Freshwater: what's at stake, what we're missing, what we're losing, what it's worth

Freshwater Status

  • Oceans cover around 70% of the Earth's surface and account for 97% of its water.
  • Only 3% of all water on Earth is freshwater.
  • Most of this freshwater is locked away in the form of ice caps and glaciers located in the polar regions - though perhaps not for much longer the way climate change is taking hold.
  • It won't change the fact that only about 1% of all water found on this planet is easily accessible for human use.

What's at stake

  • 780 million people lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation services; most of these people live in the poorest countries.
  • An estimated 80% of people without access to an adequate drinking water source live in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Asia and Southern Asia.
  • About 1.5 million deaths each year are caused by diarrhea.
  • It has been estimated that every individual needs between 20 to 50 litres of water free from harmful contaminants each and every day.
  • Sanitation coverage in developing countries is only half that of the developed world (49% as compared to 98%).
  • The vast majority of freshwater is used in agriculture.
  • Agriculture claims 70% of all the freshwater used by humans - with rice, cotton and sugar among the thirstiest crops of all.
  • In fact it takes 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water to grow just one kilo of rice
  • Population growth alone will push an estimated  a further 17 countries, with a projected population of 2.1 billion, into water-short categories within the next 30 years.
  • By the year 2025, 48 countries will be affected by water stress or scarcity - affecting around 35% of the projected global population in that year.

Water demand already exceeds supply in many parts of the world, and many more areas are expected to experience this imbalance in the near future.

 / ©: IWMI 2006
Map showing coloured areas in the world suffering from physical or economic water scarcity. (Economic scarcity is where there is enough in-country water, but heavy investment needs to be made to ensure there will be no eventual physical water scarcity).
© IWMI 2006

What we're losing

  • On average freshwater species populations fell by about 50% between 1970 and 2000, representing a sharper decline than that measured in either terrestrial or marine biomes.
  • Since 1900, more than 50% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared.
  • In many parts of the world, 30 to 40% of our fresh water goes unaccounted for due to water leakages in pipes and canals and illegal tapping.

What we're damning

  • Dams and other infrastructure have caused the fragmentation of 60% of the large river systems in the world.
  • Only 64 of the world’s 177 large rivers (1,000km and longer) remain free-flowing, unimpeded by dams or other barriers.
  • There are more than 45,000 large dams in over 150 countries.
  • About 1,500 are currently under construction.
  • Some 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by dams worldwide.
  • But not all dams are bad, it depends how and where they are built.
 / ©: WWF
Where have all our (free flowing) rivers gone? Diagram showing how many rivers have been altered, damned, drained or re-routed by continent - and how many we have left.
© WWF

What it's worth

  • The average value of a wetland for recreation, flood control and storm buffering is $492 and $464 per ha per year respectively.
  • Restoration of the Florida Everglades will cost an estimated $7.8 billion over 38 years.

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