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World is using too much water, warns U.N.

Credit: Tom Murphy

California is in the midst of a drought that affects the majority of the state’s residents. Gov. Jerry Brown launched a $1 billion emergency drought package this month to help address a problem that has grown worse over the past four years. And the evidence shows drought will be a recurring problem in California for years to come.

But it is not entirely unique.

The world will struggle to keep up with increasing demands for water if things don’t change, warned the United Nations. At current pace, only 60 percent of the water needed globally will be available. Major steps must be taken to reduce water usage to minimize the growing problem, according to the U.N.’s water body in a new report.

“Over the past century, the development of water resources has been largely driven by the demands of expanding populations for food, fibre and energy,” according to the report, Water for a Sustainable World. “Strong income growth and rising living standards of a growing middle class have led to sharp increases in water use, which can be unsustainable, especially where supplies are vulnerable or scarce.”

The water demands for the world is expected to rise by 55 percent by 2050.  That is roughly twice as fast as population growth.  People moving to cities plays part in the changing demands for water. However, it is agriculture that is the biggest drag on water use.

Nearly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water goes toward agriculture.  With the growing global population and demographic changes over the next few decades, it is expected 60 percent more food will need to be produced in 2050 compared to today. That places a significant burden on the need for water.

And that is not to mention the 748 million people living without access to clean drinking water. The majority of those people live in rural areas.

“The story of access to drinking water since 1990 has been one of tremendous progress in the face of incredible odds,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene programs, in a press release. “But there is more to do. Water is the very essence of life and yet three-quarters of a billion people – mostly the poor and the marginalized – still today are deprived of this most basic human right.”

Efforts to bring water access to nearly 1 billion people will require investments from governments, new partnerships and international support. There is also a need changes that will reduce global usage.  For example, recycling waste-water could help meet the need for agriculture.

Getting it right is essential to achieving the ambitious goals that world leaders will set later this year.

“Water’s role in underpinning all aspects of sustainable development has become widely recognized,” says the report. “It is now universally accepted that water is an essential primary natural resource upon which nearly all social and economic activities and ecosystem functions depend. “


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]