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Western Washington University

Publication Date

Fall 2010

Program Name

Switzerland: International Studies and Multilateral Diplomacy


Water scarcity is a serious problem—without adequate supplies of clean freshwater, there cannot be life. The direct and indirect costs of water scarcity are huge, including poor public health, gender inequality, and acute restrictions for economic development. Currently, around 20 percent of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities (UNEP Brief, 1). About 1.8 million people—most of them children less than five years old—die every year due to water-borne diseases from fecal pollution—the equivalent of about 15 killer tsunamis each year or 12 Boeing 747 crashes every day (1).

The problem of water scarcity—the lack of a minimum supply of clean, fresh water where it is vitally needed to support human health, sustainable food production and fundamental ecological well-being—is not an issue simply for environmental activists, for it is fundamentally an issue of economics. Human health, economic development and ecological well-being all depend on the availability of clean freshwater.

Water scarcity is caused by a variety of human and non-human factors: geography, population growth, high demand, pollution, deforestation, poor governance and climate change. Climate change, in particular, has the potential to greatly exacerbate the problems associated with water scarcity. Scarcity also threatens peaceful cooperation in regions with high levels of pre-existing tensions, and also threatens the realization of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Although water scarcity threatens security under certain circumstances, full-scale “water wars” are unlikely. Strong, integrated systems of water management have the potential to prevent and mitigate situations of water scarcity. Although the problem of water scarcity is nuanced and complex, there are a number of practical solutions that can easily, effectively and inexpensively diminish the problem.


Environmental Health and Protection | Inequality and Stratification | Natural Resources Management and Policy | Place and Environment | Water Resource Management


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