Sustainable Water | Water Security

Of all the resources required for sustaining ecosystems and the human health and well- being, water is the most important. No living organism can survive in the complete absence of water, making it an essential ingredient for life as we know it. (1)

Earth’s water resources can be characterized as:

  • finite – there is a fixed quantity on our planet;
  • sensitive – it can be easily degraded by human activities; Lakes, for example, are sinks for inputs of water, and the materials and pollutants carried in it, thereby being sensitive barometers of human activities in their surrounding watersheds.
  • irreplaceable – it has no substitute in all its uses and the hydrologic cycle links our planetary components of water, land and the atmosphere via a never-ending pattern of precipitation, runoff, infiltration, and evaporation.

Although the majority of the planet is composed of water, 97% of this water is constituted of saltwater; the fresh water used to sustain our activities is only 3% of the total amount of water on Earth (2). Freshwater is not evenly distributed across the planet, and it varies in both quantity and quality. Around 70% of freshwater is found in glaciers, mostly in areas inaccessible to the vast majority of population, like Antarctica and Greenland. 30% is groundwater. Freshwater is finite, and with continued global increases in population, water stress is likely in many regions. The competition for water in an overpopulated world would pose a major threat to human stability.

Source: Shiklomanov, I.A., State Hydrological Institute and United Nations Educational, Scientifical and Cultural Organisation. 1999. World Meteorological Organisation. International Council of Scientific Unions. World Glacier Monitoring Service. UNited States Geological Survey

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) definition of water security:

“…water security represents a unifying element supplying humanity with drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, food and fish, industrial resources, energy, transportation and natural amenities, all dependent upon maintaining ecosystem health and productivity.” (1)

Water security refers to the capacity of a country to ensure that they continue to have access to safe, reliable, affordable, and sufficient water for people, agriculture, industry, and the ecosystem. It is an increasing concern arising from population growthdroughtclimate change, salinitypollution. Water security is rapidly declining in many parts of the world (3). Nevertheless, 2 billion people who lacked it have gained access to a safe water source since 1990 (4). The proportion of people in developing countries with access to safe water is calculated to have improved from 30 percent in 1970 to 71 percent in 1990, 79 percent in 2000 and 84 percent in 2004, parallel with rising population. This trend is projected to continue. During history there has been many conflicts over the use of water from rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates (5). Another example is Israel’s control of water resources in the Levant region, where Israel securing its water resources was one of many drivers for the 1967 Six Days War.

According to some research, about 80% of the world population [5.6 billion people in 2011] live in areas with threats to water security (6).


Across the globe, people are withdrawing more water than can be physically replenished through the water cycle. Water security can be an issue of physical scarcity driven by climatic, geographical, or human consumption, or it can be economic, and a result of poor access to the freshwater resources that are available. Sometimes there is not enough water (drought), other times, there is too much (flooding). Hundreds of thousands around the world have died over the last 15 – 20 years as a result of floods or drought. Often, it is a quality issue caused by pollution and natural sources of contamination.

The sustainable use and management of freshwater resources is an enormous priority, regardless of considering climate change into the dynamic. As population continues to increase across the planet, water consumption will keep growing with it. An equal expansion of our freshwater supplies will not accompany that growth.

The water security is a shared threat to human and nature. Regions with intensive agriculture and dense populations, such as Europe and the US, have a high threat of water security. Vegetation and wildlife are fundamentally dependent upon adequate freshwater resources. In the case of wetlands, considerable area has been simply taken from wildlife use to feed and house the expanding human population. But other areas have suffered reduced productivity from gradual diminishing of freshwater inflow, as upstream sources are diverted for human use. In Europe extensive loss of wetlands has also occurred with resulting loss of biodiversity. One example is the Portlethen Moss in Aberdeenshire.

Deforestation of the Madagascar Highland Plateau has led to unstable flows of western rivers.

Between 1970 to 2000 in Madagascar, a massive transformation occurred that eliminated virtually all the heavily forested vegetation. The slash and burn agriculture eliminated about 10% of the total country’s native biomass and converted it to a barren wasteland. The necessity of deforestation came from overpopulation and from the need to feed poor indigenous peoples, with the adverse effects of erosion that eliminated a large amount of usable fresh water and also destroyed much of the riverine ecosystems of several large rivers.

Climate change and water security

Climate change and the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are mainly blamed on the energy implications. The focus has been on how our energy consumption have driven the problem, what alternatives will alleviate it, and how to transition toward these alternatives in a sustainable manner. Transforming the dynamics of energy supplies and consumption is the first challenge of mitigating climate change; on the other hand effectively managing our freshwater resources, trying to balance both ecological and human needs is a principal challenge in the effort to adapt to climate change’s impacts. Water is the medium through which many of the consequences of climate change will be most acutely felt. Increasing variation in flood and drought cycles, changing precipitation patterns, more extreme weather events, vulnerability to sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, and of course vanquished glaciers, are the realities of a changing global climate (7).

The consequences will be greatest in the areas that are most vulnerable, many of which currently lack the resources to take steps toward climate resilience on their own. Asia is a case in point. The Himalayas provide freshwater resources for roughly a billion people; if these sources were to significantly retreat across the span of several decades, there could be dire repercussions.

This is why it makes sense to prioritize sustainable water resources management as a primar point for global adaptation efforts. First, water consumption data should be as good as energy data (water data is on average bad and highly variable across different regions). Groundwater resources need to be monitored much more carefully. Improving water storage and transportation infrastructure is only going to be more and more important as supplies decrease and demand continues to grow. At a micro level, enhancing community level programs to improve local water conditions can pay huge dividends, especially for women and children who are most directly affected by water stress in many regions of the developing world.


  1. UNEP (2009). Water Security and Ecosystem Services: The Critical Connection, United Nations Environment Programme.
  2. Hoevel, A. (April 8, 2008) Overpopulation could be people, planet problem. CNN
  3. Bruins, H. J. (2000). “Proactive Contingency Planning vis-à-vis Declining Water Security in the 21st Century.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 8(2): 63-72.
  4. UN (2008). The Millennium Development Goals Report, United Nations.
  5. Lorenz, F. M. and E. J. Erickson (1999). The Euphrates Triangle: Security Implications of the Southeastern Anatolia Project, DTIC Document.
  6. Black, R. (29 September 2010) Water map shows billions at risk of ‘water insecurity’. BBC News
  7. Bates, B., Z. W. Kundzewicz, et al. (2008). Climate Change and Water, IPCC.

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