Perceptions and misconceptions are certainly invoked by ‘the water crisis’. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is often seen as an arid environment. Yet this notion obscures the fact that huge swathes of the African continent have abundant water resources – this may explain why, of all the regions surveyed by the World Economic Forum, African respondents ranked water stress lower on their list of global trends for 2015. Although there may be lots of water in the region, lack of access by people to improved water supply is a crisis now.

Right here are the two main components of water crisis: water resource and water access. We tend to focus on the former when considering the concept of water crisis, particularly in places where water is scarce.

Even where resources are plentiful, there are millions of people who lack access. While the United Arab Emirates has very little in the way of water resources, for example, they have the financial means to ensure the provision of clean water. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is known as the water tower of Africa, but more than half its population do not have access to a safe and reliable source.

In Asia, resource constraint may not be the key driver, but those resources can be depleted quickly given high population density. Crises emerge where there is poverty and a lack of financial resources to combat the problem. In India, there are more than 100 million people without access to improved water supplies, and this is primarily due to poverty.

Climate change will undoubtedly be a big factor in the future, as it will have a dramatic effect on water distribution. As sea levels rise in Bangladesh, salt water intrusion is going to be very problematic for the significant number of people living in areas of low elevation – especially as there is little capacity for treating water. If you imagine living in a water-rich area that becomes water-stressed in the space of a decade, it’s easy to expect crises to emerge quickly.

As water stress increases across the world, there will be political consequences. Will we see neighbouring governments, such as those of Pakistan and India, cooperating or manufacturing further tensions in order to seize resources?

Governments must play a central role. For a start, water treatment and distribution in urban areas is a natural monopoly, as it doesn’t make sense to construct multiple sets of pipes from different companies. In many developed countries, there’s more financial and political will to invest in long-term infrastructure, while in developing countries, it’s not uncommon to see utilities lacking the means to invest in long-term infrastructure and often it is the poor who are left out when this infrastructure bypasses the slums.

Our work at Water.org shows that even people living at the base of the economic pyramid have the potential to be customers. While we believe that affordable access to water is a basic human right, the poor have the potential to meet us halfway if we can give them access to the right financial tools such as microfinance and the ability to connect to the water supply infrastructure.

The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015 report is now live.

Author: Gary White is Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Water.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people in the developing world to gain access to safe water and sanitation.  

Image: Palestinians fill containers with water from public taps in Beit Lahiya, near the border between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip, February 25, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem