Exactly what happens if we run out of water?

By: Josh Clark  | 
In some regions, like Turkey (above), water is becoming scarce. Other regions have ample, but unsanitary, supply. See more pictures of natural disasters.
Courtesy Sezayi Erken/AFP/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Freshwater makes up only 3 percent of Earth's water supply, with less than 1 percent freely available for human use.
  • Population growth, agricultural demands and inefficient use of water cause conflicts over water rights and scarcity.
  • Solutions include diplomatic water-use agreements and technological innovations like drip-irrigation and desalination.

Our global water supply is becoming more of an issue every day. Even in developed nations, where a plentiful supply of water is sometimes taken for granted, the value of water is in­creasing among the people and their governments. HowStuffWorks has already found that we can't manufacture water, so what exactly will happen if we run out?­ It's ironic that on a planet that is 70 percent water, people don't have enough clean, safe water to drink. But the freshwater on Earth makes up just three percent of the water supply. And less than one percent is freely available; the rest is tied up in ice, as in icebergs, glaciers, and snowcaps. This means that all of the rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and groundwater expected to sustain the 6,602,224,175 people on Earth make up less than one percent of the total water on the planet [source: CIA].

This is important, because the planet is in the midst of what the United Nations is calling a "water crisis." For some people, the issue isn't a lack of water, but a lack of clean water: Millions of people die each year from preventable diseases, after drinking water from an unsanitary source [source: U.N.]. In other regions, water is simply scarce.


A water shortage can affect you no matter where you live in the world. It's arguably humanity's most vital natural resource. It sustains all other activities; it's the essential basis of economies, societies and human life.­

The current crisis results from a combination of factors, but one rises above the others: the global population boom. As populations grow, so too, do their demands on water. People must be fed, and agriculture must have water to grow crops and livestock. This puts a demand on naturally available water.

To secure a source of water for its people, a government may construct a dam, but dams have drawbacks as well. Due to their large surface area, they lose a lot of water to evaporation. And they also serve as inadvertent collection sites for natural salts found in freshwater. These salts build up over time, and cropland irrigated through a dam may become poisoned from salt concentrations. This can lead to food loss -- not only the crops themselves, but also the cows, pigs and chickens that eat the affected grains.

Instead of finding new places to grow crops, farmers with ruined fields may move to cities in search of work. Sudden urban population growth strains public infrastructure -- like sewers. The poorest residents may find that they have no choice but to use the water supply directly, without sanitation. Pollution would also increase through the growth of industry, which may boom with a sudden influx of cheap labor. If this happened, it wouldn't take long for the common water supply to become unsanitary under these conditions. The polluted water supply would kill aquatic life, further reducing the available food supply. Water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea, would spread.

Will this happen? Perhaps not. But people may resort to violence in an attempt to prevent a nightmare scenario like this. Read on to find out about conflicts arising from water rights.


Water Wars

The conflict in Darfur, Sudan began, in part, over water rights.
Courtesy Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

In 1995, World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin said, "the wars of the next century will be fought over water" [source: Village Voice]. The last war fought over water was 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia , but other water conflicts have broken out since [source: Leslie]. The bloody conflict in Darfur, Sudan, that began in 2003 and killed as many as 400,000 Africans, started, in part, over access to a diminishing water supply [source: The Guardian].

The Darfur conflict began locally and grew to encompass a region. In other regions, water may also strain relations between neighboring countries. Water is spread across geographic boundaries, which makes it difficult to determine ownership. Because nations may share a common water supply, animosity can grow over access to it, especially where it is perceived by one group that another is demanding more from the supply.


This phenomenon is not limited to regions where many countries are situated near one another, but in regions of the United States as well. In October 2007, a 20-year-old dispute over water rights -- which some call a water war -- between the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia flared up. When the available water that supplies Atlanta's 4.5 million residents, as well as parts of Alabama and Florida, began to diminish due to a severe drought, tensions flared over the rights to the water supply. While the states' National Guards didn't confront each other, the governors engaged in a publicity war, exchanging words instead of bullets.

Water is inequitably dispersed on a global level. While developing nations scramble to provide their populations with water, they usually end up paying more for it, since they must take greater measures to get it. Developed countries can afford infrastructure that can deliver water cheaply and effectively to residents. This makes water seem cheaper and less valuable to the people who live there. While it takes about 12 gallons per day to sustain a human (this figure takes into account all uses for water, like drinking, sanitation and food production), the average American uses about 158 gallons [source: U.S. News and World Report].

This illuminates a global divide over water. This divide could also fuel conflict and animosity between the water-haves and the water-have-nots in the future. While access to safe water is being seen increasingly as a human right, water itself is becoming a luxury item. For example, a diet rich in meat is associated with wealth, since meat is more expensive than grain. And while it takes about 1,000 tons of water to grow one ton of grain, it takes 15 times that amount of water to grow one ton of beef [source: Leslie]. As water grows in value, how will developed nations be perceived by those nations with little or no access to water?

It's clear that as water becomes increasingly valuable, the risk of future conflicts over water supply increases. But can we overcome our own future? Is it inevitable that plague, famine and war due to a lack of water will define 21st-century history? Read the next page to find out about possible hope for the future.


Water Supply Solutions

The governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida met in Washington, D.C. in November 2007 to discuss a water-sharing agreement.
Courtesy Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the United States, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, one small town has already learned what it means to run out of water. The water supply for Orme, Tenn., went dry in 2007. It was a hardship for the town's 145 residents, but it was something they overcame with the help of their neighbors. The nearby town of New Hope, Ala., allowed Orme to bring in trucks to take water from their supply to fill the town's water tank. What's more, New Hope allowed the town of Orme to install a two-mile-long pipe which taps into its water supply.

Around 150 miles to the south, Atlanta's water war is being addressed not through sanctions or conflict, but through diplomacy. In November 2007, the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama -- three states whose regions depend on a common water supply -- met in Washington, D.C. to discuss a water-use agreement between the three states. In the western U.S., a similar process was undertaken between seven states that share a common water supply. Water-use agreements are also becoming common elsewhere in the world: During the 20th century, 145 water treaties were created in places like the Middle East and Asia, where water is scarce [source: Leslie].


Technology may also play a key role in ensuring an adequate water supply. Agricultural uses make up 70 percent of all of the water consumption by humans. But 42 percent of all of the water people use agriculturally is lost due to inefficient irrigation techniques. Drip-irrigation systems are becoming increasingly popular, as they operate with as much as 95 percent efficiency [source: Energy Services]. Traditionally, drip systems are more expensive than other irrigation methods, but some companies are finding ways to reduce the cost of these systems, making them more affordable for poor countries that lack water resources.

Desalinization plants -- which remove salt from seawater to produce freshwater -- are already in operation throughout the world. They're expensive to operate, but the costs associated with this technology are expected to decrease in the future.

Another water-conservation solution may be to cultivate crops that require less water to grow and produce. Bioengineers are attempting to create genetically modified plants that could grow well without artificial irrigation. While the thought of eating genetically modified foods makes some people squeamish, the food of the future may be created in a laboratory.

Not all water supply solutions rely on technology. Some suggest that simply increasing the perceived value of water may be an answer to the water crisis. Making water a strictly public utility (meaning it is not available for sale by for-profit companies), and raising the price of water could reduce waste. If water costs more, it would become more valuable to consumers. Logically, this would encourage the public to conserve more. In other words, if water is more expensive, a person would be less likely to keep the water running while he brushes his teeth.

There are essentially two views of the current water crisis: optimism and pessimism. As water supplies diminish, conflicts may emerge. Illness and death may take place. But while some may fight, the struggle to maintain or create a viable water supply has encouraged cooperation and innovation between governments. From water crisis also springs hope.

For more information on water and related topics, read the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Bluestein, Greg. "Tennessee Town Has Run Out of Water." Associated Press. November 1, 2007. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071101/ap_on_re_us/town_without_water
  • Leslie, Jaques. "Running Dry (Water Scarcity)." Harper's Magazine. July 2000. http://www.qmw.ac.uk/~ugte133/courses/environs/cuttings/water/running.pdf
  • Schulte, Bret. "A World of Thirst." Us News and World Report. May 27, 2007. http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070527/4hotspots.htm
  • "CIA World Fact Book." United States Central Intelligence Agency. November 1, 2007. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html
  • "Drip Irrigation May Provide Energy, Water Savings." Western Area Power Administration. May 2007. http://www.wapa.gov/es/pubs/esb/2007/may/may074.htm
  • "Scorched." The Guardian. April 28, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/sudan/story/0,,2067637,00.html
  • "Water, A Shared Responsibility." United Nations. March 2006. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001444/144409E.pdf