Water is essential for drinking, cooking and washing. And that’s not all. It’s just as important for sanitation as well as producing food and consumer goods. Many of us take it for granted that we just have to turn on a faucet to get as much water as we want and that standing under the shower for longer than necessary is not a problem. But every second person on the planet experiences water shortages for at least one month each year. One in ten people lacks reliable access to water and one in four people lives in a country where a lot of water is consumed, despite how scarce this resource has become. In particular, countries in North Africa are not only water-stressed but also risk running out of water in the near future.
And yet, there is enough fresh water on the planet so that no one needs to go without. Millions of people die each year from diseases caused by inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene as a direct result of poor water management or poor infrastructure. Today, more than two billion people live under the threat of limited access to freshwater resources. By 2050, it is anticipated that at least one in four people will live in a country facing chronic or recurrent freshwater shortages. Certain droughts strike some of the world’s poorest countries, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition.
Although the number of people with access to safe sanitary facilities has increased in recent years, around one in eleven people still has to relieve him or herself in the open because there simply aren’t any toilets. More than one in three people have no running water, wash basin or toilet at home. Without sanitary facilities, bacteria and diseases spread more rapidly. What’s more, a third of all elementary schools have no drinking water or sanitary facilities for pupils, which is detrimental to the health of many.
Germany has good quality drinking water. Unfortunately, things don’t look as good for the country’s rivers and other flowing waters. Nitrate, heavy metals (mercury) and phosphate as well as various residues from agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals pollute surface and groundwaters. Phosphorus from agriculture and cities finds its way into rivers, significantly raising nutrient levels in the water and restricting the oxygen content. As a result, it is not uncommon for toxic algal blooms to form and fish to die in high numbers. When nitrates from fertilizers leach into the water supply in high quantities, the groundwater has to be treated to be made fit for human consumption. At nearly one in five groundwater monitoring sites, nitrate levels exceeded the critical threshold value.
Germany imports a lot of goods – such as jeans and avocado crops – which require high volumes of water to produce in their countries of origin. In this way, German consumers also contribute to chemical contamination and water shortages in developing countries. Even though Germany does not currently face a water shortage, it’s predicted that climate change will have an impact. During dry summers, farmers need ever increasing quantities of water to irrigate their fields. As agriculture consumes more and more groundwater, the drinking water supply will come under pressure.
Access to clean water for all is a key element of the kind of world we want to live in. Around the globe, water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation impair the food security, livelihoods and educational opportunities of poor families. Fortunately, over the last decade, significant inroads have been made into improving drinking water sources and wastewater disposal. That means over 90 percent of the world’s population has access to better drinking water sources today. In order to improve wastewater disposal and people’s access to drinking water, we need to step up investment in managing freshwater ecosystems and sanitation facilities at the local level in several developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.