could slowly dry up and turn to deserts. Efforts are underway to lock up resources.
  • Improving water quality in the Danube River on which eighteen European countries depend for industry, energy, agriculture and drinking water
  • Dry spells in Mali, Niger, Portugal and Spain
  • Half of Southeast Asia’s coral reefs are at risk and wetland species like the rhinoceros, water turtles and birds are falling in number or becoming extinct due to dams, deforestation and wetland degradation

Water topics and controversies:


a. Access
b. Pollution
c. –borne diseases
d. Shortages
e. Conflicts across borders
f. Dams, displacement and poverty
g. Services, pricing and control
h. Security 


i. Sufficient sanitation
j. Weather shifts and their influence on rainfall, glacial melt, floods and drought
k. Disputes over dwindling water resources for recreation, trade, energy or transport
l. Fights over water rights due to rich national resources that lie below ice including oil, minerals and marine life
m. Conflicts over newly formed estuaries that could become important trade routes because of glacial melt

Important water laws and treaties

Increasingly, governments are recognizing the importance of managing water resources as part of an integrated whole. More than 3,800 unilateral, bilateral or multilateral declarations or conventions exist on water; 286 of them are treaties and 61 refer to more than 200 international river basins.

World - Water was recognized as a global right in the:

  • 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • 1972 Stockholm UN conference on Human Environment and Development (references the right to reliable access to drinking water)
  • 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Ecosoc, Water as a Right 2002 -- Comment no. 15

Other countries recognizing the right to water include Panama, Ethiopia, Uganda, Gambia, South Africa, Uruguay and the U.S.

Global water agreements

  • 2000 European Union Water Framework Directive on Integrated River Basin Management for Europe – Coordinates EU water policy on water protection. Focuses on river basin management and industrial plants with high air, water, soil and waste pollution potential
  • 1996 UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Waters and International Lakes -- Obliges 34 participating countries and EU members to curb, control and cut point and non-point water pollution across 150 major rivers and 30 large lakes that cross two or more convention countries
  • 2000 UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents Focuses on preventing and mitigating the impact of chemical accidents on cross-border waters by disseminating safety and best practices information to prevent pollution, shipping and dam accidents, spur early warnings and plan for contingencies

Good news stories


  • The Diawling Delta in Mauritania was nearly destroyed by the 1980s due to drought and a dam, causing wetland loss and mass migration. Its 1991 designation as a National Park and artificial flooding helped fish catches grow more than 100-fold, and bird counts to increase 17 times. The restoration adds about $1 million a year to the local economy.
  • Progressive water management approaches and programs under South Africa’s post-apartheid government, which values inclusiveness and environmental protection. RandWater’s website also highlights areas where water is unsafe for drinking without treatment


  • Safe drinking water coverage increased substantially in South Asia, to 85 percent in 2004 from 71 percent in 1990, led by India.
  • As of 2002, China’s over 42,000 small hydropower plants had 50 percent more electricity capacity than the Three Gorges Dam will have. These decentralized, lower-cost systems have boosted electricity supply to 98 percent of rural households, up from 65 percent in 1985. Such small hydropower plants account for 30 percent of all China’s hydropower-based electricity, and supply electricity to 300 million people
  • Sydney mothballed plans to build a desalination plant by boosting water efficiency, conservation efforts and the use of groundwater and recycled water
  • Water management reforms in Bangladesh significantly improved the livelihoods of landless fisherman because they laid out ways for the poor to lease shores in a country where the ‘tenured’ wealthy have historically controlled shore access
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia has boosted access to safe drinking water to 80 percent from 40 percent since 1993, while improving water revenue by sealing leaks and ending illegal connections
  • In 1998, India’s new Arwari River Parliament used a community-based approach to ensure water supply to 70 villages and 46 watersheds. It also addressed issues such as soil fertility and erosion, illegal mining, women’s participation and better agro-productivity through supply of local seeds and manure
  • In Delhi, groundwater quantities rose to 10 from 5 meters in two years due to a rainwater collection program
  • Karachi, Pakistan’s Orangi Project enabled the extension of sanitation services to hundreds of thousands of poorer households because per capita sewer costs fell sharply via community-led sewer construction and pipe, sewer and drain upkeep and installation
  • Pakistan’s Punjab Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Sector project is a community-based program empowering local populations (particularly women) with the design, construction, operation and management of their fee-based water system. After its implementation, 800,000 people had safe water and drainage, women spent far less time carrying water, household incomes rose 24 percent, water-borne diseases fell 90 percent, and childhood attendance at school increased by 80 percent. Participants estimate that nearly half the time saved by eliminating the need to fetch water is spent on improving livelihoods
  • Water privatization in Port Vila, Vanuatu, boosted poor household’s access to water services through tiered pricing for minimum water provision. Nationwide, water supply was constant and affordable, unaccounted water fell to 23 percent from 50 percent, water tariffs dropped and water-related losses of $440,000 reversed to a surplus


  • In the UK, a British farmer converted his sugar-beet plantation near the River Cam to wetlands, recovering populations of 79 local breeding water birds
  • Kazakhstan set up eight river basin groups to decide on water use, allocation and permits, with public participation and decentralization as key components

Middle East

  • Israel uses drip irrigation with processed wastewater for tomato and pepper raising in greenhouses; nationwide, desalinated and treated wastewater is used for irrigation
  • The Nile Basin Initiative addresses simmering water conflicts proactively

Latin America

  • Nicaragua made water rights, participation, technology and economic incentives central to its water reform program
  • In 1995, courts in Neuquén, Argentina found in favor of Mapuche communities who claimed that a local plant was polluting water supply, leading to high levels of heavy metals in their children’s blood and urine. The court ruled that the water was unfit for human consumption and ordered local authorities to ensure an adequate and clean supply of water, to treat the adverse effects of contaminated water, and to clean polluted water
  • After Porto Alegre, Brazil, invested $140 million in water and sanitation systems and services in the 1990s and instituted a tariff system based on household income, nearly 100 percent of residents received good quality water and 84 percent of the city’s sewage was treated
  • Nearly a million low-income Brazilian homes now have safe water and sewer connections through PROSANEAR (Water and Sanitation Program for the Low Income Urban Population), which combined community participation and new technologies to cut costs
  • A dairy in El Salvador cut wastewater discharge quantities by 12 percent and saved $60,000 in treatment costs by using whey, a byproduct normally discharged into wastewater, to make a fruit drink which yielded an additional revenue stream requiring no investment. Similar ventures are planned for Guatemalan and Mexican dairies

North America

  • * A freshwater marsh in Alameda County, California with a Gross Pollutant Trap blocks trash and solid waste before it reaches a lagoon where bacteria, micro-organisms and plants extract toxins and trap agrochemicals to clean water before it reaches the San Francisco Bay
  • * San Diego County will get 9% percent of its water supply from desalinated water by 2011
  • * New York City saved up to $8 billion in filtration plant construction costs by protecting a watershed north of the city that purifies water upstream
  • * The city of St. Petersburg, Florida, eliminated the need for additional potable water sources until 2030 and cut wastewater discharge to surface waters to zero by recycling household and industrial wastewater for irrigation and industrial cooling

Tips for reporters

The water industry is complex, politically charged and riddled with regulations that touch on many hot-button issues including poverty, health, pollution, disaster relief, exploitation and affordable access to water, wastewater and sanitation services.

For that reason, many water, wastewater and sanitation agencies or companies would be loathe to disclose or elaborate on tiffs, tensions or ongoing conflicts that involve their work. Only when information is public or in the papers would executives likely talk. This makes the water industry challenging to cover.

However, reporters can find possible stories, unearth new angles or get updates on ongoing disputes by cultivating sources and experts at universities, think tanks, development organizations, international agencies and speakers at water conferences. (A list of helpful sites follows.)

Newsletters, local papers, court documents and market research reports may also spark story ideas. Following up with affected parties in villages, towns, fisheries and farms can add local color and a human angle to stories. These sources outside of the industry can build the foundation for the story. After all your information is collected, contact agencies or companies involved in conflicts for a comment and to confirm the facts.

Stories worth pursuing depend largely on the state of water services and any issues that may arise in your country due to water or waste services scarcity or pollution. Are certain industries disproportionately affected by water supply where you are, such as fishing, boating, tourism or agriculture? Are there tussles between sectors? Or is the basic supply of clean water and wastewater a concern in your country?

Below are queries that may trigger ideas:

  1. How is the industry or utility structured in your country? Are services owned and supplied locally, by the government or by larger international companies?
  2. What conflicts exist between various groups that depend on water, such as residents, farms, industry, fishing, tourism?
  3. What are the important waterways in your country? Are there issues around access, security, sanitation, fishing, chemicals, pollution, interstate boundaries or dams?
  4. How are things changing? Can you compare water use and supply today to how things were five, 10 or even 20 years ago?
  5. Is global warming affecting rainfall or water levels in your area? How?
  6. What development is possible with local water resources? Are any hydro projects, fisheries, transport or agricultural projects planned?
  7. How does your country perceive the bottled water industry? Are there alternatives? What becomes of the waste bottles? Does the industry provide needed jobs?
  8. Have any recent conflicts erupted over water access and waterway use and rights? Are they ongoing and/or how were they resolved?

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