The Thirsty Billion

Population Growth and Water Scarcity

Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is on track to be the world’s first capital city to run out of groundwater. Half of Yemen’s population has little access to clean water, sparking up to 80 percent of rural conflicts. The women of Sanaa spend hours per day hauling water for their families.

Meanwhile, religious opposition, lack of money, inaccessible terrain and gender inequality hinder efforts to expand access to voluntary family planning and stabilize the population. Yemen has one of the highest fertility rates on Earth, at 5.2 children per woman.

“For years, the deteriorating crisis has been ignored,” said Joy Singhal of Oxfam. “Now the country’s at breaking point.” Given the current trends of water depletion in Sanaa, the entire city’s population may become water refugees and be forced to flee their homes by 2025.

Each year, the world population grows by nearly 80 million people. More than one billion people today are living in water-scarce regions, a figure that will only grow with increasing population and water demands. Water might cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface, but 97.5 percent of it is salty.

Water is also an important source of energy and sanitation. Hydropower dams harness power from moving water, and coal and nuclear power plants require water for cooling. Indoor plumbing keeps people clean and sends harmful waste away from their living space. However, 2.5 billion people, more than one third of the world’s population, still do not have access to improved sanitation – and that number keeps growing.

Lack of clean water and sanitation kills. Every day, around 1,800 children under age 5 die due to diarrheal diseases linked directly to lack of clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. Half of the deaths occur in just five countries – India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, and China.

Some progress has been made. In March 2012, WHO and UNICEF announced that over 2 billion people gained access to safe drinking water between 1990 and 2010, and that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water had been met.

But the global community is off-target to achieve the MDG of halving the proportion of people without adequate sanitation by 2015, which would avert 470,000 deaths and boost productivity by 320 million working days every year. Some estimates project that the MDG will not be met until 2026. Why? Rapid population growth, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The world simply can’t keep up.

Water Stress in the United States

The United States is not immune. In summer 2012, the national Drought Monitor declared a drought for almost 80 percent of the contiguous United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture then declared disasters in 26 states – the largest national disaster area in history. All of the land in Nebraska and Kansas was under “severe” drought or worse. Drought isn’t just a disaster for American farmers and consumers. It’s also a disaster for the developing world, which spends a larger percentage of its income on food. When less food is produced, prices rise, and people go hungry.

The drought – and rapid population growth – has also made water shortages worse. Georgia, for example, is struggling to provide adequate water for all of its residents. Georgia’s population grew 18 percent between 2000 and 2010, making it the fourth fastest-growing state in the nation. For years, it has waged border disputes with Florida and Alabama to gain access to critical water resources.

The Colorado River Basin – a major water supplier to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – has been in drought conditions for more than ten years, reducing the West’s water supply tremendously. Meanwhile, the river basin is home to almost 40 million people and is growing rapidly. Experts estimate that the river is already 16 percent over-allocated. Nearly 38 million people live in California in 2013, and the population is expected to reach 50 million by 2049.

The situation in the Las Vegas Valley of Nevada is especially dire. Its 2 million residents obtain about 90 percent of their water from Lake Mead, which has fallen 100 feet since the drought’s onset and is expected to drop an additional 25 feet by 2014. Officials worry that the surface of Lake Mead will reach a record low of 1,075 feet above sea level by the fall of 2014, which would trigger federal supply cuts. The Las Vegas Valley’s population is expected to reach 3.2 million by 2035.


Many strategies can reduce water scarcity. Desalination of sea water is an option in places with the financial resources. Treatment of waste water (“toilet to tap”) is already practiced in many places around the world, including parts of the United States.

Improved efficiency and conservation are key components to meeting increasing water demands. Drip irrigation is a water-conserving technique increasingly used in agriculture, and it could be supported with government subsidies as is done in Morocco. Other policies to preserve water could include tracking where water is consumed, shifting away from a hydropower to energy sources such as solar, and rebuilding “natural infrastructure” such as wetlands and forests.

One of the best ways to reduce water usage, however, is to slow down rapid population growth, according to Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project. “We can meet the water needs of seven billion and have healthy aquatic ecosystems at the same time,” Postel said. Unfortunately, she added, “We are not moving toward those solutions at a rate commensurate with the problem.”

One thought on “The Thirsty Billion

  1. I can see water resources need to be made available to everyone, and changing the wetlands to be more habitable, and increasing trees in the forests are some considerations. Rapid population growth is taxing water capacity, and even in the United States, there is severe water shortage. It is indeed a serious problem around the world. More awareness need to be made regarding water conservation efforts.

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