Current Water Issues

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Stewardship
Water Crisis
There is a growing water crisis on planet Earth. Fresh water is a scarce natural resource. Only 2.5% of water on Earth is fresh water. Due to geography, climate, engineering, regulation, and competition for resources, some regions of the world are relatively flush with freshwater, while others face drought and debilitating pollution (National Geographic). Throughout the world, water can be limited, difficult to access, or too expensive.

by Maureen Shiel


Science Daily defines water scarcity as the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet the demands of water usage within a region. Water scarcity can be a lack of sufficient water, or not having access to safe water supplies. More than a billion people around the world don’t have enough clean water to meet their needs. As a result of increased human population and bad habits, water is being overused and polluted. Water scarcity causes hunger, poverty, sanitation issues, disease, conflicts, and biodiversity loss.Physical water scarcity is when there is not enough water in an area for the population.

Physical water scarcity is common in dry regions, small areas with large populations, and agricultural communities practicing excessive irrigation. In the United States it appears that water is abundant and available. However, the arid Southwest is plagued by drought and does not have adequate water supply. Reallocating the country’s water is costly and stresses limited resources.Economic water scarcity is when a population does not have the necessary monetary means to utilize an adequate source of water, involving an unequal distribution of resources (The Water Project).

Economic water scarcity results from high costs, lack of infrastructure, lack of technology, and political or ethnic conflicts. Women are disproportionately affected by economic water scarcity, as they are often responsible for collecting water. This daily chore requires time and labor, resulting in less time for work, education, and caring for family. The consequences of retrieving water can lock women in a cycle of poverty.


Historical Roots

Modern water systems are similar to the Roman innovations developed thousands of years ago. During the 1700s, industrialization lead to increased urbanization, highlighting the need for clean water supplies and sanitations (World Vision). Water shortages first appeared in historical records in the 1800s. Many of the old piping is still used today. In order to avoid a catastrophe, leaving millions of people without access to tap water, financial resources must be directed to update infrastructure. Funds must also be allocated to new infrastructure systems in undeveloped countries.

Many countries in arid regions are suffering from collapsing agriculture because of water shortage. In places like Saudi Arabia and California’s Central Valley, desert lands have been irrigated with groundwater for decades. Farmers have been over pumping to provide water for crops and animals. By the 1990s, farmers were pumping an average of 5 trillion gallons a year (Halverson). The agricultural practice of over irrigation is contributing to water scarcity all over the world.

Glaciers began thawing in the mid-1800s, with an exponential increase in melting since 1980. Glaciers represent the snows of centuries, compressed over time into slowly flowing rivers of ice. Climate change has caused the Earth’s surface temperature to increase, thawing glaciers. Around the world, vanishing glaciers will mean less water for people and crops in the future.

Old systems, expanded demand in arid regions, climate change, the explosion of the population, increased pollution of fresh water, and overuse of precious resources has reduced the quantity of available clean water in the last century. Under current trends, demand for water will exceed supply by 40% in 2030, forcing governments to invest four times more into upstream water supply as compared to historic spending. It is imperative scientists, governments, nonprofits, communities and individuals learn from past mistakes and think about the future. Detrimental water habits must adjust drastically to prevent a severe water crisis.



Water is a critical resource for human survival. The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day at home; roughly seventy percent of this use occurs indoors, and thirty percent outdoors (EPA). Water is necessary for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, cooking, growing food, and feeding animals. Nearly one million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases which could be reduced with access to safe water ( At the current consumption rate, this situation will only get worse. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages.

It is critical humans adjust water practices to enhance access to clean water. Improving water infrastructure must be a priority, as water technology are imperative to access and sustainability. Individuals should consider conservation practices such as harvesting rainwater and recycling wastewater. Cutting water usage in large numbers will improve water scarcity and lessen groundwater stress. Governments can prioritize measuring water quality to prevent illnesses in their community. Partnerships must be developed to implement resource management plans, advocate for sustainable technology, and invest in education.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The philanthropic sector has a history of responding to water needs in natural disasters, as well ensuring undeveloped communities have access to safe water. Nonprofits have assisted governments to serve communities to increase quality of life and lift people out of poverty. Clean water is focus of the
philanthropic sector because it is a primary need that must be fulfilled in order to advance social justice. Nonprofits are investing funds into sustainable water projects, solutions, research, and partnering with local leaders, other nonprofits, policy makers, government and the private sector to maximize impact.

Philanthropic investments have been allocated to develop and implement sustainable solutions to the water crisis. Through diverse funding and partnerships, nonprofits have quickened the movement to address local and international water problems. Nonprofits and governments have made great strides as leaders in water conservation; through their efforts, the number of people drinking from ponds, rivers, swamps, and contaminated springs has been cut in half (Life Water). There have been significant gains in related fundraising campaigns in the last decade because of the pressing water issue. Philanthropy has been on the front end of dealing with water scarcity through initiatives to improve accountability, quality and performance in humanitarian action.


Key Related Ideas

Climate change - a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels.

Water disasters - floods, landslides, tsunamis, storms, heat waves, cold spells, droughts, waterborne disease outbreaks, hurricanes, droughts, blizzards, hailstorms, thunderstorms

Water pollution - occurs when harmful substances—often chemicals or microorganisms—contaminate a stream, river, lake, ocean, aquifer, or other body of water, degrading water quality and rendering it toxic to humans or the environment (NDRC).


Important People Related to the Topic

Matt Damon (October 8, 1970- Current) is an actor, writer, and philanthropist. Damon is the founder of the nonprofit H20 Africa which later merged with WaterPartners to create Damon is a deeply committed humanitarian, fighting to alleviate poverty and disease in undeveloped countries. His advocacy and high-level meetings with institutions like the World Bank and the World Economic Forum have positioned him as one of the world’s experts on water and sanitation issues (

Bill (October 28, 1955 – Current) and Melinda Gates (August 15, 1964 – Current) are leaders in the water crisis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a vision to enable widespread use of safely managed, sustainable, sanitation services, contributing to positive health, economic, and gender equality outcomes for the world’s poorest. The Gates collaborate with government leaders, the private sector, and technologists to advance promising new toilet and waste treatment technologies, service delivery models, and policies with the greatest potential to revolutionize sanitation standards and practices, at the local and national level. (Gates Foundation).

Scott Harrison (September 7, 1975 – Current) is the CEO and founder of the nonprofit Charity: water. Harrison authored Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World. He has created public installations and innovative online fundraising platforms to spread international awareness of the global water crisis. In twelve years, with the help of more than 1 million donors worldwide, Charity: water has raised more than $350 million and funded nearly 30,000 water projects in 26 countries. When completed, those projects will provide over 8.5 million people with clean, safe drinking water (Charity: water).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Charity: Water provides drinking water to people in developing nation by investing in organizations with years of experience to build sustainable, community-owned water projects around the world. The organization was founded in 2006 and has funded more than 25, 000 projects (
  • The Conservation Fund is the nation’s top environmental nonprofit. The Fund approaches conservation in many ways, programs interpret and practice conservation in a mutually-reinforcing way - working in concert to ensure the value of natural resources in America remain essential to our prosperity. Since its founding in 1985, the organization has protected more than seven million acres of land and water in all fifty states (
  • Water Aid started in 1981 in response to the United Nations Drinking Water decade. The organization is determined to make clean water, reliable toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation (
  • brings safe water and sanitation to the world through access to small, affordable loans.’s approach to implementing projects involves forging partnerships with local partner organizations in the countries it serves, involved the community at each stage of the project, selecting technology appropriate to the local community, and integrating all projects with education (


Reflection Question

In what ways can you reduce your personal water waste to conserve water resources?



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This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.