Future of the Environment

Explainer: What exactly is freshwater and is there enough of it?

freshwater: Ocean water

Only around 3% of water on Earth is freshwater, and the vast majority of that is hard to access - either hidden deep underground or ‘stored’ as ice. Image: Unsplash/ Matt Hardy

Stefan Ellerbeck
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Most of the water on Earth is saline, with freshwater making up just 3%.
  • Nearly two-thirds of humans face water shortages at least one month a year - UN.
  • Rising global population, inadequate infrastructure and climate change are increasing water scarcity, especially in low-income countries.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Uplink platform is investing $15 million in encouraging entrepreneurs and start-ups to come up with solutions.

Imagine not having enough water to drink, cook or wash with.

That’s the reality for nearly two-thirds of the world’s population who face water shortages for at least one month every year, according to the United Nations.

Water scarcity is a growing problem around the world. It is caused by a variety of factors including rapidly growing demand, inadequate infrastructure and climate change. Poorer countries and communities, and especially women and girls who end up doing most of the water collection, are the most affected, the UN says.

Where does freshwater come from?

Water evaporates from bodies of water such as oceans and lakes when sunlight warms them. It is also drawn from soils and plants in a process known as evapotranspiration. Contaminants such as salts are left behind and the freshwater vapour condenses to form clouds. It is then eventually released back to Earth as rain or snow.

water cycle freshwater vapour cloud condence
Contaminants such as salts are left behind and the freshwater vapour condenses to form clouds. Image: World Bank.

Water covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, however most of that is ocean. Only around 3% of water on Earth is freshwater, and the vast majority of that is hard to access - either hidden deep underground or ‘stored’ as ice.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) says although the water people use mainly comes from rivers, they contain less than 1% of the planet’s freshwater. It estimates that more than 68% of freshwater is “locked up in ice and glaciers”. Another 30% is in the ground, mostly in aquifers - underground layers of permeable rock or sediment. Wells are drilled into this to provide freshwater for cities, towns and villages.

A graphic showing where the Earth's freshwater is.
Less than 3% of the water on Earth is freshwater. Image: USGS.

Freshwater supplies are under threat

Freshwater supplies feed a growing global population and keep the planet’s ecosystems thriving. However, they are under threat. Human activity is causing them to become stressed, and some rivers, lakes and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use.

Population and economic growth is making the situation worse. Climate change is contributing to water scarcity by altering weather and rainfall patterns around the world, and increasing the prevalence of drought. It’s also accelerating the melting of glaciers, ice caps and snowfields. Meltwater feeds many of the world’s river systems.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

The political economy of water

By 2030, the global demand for water will have exceeded the sustainable supply available by 40%. Agriculture already makes up 70% of water withdrawals globally, according to the World Resources Institute, and with food production needing to increase by 69% by 2035, the demand on freshwater will also grow. As a consequence, tensions have been rising within and between some of the countries that share water resources such as rivers, lakes and aquifers. A severe drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 has been partly blamed for the subsequent conflict there, reports the BBC.

Safeguarding the world’s freshwater resources

The UN says water must be treated as a scarce resource: In its Sustainable Development Goals 2022 progress report it says that “decades of misuse, poor management, over extraction of groundwater and contamination of freshwater supplies have exacerbated water stress.”

However, it does note that progress has been made in some areas, such as the provision of safely managed drinking water services, which increased from 70% to 74% from 2015-2020. Water use efficiency also rose worldwide by 12% between 2015 and 2019. But, the UN says “to ensure a sustainable and equitable distribution of water to meet domestic, industrial, agricultural and environmental needs, the average global rate of implementation of improved management of water resources needs urgently to double.”

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In order to accelerate the freshwater conservation and management agenda, the global conglomerate HCL has partnered with the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform. It connects start-ups and entrepreneurs with the Forum’s network to provide expertise and funding for sustainable projects. $15 million of investment by HCL will accelerate the innovation agenda for water.

“Every fifth child on this planet faces water scarcity,” says Roshni Nadar Malhotra, CEO of HCL Group and Chairperson of HCL Technologies. “Together we will not just encourage and scale innovations in this critical area but also help build capacity for water-focused entrepreneurs – so-called ‘aquapreneurs’ – to execute on the innovative solutions.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Future of the EnvironmentClimate Change
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