Global Challenge 2

Global Challenge 2. How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?

(c) 2023The Millennium Project

Brief Overview


Global warming will continue to increase frequency and duration of droughts and floods, while increased population and industrialization are lowering water tables worldwide. Soil moisture at root level is decreasing, which reduces nature’s ability to support life. About 30% of the largest groundwater systems are being depleted. Pakistan’s massive flood in 2022 was caused by glazier and frozen lake meeting from global warming. Nearly half of humanity gets its water from sources controlled outside of their countries increasing the possibilities of conflicts. Water consumption for about 500 million people is twice what can be renewed by nature. Half world could be living in areas experiencing water scarcity by 2025 (previous forecast was 2030). Lowering river levels threatens future shipping commerce. However, over 90% of the world now has access to improved drinking water, up from 76% in 1990; while only 75% have access to safe drinking water. That is an improvement for over 2 billion people in just 25 years. Open defecation has fallen from 27% to 13% of the world and about half the world’s sanitation services leave untreated waste (down from near 80% two years ago), 25% lack improved sanitation, and 367 million children are in schools without toilets. Half the health care facilities in the world’s 47 least developed countries lack basic water services. People with water-related diseases fill half the world’s hospital beds.

Humanity uses 70% of its water supply for agriculture, 20% for industry, and 10% for domestic uses; however, the more developed nations use 50‑80% of their water supply for industry. As the developing world expands its industries, agriculture, and population growth, and as GDP per capita income rises, water consumption per capita will increase, making it impossible to avoid serious water crises and migrations unless major changes occur in efficiency, supply, reuse, and storage of water. Meanwhile, global proliferation of plastics – bio-degradable or not – produce microplastics now ubiquitous worldwide. They are found in tap water, ground water, and desalinated water, even found in human blood, lungs, and baby poop.

As income increases, meat consumption increases. This increases water and land usage causing potential rural/urban conflicts as the global population increases by 1.8 billion by 2050. It is also likely to increase meat prices making it difficult for poorer populations to get sufficient iron and protein for neural development of children. If we cut out the “middle man” (animals) in meat production and grow meat from genetic material directly to food, then water, land, and energy demand is reduced as well as GHG emissions. If saltwater/seawater agriculture is developed along the wasteland coast lines of the world, CO2 is sequestered from the air, fresh water demand is reduced, droughts are not a problem, and algae can be produced (among other things) which is a major feedstock for growing meat without animals.

Desalination market is forecast to increase from $19 billion in 2021 to $32 billion by 2027. Currently there are 21,000 desalination facilities in over 120 countries. Never the less, it does not appear that the UN Sustainable Development goal of universal access to safe water will be achieved by 2030.


Actions to Address Global Challenge 2:

  • Use the Water, Peace, and Security Partnership online Early Warning System to predict and prevent conflict
  • Increase R&D for lower cost of desalination.
  • Invest in the development of saltwater and wastewater products such as fertilizer, algae (for biofuel and feeding shrimp), and recovering nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • Implement WHO and UNESCO plans for universal water and sanitation access.
  • Manage all aspects of water resources to promote efficiency, equity, and sustainable development (integrated water management).
  • Add water conservation in school curricula.
  • Create and promote smart phone apps to show water used to make products.
  • Produce animal products from genetic materials without growing animals.
  • Invest in seawater/saltwater agricultural development.
  • Promote Increased vegetarian diets.
  • Mass-produce electrochemical wastewater treatment solar power toilets.
  • Develop point-of-use water-purification technology.
  • Support research to address microplastic pollution.
  • Cover canals and irrigation channels with solar panels to reduce evaporation and increase electricity production due to cooler microclimate next to canal.
  • Use oil pipeline technology to move water from surplus areas to drought-prone areas.


Regional Considerations

Sub-Saharan Africa

With 17% of the world’s population, this region only has 9% of the world’s fresh water. This is mostly concentrated in central and western Africa. Africa Water Vision for 2025 addresses the complex issues of shared river basins, falling water tables, increasing population and industrial demands. Between 1% to 2.5% of GDP of African countries and $5.5 billion are lost annually due to inadequate sanitation. About 30% of Sub-Saharan Africa uses improved sanitation facilities. A global rush for farmland is actually a “great water grab,” with a number of African governments signing away water rights for decades—with major implications for local communities. There are huge amounts of groundwater available in Africa—100 times the amount found on the surface. Yet 40% of those without access to improved drinking water live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a study in Nigeria and Ethiopia found that only about 70% of the “improved” sources are safe to drink. Better water harvesting is needed to capture run-off especially during the raining season.

The Strategic Framework for Water Security and Climate Resilient Development was launched to address the twin challenges of water security and climate change. The Gibe III Dam under construction will lower water levels at Lake Turkana, possibly affecting more than 500,000 people in Ethiopia. The agreement between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt on sharing Nile River waters is a good step toward solving African challenges. The tripartite agreement signed in March 2015 is meant to pave way for negotiations relating to the usage of the dam under construction in Ethiopia, as well as the entire Nile waters. The Nile, the longest river in the world, serves 11 countries that constitute the Nile Basin Initiative born 16 years ago.

Middle East and North Africa: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will change the Nile leading Egypt to propose 15 ideas to keep electricity for Ethiopia and water security for Egypt was rejected by Ethiopia leaving future conflicts as likely. By 2050, an additional 1.5 billion m3 of water will be needed in the Middle East, of which about a third will be allocated to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Due to advances in desalination, water recycling, and conservation, Israel now has a surplus in water; desalination produces 50% of water used in Israel in addition to 100 million cubic meters to Jordan with plans to double that amount. Iran’s water per person has fallen 50% since the late 1970s. Yemen may have the first capital city to run out of water. UAE’s renewable water resources have decreased 42% in the past 15 years, and water salinity is increasing due to salt dumping by desalination plants. Increasing water prices could spark social unrest. Fear of a political and environmental crisis may lead to the collapse of the state and an influx of refugees, especially from Yemen. To prevent this, Saudi Arabia has donated fuel to Yemen and offered to fund water projects. The economic costs of poor-quality water in countries in the Middle East and North Africa range from 0.5% to 2.5% of GDP.


Asia and Oceania: About 48 million Chinese lack sufficient drinking water. Asia has 60% of the world’s population but only 28–30% of its freshwater. A study warns that an additional 1 billion people across Asia could become water-stressed by 2050. “Dr`y 11,” or 11 water-scarce regions in China, accounts for nearly half of China’s GDP. China’s water situation is expected to continue to get worse for the next five to eight years under the best-case scenario, partly due to geographical mismatches in natural resource distribution. The North only has 25% of China’s total renewable water resources but 63% of the farmland and 86% of the coal reserves. China’s wetlands have shrunk nearly 9% since 2003, and glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau shrunk 15% over the last three decades. With only 6% of the world’s freshwater, China has to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s population. Driven by pollution fear, consumption of bottled water in China nearly doubled in the past five years. China plans to quadruple production of desalinated water by 2020, from the current 680,000 m3 (180 million gallons) a day to as many as 3 million m3 (800 million gallons). Beijing plans to pipe desalinated water from the port of Caofeidian in Hebei province through 270-km-long pipelines. The $2.9 billion project is expected to meet one-third of Beijing’s water demand in 2019. Forced migration due to water shortages has begun in China, and India should be next. Dubai’s water/capita/day is about 550 liters; highest in the world and almost 80% higher than the global average.

India is the largest user of freshwater in the world even though it has only 4% of the world’s water supply and has to feed 17% of the world’s population. In India, 626 million people do not have access to a toilet. In Delhi, 24 water ATMs have been installed that accept smart cards to give water – a vending machine for water; each ATM holds 500 liters of water and provides water to residents in areas without piped water supply.

The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges, and Indus are among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. UN-Habitat has declared India’s Yamuna River “dead”—without enough oxygen to support river life. Inadequate sanitation costs the economies of four Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam) the equivalent of about 2% of their GDP.

The government of Victoria in Australia has opened private competition to bid for water supply contracts. China is buying increasing amounts of agricultural land in Australia to offset carbon and is increasingly looking to Australia to export “clean food.”

Due to population growth, urbanization and increased industrialization, water competition among sectors has become more severe in the region, threatening agricultural production and food security while also affecting water quality. Water is often a relatively scarce and valuable resource in the region, and water scarcity is likely to worsen due to the impacts of climate change. Unsustainable water withdrawals are a major concern in the region, as some countries withdraw unsustainable proportions of their freshwater supply – exceeding half of the total water availability – and seven of the world’s 15 biggest abstractors of groundwater are in Asia and the Pacific. Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have not assigned sufficient funds for proper law enforcement in cases of pollution or overexploitation

Wastewater remains an underutilized resource in the region. There is therefore an urgent need in Asia and the Pacific to tap into wastewater, as well as to tackle water pollution and promote water efficiency, including from the industrial sector. This is particularly urgent in the region’s least developed countries, on islands and in countries where water resources are particularly scarce.  The region has seen the emergence of diverse positive water-valuing initiatives that leverage new financial, governance and partnership models, notably in Australia, China, Japan and Malaysia.



Global warming threatens water supply and river levels for shipping commerce; e.g., coal, iron, and natural gas barges on the Rhine. Valuing water is a challenging task within any single jurisdiction, hence doing so across borders presents even greater challenges. While increasing significance is being placed on valuing water within the Pan-European region, efforts to value water, especially in a transboundary basin context, remain limited in scope and often use different approaches. The discernable approaches to valuing water quantitatively in transboundary basins are more targeted on flood management, disaster risk reduction, early-warning systems and ecosystem services. The collective economic benefits of transboundary cooperation on these aspects outweigh the collective investment costs of unilateral action by several times. Quantitatively valuing water is significantly more challenging within transboundary contexts as the data required to base calculations are often lacking. The countries that share a water resource often put different emphases on values, needs and priorities attached to water-related sectors. Many elements that can be valued, are done so on the basis of approximations and thus often undervalued, especially due to the lack of data and the inability to quantify indirect benefits. However, several broad-based approaches exist for identifying the intersectoral benefits of transboundary water cooperation on a case-by-case basis. These benefits, when strengthened, can consequently help increase the value of transboundary water management by reducing the economic and other costs of ‘inaction’ or insufficient cooperation in shared basins.

The Netherlands has supported the creation of the Water, Peace, and Security Partnership and its Early Warning System to predict and prevent water related conflicts.

–As global warming lowers river levels, heavy-load barge traffic will be affected. Much of southern Europe is already drought, affecting agriculture, drinking water, and sewage. Some 100 million people in Europe do not have a household connection to safe drinking water, and more than 66 million lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. Russia plans to improve water efficiency by 2.5 times by 2030. Water utilities in Germany pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies. Water losses due to bad infrastructure are less than 5% in Germany but can be as high as 50% in Bulgaria. The EU is conducting a Policy Review for water scarcity and droughts, and the Common Agricultural Policy is exploring how to achieve a more balanced management of water resources. Spain is the first country to use the water footprint analysis in policymaking. Malta, Cyprus, and Luxembourg lead in terms of EU bathing water quality. The EU has committed 35.2 billion naira to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene in Nigeria. The world’s largest reserves of freshwater are in Russia, which could export water to China and Middle Asia.

Latin America and the Caribbean

Global warming is reducing river flows necessary for hydropower which provides 45% of the region’s electricity. Latin America has 26% of the world’s freshwater and 6% of its population. The region’s water demand could increase 300% by 2050, but two-thirds of the region is arid or semiarid, including large areas of central and northern Mexico, northeastern Brazil, northwestern Argentina, northern Chile, and parts of Bolivia and Peru. About 25% of the population (over 100 million) live in water-stressed areas, mainly in Mexico, Argentina, and the countries along the west coast. Puerto Rico imposed strict water rationing; 160,000 residents of San Juan have access to water only every other day. About 125 million people in Latin America lack access to sanitation services. Over 70% of water used returns to rivers without treatment. Meanwhile, countries in the region lose nearly $6 billion every year due to delinquencies, overemployment in the industry, and water loss caused by misused or broken pipes. Brazil wastes nearly 40% of its treated water, according to UNESCO.

Puerto Rico imposed strict water rationing; 160,000 residents of San Juan have access to water only every other day. Mexico performs 85% below the OECD average for water quality but has increased investments in water systems and the “2030 Water Agenda” for universal water access and wastewater treatment. Suffering from the worst drought in 70 years, Mexican farmers have lost 2.2 million acres of crops. Costa Rica needs to invest $2.4 billion to improve water and sanitation conditions by 2030. Chile plans to build five new municipal desalination plants at an estimated cost of $280 million. El Salvador will be hit hardest by water shortages in Central America.

Ice is melting in the Andes, negatively affecting hydroelectric dams, agriculture, and urban water supplies; 68% of the region’s electricity is from hydroelectric sources. Peru will be one of the Latin American countries that will suffer more water shortages, due to over 60% of its population (about 18 million people) living in its coastal desert region, which receives water from the glaciers of mountains that have already lost more than 40% of their volume. It is expected that in 2030 there will be glaciers only at altitudes above 5,000 meters above sea level.

Water crises might occur in megacities within a generation unless new water supplies are generated, lessons from both successful and unsuccessful approaches to privatization are applied, and legislation is updated for more reliable, transparent, and consistent integrated water resources management.


Water stress in the region has fueled a number of conflicts, as various sectors, including agriculture, hydroelectricity, mining, and even drinking water and sanitation, are competing over scarce resources. Some of the major obstacles in securing effective allocation processes are connected to poor regulation, missing incentives and/or lack of investment. All these factors ultimately reflect the low value that is largely attributed to water resources in the region. The costs of water use or maintenance (once the concession or right of use is granted), are usually nil or insignificant for hydroelectric plants, mining companies and even farmers; and sometimes these costs are not even included in their economic balances. The latter represents an implicit subsidy that does not reflect the strategic value of water in the multiple production processes and under a context of climate change. Most countries in the region have not assigned sufficient funds for proper law enforcement in cases of pollution or overexploitation. While legal precepts are of extreme relevance, regulation and monitoring as well as well-aligned incentives are essential in the region, not only to ensure a better appreciation of the role and value of water but also to prevent its overexploitation and pollution, particularly given the increasing climate instability.


North America: The US White House has committed to a global long-range water plan. It is time to start taking proposals to build water pipes from the East to the West of the US; Global Warming will continue to get worse for far more years than it will take to build water pile lines. We did for oil, next for water. California is in its fourth year of record drought, forcing farmers to voluntarily reduce water use by 25%. Competition for water among agriculture, cities, and power plants is heightened due to several years of continuous droughts in much of the Southwest. Fracking, agriculture, and other private interests are buying water rights, threatening water as a public trust. Additional water withdrawals in the dry Southwest of the U.S. are being accelerated by new oil and gas extractions. According to the Ceres investor network, nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells were drilled since 2011 in this region—three-quarters where water is scarce and 55% in the drought areas. The water demand for fracking in these dry areas is expected to double over the next year or two. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity in the U.S. requires with withdrawal of about 25 gallons of water for cooling, which makes power plants the second largest water consumer in the country (39% of all water withdrawals) after agriculture. U.S. thermoelectric power plants withdrew as much water as farms did, and more than four times as much as all U.S. residents. However, the withdrawals (water returns to local rivers, etc.) are far more than what is consumed (water that does not return to local rivers, etc.) Water consumption is mostly due to evaporation; 2 gallons of water are lost to evaporation for each kWh consumed.

The U.S. EPA issued a new “Clean Water Rule” to curb pollution in the streams and wetlands in the country; the new rule covers about 60% of U.S. water bodies and protects water sources for 117 million Americans. EPA also issued a proposed pre-treatment rule for hydraulic fracturing wastewaters.The US Geological Survey and EPA are preparing an induced-earthquake modeling report (by the end of 2015) and a rule for managing hydraulic fracturing wastewaters that could be of value for to all nations facing similar environmental hazards.

While the water infrastructure is aging (there are over 225,000 water-line-related breaks each year in the U.S.), federal funding for such improvements has fallen substantially. About 20% of drinking water is lost from plant to user. According to the EPA, $384 billion is needed for drinking water infrastructure between 2011 and 2030.

The U.S. may have passed its “peak water” level in the 1970s. More than 30 states are in litigation with their neighbors over water. About 30% of U.S. cities could be water-scarce by 2017. Some 13% of Native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, compared with 0.6% in non-native households. Mayors in the U.S. Great Lakes regions made “Sister Waters” Partnership with mayors of the Middle East to share information and technologies for managing water.

Canada has 20% of the world’s freshwater, 7% of which is renewable. The 2013 Transboundary Waters Protection Act bans bulk water exports from transboundary basins, although it allows bottled water export of up to 50,000 liters per day. Tapping Western Canada’s tar sands consumes an estimated 20–45 cubic meters of water per megawatt-hour, nearly 10 times that for conventional oil extraction. Canada is mapping its underground water supplies to help policymakers prevent water shortages. Government agricultural water subsidies should be changed to encourage conservation. North Americans use 2.5 times more water than Europeans per person. USAID has released its water development strategy 2013–18 for developing countries.