Access to clean drinking water is a growing crisis in seventeen countries, including India, Israel, and Eritrea. These 17 countries are home to more than a quarter of the world’s population. However, they use more than 80% of their available water supply each year. According to reports from the World Resources Institute (WRI), this places them under “extremely high” water stress. That means that one out of four of the world’s people lives in places at high risk of running out of water. To add to the crisis, an additional 27 countries who are using 40-80% of their water supplies rank in the “high” stress category.
Surprisingly, scientists say climate change is not the main culprit. People “immediately link [water woes] to climate change…but economic and population growth are the biggest drivers,” according to Rutger Hofste, a data scientist at WRI. Data from the Institute indicate that water use has increased by 150 percent from 1961 to 2014.
Of these 17 countries, 12 facing extremely high-risk area in the Middle East and North Africa. In Pakistan and India, aquifer levels are falling at the fastest rate in the world.
Urban centers in the global south are, particularly at risk. In many major cities, access to clean drinking water is a growing threat to public health and the economy.
According to a report by WRI, 42% of households in large cities such as Lagos, Nigeria; Mumbai, India; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Caracas, Venezuela lack access to in-house piped water. Piped water offers the most reliable, cheap, and safe supply of water for households when compared to public access water taps, surface water, bottled water, or other sources. Since 1990, the total number of urban residents in these regions without access to piped water has increased by more than 200 million.
Along with the population explosion and economic growth, crumbling urban infrastructure is to blame for part of the problem, according to Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia University Water Center. Many central water systems are decades old and only available in historic city centers. Upgrades have not kept up with the exploding population growth in these cities, and future water system construction promises to be highly expensive. Recent droughts have made a bad situation even worse.
African cities are faring the worst when it comes to access to clean drinking water. The cities included Nairobi, Kenya; Kampala, Uganda; Maputo, Mozambique; and Mzuzu, Malawi. In these cities, fewer than one-fourth of households had access to piped water. Other households relied on wells, stored rainwater or public taps. Since 1990, lack of access to piped water has increased from 57% to 67% in Africa’s urban populations, according to United Nations data.
The situation is expected to worsen. Scientists now worry about “Day Zero” events, in which major cities will run out of water. In some cities, black market “water mafias” are controlling access to water sources. As a result, residents are paying very high prices for even small amounts of water.
“As soon as a drought hits or something unexpected happens, major cities can find themselves in very dire situations,” says Hofste in an interview with Science News. “That’s something that we expect to see more and more.