Look back at the decade: Water Scarcity

In this series to highlight what was crucial in the second decade of the new millenium we now look at how water management became the debate point

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 27 December 2019
Look back water management. Illustration: Ritika Bohra

In 2010, the world achieved a milestone: five years ahead of schedule, the Millennium Development Goal of giving access to clean water was achieved. In 20 years some 2 billion people gained access to clean water. But the decade had another daunting challenge of providing clean water to additional 2.1 people. “Day Zero” became a reality that hundreds of towns and cities across the world dread now. The world had never before debated an abundant natural resource like this. More than oil, conflicts were being analysed from water perspective. India emerged as a global hot spot for being the largest user of water, more of groundwater, the nature’s provident fund of life-saving reserve.

Days Zero

While the world’s most dramatic urban crisis unfolds in Cape Town in South Africa, recent studies say at least 200 cities across the world are fast running out of water. An analysis by Down To Earth shows 10 of them are headed towards Day Zero — when the taps will run dry.

This comes as a surprise because cities across the world have grown, thrived and expanded along rich, perennial sources of water, be it lakes, rivers, springs or even seas. So, where did all the water go? Robert McDonald, lead scientist at the US-based environmental group Nature Conservancy offers an explanation. “The main long-term driver of these shortages is the unprecedented urban growth occurring around the world,” he says. Rightly so.

The crisis at Cape Town has shown what unplanned urbanisation can do to water availability in the world’s urban centres. Not only are our metropolises headed to a dry future, the scarcity will increase as people are migrating to urban areas at unprecedented rates.

About 54 per cent of the world, or 3.9 billion people, live in urban areas and they will grow between 60 and 92 per cent by the end of the century, says a study published in Nature this January. As a result, the urban water demand will increase by 80 per cent by 2050, it adds.

It is worrying that “climate change will alter the timing and distribution of water,” it says. About 400 million urban dwellers currently face water shortage, states a 2014 study published in Global Environmental Change.

This when the average global temperature has not even risen by 1.5°C above pre-industrialisation levels. What will happen when it rises by 2°C? A study, published in Earth System Dynamics in November 2017, has made projections for those scenarios.

A 1.5°C rise in the average global temperature will expose 357 million urban dwellers to extreme droughts while the figure for a 2°C rise will be 696 million, it says. The number of city dwellers facing water shortage by 2050 could be much higher, about 1 billion, says the Nature study.

Also in the decade


Increasing instances of use of water as a weapon of war in ongoing conflicts is now a new worry for the United Nations and other agencies which till now had been working to provide better water and sanitation facilities to these countries.


The Indus River and its tributaries, which flow through parts of China, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are among the most vulnerable “water towers” in the world, a study from Utrecht University in the Netherlands said. Besides the Indus, other highly vulnerable water towers in Asia include the Tarim, Amu Darya and Syr Darya in Central Asia and the Ganges-Brahmaputra in South Asia.

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