Water Issues Explained

The world’s waters face severe challenges in the years ahead. Global warming increases the frequency and severity of droughts and floods. Runoff from industrial processes like electricity generation and manufacturing adds pollutants to rivers, lakes, and oceans. Of the 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water on the planet, just 2.5% of it is freshwater. With increasing demands on resources, water scarcity could result in conflicts between groups of people and a loss of biodiversity as aquatic habitats disappear or are irreversibly damaged.

Why Water Matters

Due to climate change, acidification, overfishing, and pollution the oceans are facing unprecedented stress. Global fish stocks have fallen significantly with the growth of commercial fishing. Species like the bluefin tuna are down to less than 15% of their original population and face extinction if efforts are not taken to protect them. When ocean habitats like coral reefs are damaged by trawling or oil spills, they need decades or even centuries to recover.

Each year, ten trillion gallons of stormwater runs off into rivers, lakes, and oceans globally. As this water travels along our streets and farms, it picks up sediment and pollutants like petroleum and pesticides and deposits them into water supplies that find their way into our homes, schools, and workplaces. This runoff also puts aquatic plant and animal life in danger. Groups like American Rivers are working to reduce the impact of runoff by supporting green infrastructure projects that capture and treat water right where it falls—with porous pavements, green roofs and other innovative natural landscaping.

Weaknesses in America’s water infrastructure are in urgent need of repair. Outdated pipes waste 1.7 trillion gallons of treated water a year and runoff and sewage overflows put clean water at risk. Contaminants from these sources can result in short- and long-term illnesses, and many are particularly dangerous to children. Waterborne diseases kill up to five million people each year globally and many people around the world do not have access to clean drinking water.

Traditional power plants fueled by coal and natural gas use vast amounts of water in generating electricity, as does our modern agriculture industry. A very small portion of the world's water is suitable for drinking, yet humans must compete with these industrial demands. Scarcity is already a serious problem in parts of the Southwest and vital aquifers in California and the Midwest are drying up.

Wetlands serve as habitats, water filtration systems, flood-mitigating agents, and commercial and recreational spaces for our enjoyment. Damage from Hurricane Katrina would have been much worse without the coastal Louisiana wetlands slowing the storm, but the destruction of these areas to build levees around New Orleans actually made the storm’s destructive powers even greater. Wetlands are threatened by pollution, development, and flooding and can no longer function if these challenges go unchecked.

What You Can Do

Every living thing on Earth shares the same water resources. For this reason, water issues are rarely confined to one location. Similarly, the actions each of us takes towards healthier, sustainable water resources can be meaningful on a large scale. EarthShare is committed to our member organizations’ efforts to address water scarcity and pollution, marine life and freshwater endangerment, and climate change-driven impacts on the water supply.