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Water is a limited resource on our planet and it is spread unevenly.

Author / translator Cristina Cipriano

Water is a limited resource on our planet and it is spread unevenly. A complex set of factors – including the waste due to our development model, the increasingly high consumption due to agriculture and industries, population growth, and climate change that tend to dry up more and more areas already naturally poor in water resources – make the "water problem" increasingly topical and worrying. For some time, in certain areas of the world, the possession and use of water have triggered real conflicts between states. While many wars were fought over oil in the twentieth century, it is expected that new wars in the twenty-first century could involve access to the planet's water resources. For this reason, water has also been called "blue gold", to underline how much this resource is becoming important, and increasingly closely linked to economic and political problems.

Credits to "Museo A come Ambiente" (Torino, Italy), the first museum in Europe entirely dedicated to environmental issues. MAcA has been offering creative spaces, exhibits, workshops, educational paths, experiences that encourage exploration and spread environmental culture for over 10 years.

Created 25 March 2021
Last edited 25 March 2021
Topics Environment, Politics, Sustainability

Policy positions

Policy position 1

Unlimited use of water by every citizen. Water is the primary good par excellence, no one can set limits on the quantities available to each citizen.

Policy position 2

Use of incentives and bonuses for citizens who keep their water consumption below the average values. Since it is difficult to act on virtual consumption, daily waste by citizens can be avoided.

Policy position 3

Imposing limits on virtual water consumption. Personal consumption cannot be limited, but water consumption in production processes can be regulated.

Policy position 4

Imposition of limits on the water consumption of citizens and businesses. Limits must be imposed both on those who produce but also on those who consume: each person should be granted and guaranteed a maximum of 100 L of water per day (value chosen in reference to the indication of the United Nations which set 50 L per day per capita the minimum survival requirement).

Story cards

The Aral Sea was the 4th largest lake in the world, in the heart of the Central Asian deserts. Some Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have diverted the course of the two rivers that supplied the lake to grow rice and cotton, two crops extremely in need of water, especially if grown in very arid soils. This choice has reduced the surface of the Aral Sea by 70%. This has caused a further increase in the concentration of salts in its waters, already salty in the past but rich in fish, aggravated by the presence of pollutants and pesticides which are now at their maximum levels. Pollution is destroying the lake ecosystem and creating serious health problems for local populations: anemia, infant mortality, rheumatoid arthritis, allergic reactions.

The death of the Aral Sea

Water is turning into a strategic resource at the center of geopolitical interests. Its rarity and growing value can lead to international conflicts, especially where there are already political tensions between countries. The most alarming context is undoubtedly that of the Middle East, where scarcity of resources, demographic growth, and exasperated nationalisms are added. The disputed waters are those of the Jordan River and the underground wells of the West Bank, on which the maintenance of Israeli agriculture depends. Only 3% of the Jordan basin is in Israeli territory, but Israel uses 60% of its reach to the detriment of its Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian neighbors. Another hotbed of conflict is found in Anatolia, where Turkey, Iraq, and Syria share the course of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In this regard, the Turkish government affirmed that "the water is ours as much as Iraqi oil is Iraq's".

Wars for water

According to UN Water, the United Nations body responsible for research and cooperation in the water sector, it is expected that, in 2025, two-thirds of the world population could live in conditions of reduced access to water. And it is above all virtual water, that is, the water used for the production of food and consumer goods, which risks drying up the Third World which is weighed down by the increasingly pressing Western demand.
In fact, there is a strong link between the consumption of fresh water and the production of food, that is, between water security and food security. Producing food requires much greater water effort than we imagine: to give an example, 140 liters of water are needed to produce an espresso! (We have to consider the whole production process that lies upstream, starting with the sowing and growth of a coffee plant).

Virtual water

In the Sahel, in sub-Saharan Africa, drought has created a water emergency and a consequent famine with dramatic effects. Amref, an international volunteer organization, has proposed to organize a series of concrete interventions on the territory, in particular in Kenya, one of the countries most affected by this crisis. The following is the testimony of Betty Muriuky, one of the workers in the field: "In sub-Saharan Africa, access to clean water is a human right still denied to more than 40% of the population. With its projects, Amref brings clean and safe water to thousands of people, builds wells, cisterns, aqueducts. It does this by involving local communities, with active participation in projects. A successful experience, because I have seen how much Amref staff and volunteers are able to do for the population affected by drought. But also dramatic because it gave me the opportunity to see the devastating effects of the lack of clean water up close."

Humanitarian interventions

Rob Greenfield is an American environmental activist who, in order to denounce the waste of water and invite his fellow citizens to save water, has decided as a symbolic gesture to live a whole year without taking a shower. Rob states: “I only washed in lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, or in the rain. And if there really were no natural resources available, I would fill a bucket with the leaks from hydrants and pipes ”. In this way, Rob has managed to live a whole year using about 8 liters of water each day, compared to the more than 1000 used by the average American. His idea is to promote sustainability and a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Rob does not invite you to imitate his example, which he himself defines as extreme, but provides practical suggestions for everyone to avoid waste.

The protest of an eco-activist

Karl Sandström, a Swedish engineer, has devised a new system to create a shower that recycles part of the water used, thus allowing you not to have to give up the advantages and comforts you are used to nowadays, but helping to develop a more sustainable way of life. He states:
"Freshwater is a renewable resource that is already partially supplied through the water cycle in nature. The real problem is that about 95% of the water supplied to families goes down the drain, for example, a ten-minute shower can mean the waste of forty liters of water. Here's where my invention can really make a difference. The closed-circuit system I designed for a ten-minute shower uses about five liters of water (in a normal shower you need 150 liters of water). Through an advanced filtration system, the water is continuously heated and sterilized, to flow from the showerhead to the drain and be recycled again in real-time".

The idea of a Swedish engineer


Aquifers and law

There are no supranational rules governing the use of underground water reserves. Furthermore, underground water moves unpredictably, even beyond borders. Sucking or pumping water in one place has effects in another place, sometimes even after several years and hundreds of kilometers away.

Problematic aquifers

• South America: Guarani aquifer, shared between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay
• Eastern Europe: large aquifers between Hungary and Romania and a Mesozoic aquifer between Ukraine and Poland
• Africa: Nubian aquifer, under Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Libya and other aquifers under the desert


After September 11th, 2001, the tragic escalation of international terrorism also affects water. The attacks can be carried out through intentional dissemination of biological, chemical, and physical agents among the population also through the contamination of springs, deposits, dams, and aqueducts.

Water as a cause of war

Water has turned into a strategic resource at the center of geopolitical interests. Its rarity and its value are likely to soon lead to armed conflicts for its possession, especially where there are already political or religious tensions between countries.

Problematic areas: North Africa

The Nile crosses ten African countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea), creating problems of permanent tension especially between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Today, Ethiopia is building the Great Rebirth Dam but this dam risks reducing the river's water flow into Egypt.

Problematic areas: Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Water has always been one of the great problems concerning clashes and peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The most disputed resources are those of the Jordan River and the underground wells of the West Bank, on which Israeli agriculture and industry depend. Only 3% of the Jordan basin is in Israeli territory, but Israel uses 60% of its flow.

Problematic areas: Southern and Northern America

Argentina and Uruguay are in dispute over the possession of the Rio de la Plata River and have appealed to the International Court of Justice. Mexico and the United States are also in conflict over the rights of the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers.

Problematic areas: the Middle East

Anatolia, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria share the course of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Now, Turkish plans to create large dams on the Euphrates risk drastically reducing the flow into Iraq. In turn, Iraq is in conflict with Syria over control of the Tigris.

Problematic areas: the Mekong area

The Mekong River is a major problem for Southeast Asia as it passes through six countries (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam). Four of them (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) created the Mekong Commission to find an agreement on conflicts.

Problematic areas: the role of China

China is becoming a leader in the management of fresh and in some cases salty international waters. All rivers in Southeast Asia originate in China and carry water to 1.5 billion people in other countries.

Fetching water

Every day women and children around the world spend around 125 million hours walking to fetch water and then transport it in heavy containers (up to 20 kg) for long distances on foot. How can this burden be reduced? (e.g. on-site collection systems, better network connections, innovative transport systems such as Hippo Water Roller)
How far do you walk each day? How much would you be able to carry on foot?

The burden of intensive agriculture

Intensive agriculture makes the most of land productivity and requires much more water than traditional agriculture, as well as the amount of water required to irrigate the fields. Irrigation processes, especially in arid areas, can cause soil salinization, that is, they cause a progressive increase in salts which over time prevent the use and destroy the productive potential of the land.

Waste of water in agriculture

The gap between water supply and water demand is widening in many parts of the world.
In Europe, especially in the southern and central areas of Europe, the availability of water will decrease more and more, due to a continuous decrease in summer rainfall and in the face of high water demands for crops.

The burden of animal production

Animal production is a major source of water pollution. Livestock feed has above-normal levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, and animals release them through their feces.

Water saving in agriculture

Often much of the water for irrigation does not reach the crops due to leaks along the pipes. Of the water that reaches the fields, only a part is used for the growth of crops, the rest is lost by evaporation and infiltration into the soil.

Assessing the needs of plants

One of the most effective ways to avoid wasting water is to irrigate crops according to the real needs of the plant and at the right time. A precise assessment of water volumes and irrigation times allows for more efficient use of water, as the volumes needed to achieve the best productions are reduced.

The water balance of crops

The calculation of the water balance of crops is the best method to evaluate the amount of water necessary to bridge the difference between the water consumed by crops through evaporation and that which reaches the plants through rains, from the surface aquifers, and by capillary rising in the ground. There is a variety of software that tells farmers when and how much to irrigate the different crops on a daily basis.

Water saving in industry

By 2050 the industry will increase the demand for water by 150%. In addition to technological measures, measures such as reuse and recycling can be implemented. Reuse refers to the use of wastewater after having reclaimed it, such as municipal wastewater treated for irrigation of green areas. By recycling, we mean the reuse of water for the same application for which it was used.

The worsening health state of freshwaters

Neither governments nor individuals adopt ecosystemic approaches to manage freshwater resources. Countries, river basin authorities, private entrepreneurs, and locals should try to ensure the environment is capable of providing sufficient quantities of drinking water for people and nature.

Safeguarding ecosystems

The best answer to water scarcity, disaster mitigation, and risk management is not always the development of infrastructures. Non-structural responses, such as reforestation and wetland remediation, can provide effective alternatives, including from an economic point of view.

Food security and poverty

The food security of tens of millions of people in the world's poorest communities depends on river fishing. This fishery has been underestimated and has greatly decreased around the world. Given the importance of river fishing for food security, the protection of this type of fishing should have priority in water management.

Water and energy

Water is also a renewable source of energy: the production of energy in hydroelectric plants does not consume water but reduces the availability of water in other sectors. Especially large plants require the construction of barrages and dams, the withdrawal of water from rivers and streams, and its storage, with substantial changes in the landscape and climate.

Water and thermoelectric power plants

Water is also used in thermoelectric power plants, where it is employed to transform thermal energy into kinetic energy (water is transformed into steam, which sets the turbines of the plant in motion) useful for producing electricity and for cooling the machinery. This involves the reintroduction of water into the environment at temperatures much higher than natural ones.

Water and health

Almost 1 million people die every year from diseases related to the use of unsafe water (typhus, cholera, dysentery, etc.). Incorrect hygiene practices, associated with rising temperatures, exponentially increase this risk.

Extreme events

Climate change affects rainfall, making it more irregular and violent. This phenomenon causes problems not only for crops but also for safety.
Food for thought: What measures can be put in place to prevent/contain risks?

Water and migrations

The scarcity of water and conflicts over the control of the resource force many to move to more favorable areas or even to migrate to other countries.
Food for thought: If your water weren't enough or safe, what would you do?

Concatenated alterations

To ensure the large quantities of water needed for agriculture and industry, huge dams have been built in China, such as the Three Gorges Dam on the Blue River, which has irremediably altered the climate and the economy of entire regions, today in part submerged.

A complex system: 1. Thule

In Thule, in northern Greenland, global warming is causing rapid ice melt. Locals (hunters and ranchers) suffer as polar bear and reindeer wildlife dwindles, while unstable permafrost becomes dangerous.

A complex system: 2. Tuvalu

In Tuvalu, a small island in the Pacific Ocean, water levels are rising, submerging and eroding the already limited territory, thus forcing inhabitants (fishermen and farmers) to move their homes or to emigrate.

A complex system: 3. Inteconnection

Thule (Greenland) and Tuvalu (Pacific Ocean) developed thanks to the particular local environmental conditions, guaranteed by ice in one and fishy waters in the other. Today, however, they are faced with an emergency linked to the rapid change in these conditions.

The right of accessing water

One in 10 people do not have access to a safe water source, 1 in 3 do not have adequate sanitation. Access to water has been declared an essential human right by the UN but, in reality, we are still far from this condition. For this reason, in the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, access to water is one of the first Goals to be achieved.

Plastic bottles

Two out of three families buy bottled water, with an average consumption per person of 192 liters/year and an expense of € 234 per family (Censis, 2015). This is 12 billion liters handled every year: to produce the necessary bottles, 665,000 tons of oil are needed, from which 350,000 tons of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can be obtained with an atmospheric emission of 910,000 tons of CO2 equivalent.

Water as a resource

Water is one of the most widespread natural resources on Earth. 71% of our planet is made up of water. Most (97%) is saltwater from the oceans, while freshwater is 3%. Only 0.8%, however, is available for life.

Water scarcity and world thirst

At the beginning of the third millennium, an alarm was raised: the Earth has the same amount of water as 2000 years ago when the world population was 3% of the current one. Nonetheless, the problem continues to worsen due to man's growing activities, using water while polluting as well. We are already experiencing a new global emergency: thirst in the world.

Decrease in water

In the second half of the twentieth century, from 1950 to 2000, there was a dramatic decrease in water availability from 17,000 cubic meters to 7,000 cubic meters per person. This trend continues today.

Water distribution

Water is distributed differently both between countries and within the same country. Its distribution depends on environmental factors (climate, altitude, etc.) and human interventions.

The water crisis

The wars of the twentieth century were fought for oil, those of the twenty-first will have water as their aim. The water crisis is already affecting: Israel, India, China, Bolivia, Canada, Mexico, Ghana, the United States.

Water wars

Water wars happen because water is a bargaining good and/or a sacred element. They lead to widespread violent phenomena or even to clashes between countries, often masked by other problems such as religious or ethnic conflicts.

The historical origins of the water problem

From the very beginning, men have fought for water possession. The first water war took place in 2500 BC. Eannatum, king of the city-state of Lagash, in Mesopotamia, built a series of irrigation canals that diverted the course of the river and removed the water from nearby Umma, near what is now Baghdad.


Herodotus speaks of the second Persian war (480-479 BC) caused by water. Wars occur above all for freshwater because it is necessary but insufficient for human needs.

What experts say

«In 4,500 years, a single war has been fought around water and over 500 treaties have been signed. In fact, water is an extraordinary tool for forcing politicians, even enemies, to enter a room and start talking.» (Aaron T. Wolf)


They are water crisis specialists. Often they are scientists/mediators who work for governments and supranational institutions to prevent crises from turning into something deeper and more bloody.


Earth's freshwater is almost all stored in aquifers, that is, underground. 40% of humanity lives thanks to these reserves, drawing on them with wells that in some cases reach hundreds of meters of depth.

Water consumption worldwide

In the twentieth century, water consumption increased by almost 10 times. About 70% of the water consumed on Earth is used for agricultural, industrial, and domestic uses. In less developed regions the percentage of water destined for agricultural use is higher, while in more developed regions the percentage of water destined for industrial and domestic uses is higher.

Civil uses of water

Civil uses of water concern human nutrition, food preparation, hygiene, and domestic and public environments. In this case, it is not only the quantity of water that is made available to people that counts, but also its quality.

Water for breeding

By 2025, over 60% of the world's population will live in conditions of water scarcity. The livestock sector consumes a lot of water to irrigate cultivated fields in order to produce animal feed. To obtain 1 kg of beef you need 15000 liters of water, 3500 liters for 1 kg of chicken. Instead, for the production of cereals, less is needed: 3400 liters for rice, 2000 for soy, 1400 for wheat, 900 for corn, 500 for potatoes.

The importance of oceans

Submarine fields provide a quarter of oil and gas needs, more than half of the trade travels by ship. Over two billion people live within 100 kilometers of the coast, in areas that are sometimes densely urbanized; not to mention the tourists who flock to the beaches every year. Our well-being therefore also depends on the well-being of the oceans and seas.

The water cycle

Water is in constant motion: the sun evaporates water from the Earth's surface and from the body of living organisms. When air rich in water meets cold areas, water vapor condenses and falls back to Earth in liquid form (rain) or solid water (snow or hail). As it condenses, the water returns the heat absorbed during evaporation to the surrounding environment.

The motion of waters

The difference between the rains and evaporation on land is given by the water that flows on the Earth's surface and feeds the rivers, returning to the sea. During this motion, the water erodes and removes the substances dissolved in the soil and contributes to creating fertile alluvial plains; at the same time, soil erosion impoverishes soil fertility and causes landslides and floods.

Natural waters

Natural waters are divided into three main categories:
• Atmospheric waters (rain, snow, fog)
• Telluric waters (surface and groundwater)
• Barispheric waters (of internal origin to the Earth, remain in latent conditions)
To establish its purity it is necessary to analyze the conditions of the soil and the chemical and biological state.

Drinking water

Drinking water must be free from the presence of microbial substances. For safety, the aquifer must therefore be away from sources of pollution. Laboratories are in charge of the analysis and provide judgment concerning potability. In general, the characteristics that affect the use of drinking water are:
• Smell
• Color
• Turbidity
• Temperature
• Flavor

Human appropriation of water

Humans use more than 50% of the water cycle for irrigation, agriculture, industry, civic uses, etc. This compromises the future uses of water due to the pervasive pollution that now heavily affects many rivers, lakes, seas, etc.

The progressive shortage of water

In 1700, with a total world population of 700 million inhabitants, the total consumption of water was about 110 km cubes, in 1990 the consumption was 40 times greater.
The forecasts are now alarming: by 2025 about 3.5 billion people (about half of the world population) could face severe water shortages.

The causes of water deficit

In the last half-century, the demand for water has tripled, also due to the rapid spread of technological means such as diesel or electric pumps. The drilling of millions of new wells has pushed water abstraction far beyond the regeneration capacity of many aquifers. The failure of many governments to limit pumping has led to the current lowering of water tables in many countries.

The map of thirst

We are consuming water that belongs to future generations. “Water-stressed” countries are those where the renewable water supply per capita is less than 1700 cubic meters. Today there are already 36 nations that do not have enough water to address the problems concerning the supply deriving from the food, industrial and domestic needs of their population.

Water and climate

In the short term, the melting of glaciers caused by rising temperatures will cause an increase in river flow and related consequences for the safety of settlements and human activities. In the long term, however, a drastic decrease in the water supply from the glacial reserves is expected: this will cause problems of the opposite type.

Glacial reserves

Siachen is one of the largest glaciers in the world. Located on the border between India and Pakistan, it is the main source of the Indus River, which flows through both countries and supplies water to over 500 million people. Siachen is also one of the glacial reserves most at risk due to the ongoing climatic changes: in the last 15 years, it has retreated by more than 100 meters per year.

Water and climate. Food for thought.

Food for thought: Is it more appropriate to invest in mitigation or adaptation interventions? Where does your water come from? Do you know the water sources in your area?

Water footprint

The water footprint is the measure of the water we actually use. The total volume of our consumption, in fact, is not limited to direct withdrawals for drinking, washing, cooking, etc. but also includes the water needed to produce the goods and services we have every day. 2-4 liters of drinking water a day, for example, is enough to drink, but it takes thousands of liters to produce a meal.

Virtual water

Virtual water is the amount of water needed to produce goods or services. For example, 1000 liters of water are required to produce and market a liter of milk, 3400 liters of water for a kilo of rice, and 15500 liters of water for a kilo of beef. In this way, every day billions of cubic meters of virtual water are transferred from one place to another through trade.

Water scarcity and virtual water importers

The major importers of virtual water are North Africa and the Middle East, Mexico, Europe, Japan, and South Korea. Water scarcity pushes many countries to import products with a higher water footprint, in order to decrease the pressure on local freshwater reserves.

Water and work

According to the latest World Water Report, three-quarters of existing professions are directly or indirectly linked to the water sector. There is a close link between human activities and water resources. We are very dependent on water but this becomes precarious due to threats of exploitation and drought.

Culture and water

Once a year, on Ganesh Day, thousands of statues and votive objects are poured into Indian rivers. It is a religious celebration linked to the traditionally sacred role of water in a country that has always been heavily dependent on the natural water supply for agriculture. Respect for local natural resources manifests itself in different ways in different cultures.

Culture and water. Food for thought.

What customs related to water do you know? (e.g. Dancing for rain, coloring the river green on St. Patrick's Day, etc.)
How do we relate to water?

Reuse of water

Wastewater treatment, i.e. the removal of contaminating elements from urban or industrial water, represents an important solution to reduce water stress. The purified water can in fact be reused for irrigation or reintroduced into the natural environment to compensate for the resources withdrawn. Furthermore, among the treatment residues, it is also possible to obtain sludge that can be used in agriculture.

How to use purified water

Purified water can be reused for irrigation or reintroduced into the natural environment to compensate for the resources withdrawn. Furthermore, among the treatment residues, it is also possible to obtain sludge that can be used in agriculture. The times and costs of the treatment processes depend on the quality of the water collected, as well as the possibility of reusing the derivatives for other uses.

Aquifers and groundwater

Aquifers are the layers of permeable rocks that can house the deep waters of the ground and hold enough to feed wells and springs. Groundwater is essentially the specific water contained in aquifers.

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