Aquifer Depletion

Along with surface water in rivers and lakes, aquifers (a permeable layer of rock and sand where water collects underground) are one of the few areas of fresh water accessible to humans. Water pumped from aquifers is used for domestic, agricultural, and industrial needs and is sometimes removed faster than it can be naturally replaced. Of Earth’s 37 largest aquifers, 21 are being depleted. 13 of those 21 are considered “significantly distressed.” Population increases, migration, and changing human consumption patterns resulting from economic growth will be key drivers of rising freshwater demand in the future.

Water Conflicts

As freshwater reserves dwindle or become polluted, conflicts over waterways and basins may increase. Already, water crises have been ranked in the top five Global Risks by Impact every year since 2012 by the World Economic Forum. Countries desperate for water often dam extensively upstream, thus reducing the water supply for their downstream neighbors and increasing the risk of disputes and even wars. For example, India’s hydroelectric damming projects are contributing to water scarcity in Pakistan, which may be exacerbated in the near future by Afghanistan’s plans for dam-building as well. 

There is rising concern that disputed water access may be used as political leverage or even a weapon by hostile nations. Letting rivers run dry for others disrupts agriculture and food, drinking water, hygiene, and economic functioning, all of which seriously endanger a country’s well-being.


Pollution further compounds water shortages. Various human activities and water uses have degraded the nature and quality of the world’s water supply. Polluted and poisoned by sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial wastes, water flows back into our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Worldwide, only half of all wastewater is treated, and in less developed countries, treatment rates are much lower than average. Frequently, these wastes pollute waters used for drinking and irrigation. As urbanization increases in historically rural areas, more people may be exposed to unsafe drinking water.

Impact on Girls and Women

Running water and indoor plumbing are luxuries not realized in many parts of the world. Worldwide, women and girls are responsible for collecting water in 80% of homes without running water, and collectively, they spend 200 million hours per day doing so. The time spent carrying water is time not spent in school and getting an education, running a small business, or taking on another role in their community. Due to the repeated stress of carrying water, women with collecting responsibilities also disproportionately experience physical effects, such as pain in their hands, upper back, head, and feet, as well as greater potential for longer-term disabilities and diseases.


Irrigation and other agricultural practices are responsible for about 70% of all water withdrawals on a global scale. In fact, the irrigation of crops solely for livestock feed accounts for 23% of the United States’ water consumption. And as incomes increase around the globe, so does the demand for meat and other animal products. Considering meat consumption is projected to increase by 14% by 2030, more water will be diverted to irrigating crops used as feed for livestock.