Today, more than 750 million people still lack of access to safe water. This World Water Week, DW looks at why H2O is so essential to sustainable development, and how we can be smarter about using this precious resource.

A finite resource

Water is fundamental to sanitation, healthy ecosystems and human survival. It’s also a finite resource and lack of safe water could soon become a serious challenge to sustainable development. But if well and equitably managed, water can play a key role in strengthening the resilience of social, economic and environmental systems.

Water project in Cameroon.

Down the drain

Food waste and water waste are closely linked. Agriculture accounts for around 70 percent of human water consumption. Each year, around 500 billion cubic meters of water are wasted growing crops that will never be eaten. Meat production requires more water than vegetables – but even your morning coffee needed 140 liters to make one cup.

Crops being watered in Africa.

Changing weather

Changing climatic conditions are leading to irregular rainfall patterns that complicate planning for water supply and increase water insecurity. This hits communities that depend on farming and agriculture particularly hard. In recent months, many have suffered from either short bouts of heavy rain – resulting in floods and loss of crops – or droughts that bring food shortages.

Monsoon flooding in India.

Less moo, more H2O

Livestock production is one of the most water-heavy industries. More than 15,000 liters are needed to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat. Rising demand for beef and dairy products means less water is available for human consumption and sanitation, so a diet based on vegetables, pulses and grains is key to saving water.

Livestock production is one of the most water-heavy industries.

The water polluters in your closet

The clothing industry is one world’s worst water polluters, dumping thousands of gallons of chemical residue into rivers and oceans each year – mainly in developing countries. Laundry also uses up large amounts of water, and releases polluting detergents into ecosystems.

Fair-trade clothes for sale in Berlin.

Ancient wisdom

As the global human population grows, so does its demand for water. But traditional techniques for harvesting rainwater have helped people in India, sub-Saharan Africa and South America to survive long dry periods and can be replicated in other parts of the world. With a little ingenuity, regular people everywhere can harvest and reuse rainwater at home, too.

Step-well in India.

From water world to plastic planet

Plastic waste is a major problem in waterways, and causes huge damage to marine life. But demand for plastic is on the rise. In developed countries, the average person uses 100 kilograms of plastic each year. It takes 500 to 1,000 years for plastic to disintegrate – meaning until then, it just keeps piling up.

Plastic waste in the sea, Philippines.

Water is money

One other reason clean water is often the highest priority for development: The social and economic effects of not having a safe water supply are immense. These affect food, housing and health. Around the world, people spend hours each day collecting water when they could be working or studying. In economic terms, every $1 invested in water and sanitation has an economic return of up to $34.

A woman collects water in Uganda.

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