Only about 1 percent of the world’s fresh water is available for consumption by the world’s 6.6 billion people. Water makes up as much as 70 percent of our bodies and is necessary our most fundamental biological and chemical reactions. Every cell in the body needs water. People can rarely can for go for more than a week without water. The body needs to replace the liter or more it loses every day.

Water is often treated like it is common property---free to use no matter what you do with it or how much you use. As a result huge amounts of it are wasted.

Global water consumption grew sevenfold in the 20th century. As it stands now every one percent of population rise is accompanied by a two to three percent rise in water consumption.

A poem by the late economist Kenneth Boulding goes:
Water is politics, water’s religion
Water is about everyone’s pigeon...
Water is tragical, water is comical.
Water is far from pure economical.

Uses of Water

People use water for drinking and hygiene. Around 20 to 50 liters a day per person is regarded as a minimum for basic needs such as drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation (Americans consume between 400 and 600 liters a day). Far more is used by industry and in agriculture and food production.

About 70 percent of the water used worldwide is used for agriculture. In some developing countries the figure reaches 90 percent. It takes about 1400 liters of water to produce a kilogram of wheat; 2800 liters of water to produce a kilogram of rice; 14,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of beef; and even more than that to produce a cotton T-shirt.. Industry uses another 22 percent. Only about 8 percent goes to personal use.

As development increases and more people eat meat and have access to flush toilets and showers, water consumption also rises. Raising a cow requires a thousand times more water than the equivalent amount of food in the form of grain.

Bottled Water

Worldwide 47 billion gallons (170 billion liters) of bottled water was sold in 2006, up from 43 billion gallons in 2005.

The bottled water market in the United States is the largest in the world. Sales reached 8.82 billion gallons, worth $11.7 billion, in 2007. In many cases the water is simply tap water that has been put through a couple of filters.

Critics of bottled water object to: 1) the energy and petroleum used to make the bottles; 2) the cost and energy used to transport the water; and 3) the liter and pollution created by discarded plastic bottles.

In the United States the energy required to make water bottles is equivalent to 17 million barrels of oil a year. Globally, it is equivalent to about 100 million barrels annually.

Bottled water can be more than 1,000 times more expensive than tap water. The priciest stuff goes for around $500 a bottle, a million times more expensive than the stuff that from the tap.

Taste tests have consistently showed that people can rarely tell the difference between tap water and bottled water or distinguish between different kinds of bottled water. Richard Will, an anthropology professor at Indiana University, told the Washington Post, “taste for water is as much an effort of imagination as it is an objective tests.”

Water Services

Water services is getting to be a big business. The industry basically provides four services: 1) purifying water; 2) delivering it to households and businesses; 3) cleaning up water that leaves those homes and businesses; and 4) extending and repairing the networks of pipes, pumps and plants. These services may sound simple but they can be highly complex and expensive to execute.

Increasingly the argument is being made that they best way to deal with water and the problems of delivering efficiently and safely is to put in the hands of the market. If supples are short raise the prices and let the laws of supply and demand decide its fate. If it is dirty let the market define what its takes to make it clean.

But in many cases things are not so simple. If prices are raised too much poor people can not afford it and sometimes people get so upset they fill the streets and protest. It is not uncommon for water companies to pull out of deals and cancel contracts is the situation gets too volatile. Water is different from other commodities in that it is so vital for living. People can not really say this water is too expensive I’ll buy something else.

In the old days many water suppliers were private companies. Later it was deemed more appropriate for everyone to have access to water and consequently water became controlled by public systems. In recent years as demand for water has risen and the expense of delivering has risen a number of countries and municipalities--- some of them quite poor---are tuning to the private sector for help.

Veolia and Other Water Service Companies

The three largest water service companies in the world are European. France-based Veolia is perhaps the best known. Originally known as the Compagnie Generale des Eaux, it was founded in 1853 by Napoleon III, France’s last emperor, and funded by Baron de Rothschild and Charles Lafitte. It was created to help implement the emperor’s plan to modernize France and over the decades built much of France water infrastructure. It began offering it services international ly after it helped clean up the Siene (the river that flows through Paris) and figured the techniques it used to clean the Seine could be used elsewhere.

In the 1980s the company changed its named to Vivendi and went on acquisition binge, purchasing among others Seagrams (for $34 billion ) and the publisher Houghton Mifflin and became a huge entertainment conglomerate with 2,000 subsidiaries, most of them having nothing to do with the water business. By the late 1990s the company was overextended and so baldy in debt it verged on collapse. To raise cash it sold off Vivendi Environment---the original water company. In 2003, the company was renamed Veolia to avoid any association with its former parent company.

The C.E.O. of Veolia is Henri Proglio, a Frenchman who scoffs at the corporate world, claims to never have owned a tuxedo and asserts his company is in business to be environmentally responsible. Proglio told the French newsweekly Le Point in 2005, “Water, like oil, is getting scarcer, We’re living on Earth in 2005 with the same water that was available in 1900. While in the meantime the global population has quadrupled.”

Suez, a descendant of the company that built the Suez Canal in 1860, is another large France-based water company. As of 2006 it ranked 90th on the Forbes list of the world’s 2,000 largest public firms. It operates in 32 countries and had $58.6 billion in revenues in 2006. Suez has grown fast in recent years, acquiring Lyonnaise des Eaux, one of France’s largest utilities in 1997.

Thames Water provides water for most of London. Described by the left-leaning Independent newspaper as “Britain’s most hated utility,” it took its present form in 1989 during a wave Thatcher-era privatizations. In the 1990s it expanded internationally and was bought by the German energy combine RWE and then by a consortium headed by Macquarie, Australia’s largest investment bank. Veolia, Suez and Thames dwarf the water service companies in the United States.

The water service businesses claim they are doing the world a favor and say they can deliver water in the same way that private companies can build better cars than governments. Some analysts say that thus far that may be true in democracies where the public has some recourse if they don’t like what is happening but is not necessarily the case in places with strong governments like China, where the government-supported water companies can call the shots and the public has little recourse if they don’t like the situation.


Hydropower from dams has largely topped out. Many proposed projects will either cause severe environmental problems and/or require the relocation of huge numbers of people.

Hydropower is criticized from disrupting river ecology and uprooting populations but is making a comeback as a green energy source that produces few greenhouse-gas emissions. Or is that really the case? Research by Philippe Feranside of hydro project in the Amazon found that dam reservoirs submerge large amounts of plants and soil and as it does releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane and the plants are lost as carbon consumers. Many of the gases that are locked up in the reservoir water are released when they pass through the turbines.

Water Problems

More than 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion people lack sanitation. More than 80 countries representing 40 percent of the world’s population regularly experience serious water shortages. In sub-Saharan Africa half of most people’s water consumption takes place outside the home. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) estimates that one third of humans lacks reliable access to safe water either because the water is unsafe, unaffordable or unavailable. By 2025 the United Nations predicts 3 billion people will be seeking clean water.

The average amount of water used by some people per day in countries like Somalia, Mali, Mozambique, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda and Djibouti is equal to what people in some developed countries use when they run the tap while brushing their teeth.

In 2007, the United Nations declared water a “global crisis” and more or less said a U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without clean water between 2000 and 2015 was heading for failure. The United Nations has realized there was a problem for some time. It declared the 1980s “the decade of water” but made little headway on the problem then.

In many places people have water to drink. What they lack is safe water to drink. Open defecation is a standard practice in many parts of the developing world and run off from this inevitably dirties local water supplies.

Urbanization causes local water shortages as ground water is pumped out and surface water is polluted. The rapid growth of the world’s cities has put stresses on urban water systems and infrastructure that cities can’t afford to fix. Inequality of water access is another problem. In Jakarta, for example, slum dwellers pay five to 10 times more for water than the wealthy.

The world’s water is terribly managed. In the cities much of it is lost to leaky pipes. In the countryside much it vanishes into the air from open irrigation canals. John Briscoe, a water advisor at the World Bank for 10 years, told Vanity Fair magazine, all over the world “you have hugely underfunded, very inefficient services producing very bad service...Subsidies go where the power is.” Governments “don’t have enough money to operate the system properly, so the existing system rations water, and of course it’s the elite that go to the front of the queue.”

Waste is awful. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the world’s water consumption but 60 percent of the water used for irrigation is lost to evaporation, leaky canals, or is contaminated by fertilizer and pesticide residues.

Water-Borne Disease

About 6,000 people die each day of water-borne diseases such a typhoid, diarrhea, hepatitis cholera and dysentery. About 5,000 children die everyday of diarrhea because of a lack of hygiene and sanitation. Dirty water kills more kids than AIDS, malaria , war and accidents put together.

More than 100 pathogens can cause illness if you drink or swim in water contaminated by sewage. They include viruses such hepatitis A, and norovirus Norwalk, and bacteria such as E. Coli, shigella, and campylobacter and parasites such as cryptosporidium (a protozoa spread in fecal matter chlorine doesn’t kill), naegleria fowleri and giardia and flatworms such as schistosoma.

On top of that chemicals and toxins such as PCBs, metals and things like growth hormones and chemicals from soap also enter the water. By one count 1,000 new synthetic compounds enter the water system every year and seep into drinking water. [Source: Natural History magazine, November 2007]

Blooms of algae and plankton can be toxic in their own rite plus they can contain pathogens such as the bacteria that cause cholera. Algae blooms are aided by nitrogen and phosphorous from human waste, and agricultural runoff.

Providing Clean Water and Fighting Water-Borne Diseases

Studies have shown that providing clean water and sanitation can bring about tremendous benefits. People live longer, stay healthier and become productive while health care costs go down. People have realized the importance of clean water for some time. A tomb from ancient Egypt dated to 1450 B.C. depicts an elaborate filtering system. The ancient Greeks and especially the Romans devoted a lot of energy and resources to clean water.

The chlorination of water is what saves many people in the developed world from water-bourne pathogens and toxins. The discovery of chlorine as a germ-killing agent took place in the early 1900s. Chlorination began in the United States around 1910. Among the diseases it conquered was typhoid, which was reduced from causing around 25 deaths per 100,000 a year to almost none. Chlorine is effective against many disease-causing agents but not all of them. But it remains a cheap way to fight water-bourne disease.

In the developed world before chlorinating water became common place cities combated water-born diseases by having water piped in from remote locations and separating water supplies. These days more and more pathogens are emerging that get past chlorinizaton and scientists worry about mutations that might produce a really nasty germ that could kill thousands or millions.

The LifeStraw, a cylindrical devise about the size of bicycle pump that is placed into water and sucked through, has shown great promise in tackling water-bourne disease . Produced by the Danish company Vestergaard Frandsen S.A. , it costs $3 per unit and consists of layer of increasingly-fine mesh filters that strain out most bacteria and iodine beads that kill remaining bacteria as well as viruses and parasites. Active carbon neutralizes the taste of the iodine and blocks out remaining parasites. Devises sold in 2007 did not filter out the common parasite giardia lamblia but the company was working on a device that did.

Mikkel Vestergaard, inventor the 20-centimeter-long device, told Newsweek, “You have to suck pretty hard at first to get it moist, but after that it’s easy.” It can filter up to 185 gallons of water, about a year’s worth of use, before needing to be replaced. His company is also a major maker or mosquito nets and malaria-fighting, insecticide-coated sheeting.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: World Almanac, United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program, Investopedia Industry Handbooks, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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