Written by Winter Hawk
In America, many people leave their sinks on, wasting cold, freshwater as they wait for it to warm. This is because water is so reliable—or, at least, most people think it is.
But freshwater—what people drink, bathe in, and irrigate farms with—is actually incredibly rare.
In fact, only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh. Two-thirds of that is frozen in glaciers and unavailable for use, according to National Geographic.
As a result, two-thirds of the world’s population is experiencing water shortages and rationing, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
While millions of Americans do not worry about their water supplies running dry, it is an everyday battle for others to collect clean water for their families.
This is America
The average American family wastes 180 gallons of water per week from household leaks, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is equal to the amount of water needed to wash over 300 loads of laundry.
Nationwide, household leaks can waste nearly 900 billion gallons of water annually, which is an amount equal to the annual water use of 11 million homes, adds the EPA.
Meanwhile, people in Sub-saharan Africa struggle to collect the minimum of 13 gallons of water per day that is necessary to meet most basic needs, according to the United Nations (U.N.). This includes water for drinking, personal sanitation, washing clothes, food preparation, and personal and household hygiene.
Shortages are affecting every continent as global water use grows at more than twice the rate of the population over the last century, according to U.N. Water Scarcity.
In fact, limited access to clean water leaves almost two-thirds of the world’s population in severe water scarcity for at least one month of each year, according to the U.N. humanitarian aid agency, UNICEF. Over half of those people live in countries where the water supply is inadequate year-round.
The majority of these populations live in rural areas and spend hours collecting water, finds the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Progress on Household Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene 2000-2017 report.
The burden of water scarcity falls the hardest on those in rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa — specifically, women and children who often bear the responsibility of collecting water.
This not only keeps children out of school, but the water itself often carries the risk of disease. Scarcity in water means scarcity in education, income and health—especially for women and children.
The Bearers of the Burden
Women and girls are often responsible for collecting water for their families. In 2017, girls collected water in eight of 10 households without onsite water supply, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Women in Sub-saharan Africa collectively devote at least 16 million hours per day, per round trip collecting water. Children spend roughly four million hours, according to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals Report.
This comes at the price of education as one-in-four girls do not complete primary school—a rate almost double that of boys, according to UNICEF’s Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring.
However, that is not the only reason why girls miss school. The lack of safe sanitation facilities also leads many young girls to drop out of school when they hit puberty due to the lack of access to basic necessities for menstrual management.
As a result, between one-in-four girls in West Africa missed school due to menstruation in 2018 and 2019, according to the CDC.
This is due to the lack of access to basic facilities for menstrual hygiene management, which is critical for women’s health, according to the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. Elements such as clean materials to absorb menstrual blood, a private place to change these materials, soap and water for washing the body, and access to safe and convenient facilities to dispose of used materials is vital to managing the menstrual cycle.
When these facilities are not available, some girls opt to stay home.
Access to clean water directly impacts the amount of human capital in a given country.
“[Human capital is] having a healthy child that then grows up to become a healthy adult that can be a productive member of society and can contribute to a country’s economy,” said Dr. Crystal Fenwick, a water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) specialist. “The impacts of children not having access to clean drinking water, sanitation or hygiene are huge.”
Many children in rural Africa already face malnutrition and lack access to adequate healthcare. Those who drink contaminated water are more likely to become sick. This further exacerbates health issues and leaves children to grow up to be incredibly unhealthy, according to Fenwick.
Furthermore, contaminated water and poor sanitation leave children more likely to transmit diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio, according to the WHO.
Diarrhoeal diseases alone caused 1.6 million deaths in 2017, according to Our World in Data. Of that number, over 929,500 deaths were children under the age of five. This was a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene.
How’d We Get Here
Water scarcity is due to an array of factors including climate change, policy decisions, and the regional misuse of water.
In particular, climate change influences the shift in rainfall that affects the supply of fresh water.
Fenwick explains that climate change has increased the frequency, volume and intensity of rainfall in certain areas while causing droughts in others.
This is because as temperatures rise, more moisture evaporates into the atmosphere, according to NASA. More moisture in the air means more intense storms, but the rainfall is not spread evenly around the globe. That’s because climate change shifts storm tracks, which change weather patterns.
This unpredictable pattern of rainfall causes vulnerable populations, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, to ration water supplies, according to Fenwick.
Along with that, politics and funding play huge roles in water accessibility.
“Producing, treating, and distributing water, then collecting, and treating wastewater has a really big cost associated with it,” said Fenwick. “We don’t pay the true cost of water… Even here in the U.S., our water is subsidized. And that may be fine in a wealthy country, but in a poor country, governments may not invest in water because they simply can’t afford to.”
In many countries, officials often prioritize transportation and energy infrastructure over water and sanitation, said Fenwick. This is due to the cost associated with paying utility companies to run water supply systems, especially to rural areas.
One example of this is in Kenya, where the government would have to invest between $12 and $16 billion to develop the same amount of water storage per person as in South Africa—a country that has also faced severe water shortages in recent years—according to WHO.
For individual households, the cost of providing piped water service is estimated to be $16, or roughly 1,400 Kenyan Shillings per month, according to an article published by the Advancing Earth and Space Science Journal.
Yet, for those in rural Kenya where piped water often is not an option, 32% of the population relies on ponds, shallow wells and rivers for water, according to Water.org—a nonprofit developmental aid organization.
This disconnect from piped water places heavy economic burdens on rural Kenyans. For example, residents pay an average of $38 per month for an unreliable or distant water supply, according to Water.org. In comparison to household water bills in other Sub-Saharan African countries, Kenyans pay roughly eight times more for water.
Toxic-fying Clean Water Supplies
Even in areas with greater access to water, mismanagement, and misuse of water impacts the availability of clean water.
The biggest example of excessive water use is in agriculture, which accounts for 69% of global water withdrawals, according to the U.N.’s World Water Development Report for 2021.
Water is used for irrigation, livestock, and aquaculture, but it often goes untreated after use. This creates agricultural wastewater, wherein the untreated water is put back into the environment and contaminates clean sources of water.
This deteriorates water quality, which in turn has detrimental effects on human health and ecosystems, according to the U.N.’s report. More specifically, untreated water increases the presence of microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, which heightens the risk of disease.
The challenges ahead are unmanageable for any one community. But organizations around the world are working to combat water scarcity in unique ways.
Majik Water, a company that transforms air humidity into safe drinking water through solar energy, is one of these organizations.
Beth Koigi founded Majik Water in 2017 with a vision to increase access to affordable, clean drinking water in off-the-grid communities.
The woman-run team at Majik Water is made up of Koigi, Anastasia Kaschenko—chief technical officer—and Clare Sewell—chief operations officer. Together, they created a machine to harvest condensation, and extract water from the air in arid places.
More specifically, Majik Water uses desiccants — sponge-like materials such as silica gel — to extract water from the air.
Koigi, a Kenyan native, faced the water scarcity crisis firsthand when she bought contaminated water at Chuka University in Nairobi, Koigi explains in a TEDx Talk. Upon testing it, she found e-coli bacteria in the water, which is known to cause typhoid and cholera outbreaks.
This experience sparked the creation of Koigi’s water filter, as well as a business that sold over 5,000 filters in Kenya.
However, Koigi’s filter proved less useful in areas across Kenya where water was less available due to dry rivers and dropping water tables. So, Koigi turned her attention toward providing water, rather than just cleaning it. To do so, she focused on the largest source of freshwater—air.
“If you have air, you can have drinking water,” the Majik Water website states.
How They do it
A breakdown of Majik Water’s machine for extracting and harvesting drinking water from the air in arid regions. Photo courtesy of Majik Water.
The Majik Water machine uses a solar-powered fan to pull in air and push it through an electrostatic filter. Then, the desiccant material absorbs water droplets from the air, releasing the moisture as water vapor, according to the organization’s website. The vapor is guided through a condensation coil where it is condensed into the water before it is filtered with activated carbon. From there, the condensed water flows into a tank and the machine turns off when the tank is full.
The machine is energy-intensive. It currently works best where humidity is at least 60%, Koigi tells Financial Times. In proper weather conditions, the machine can produce up to 1,000 liters of water per day.
The prototype machine can supply water at humidity levels as low as 35%, according to Koigi. But the prototype is limited to producing 10 liters per day because it runs on solar power and uses simple equipment and techniques to minimize energy demand.
Koigi’s goal is to have Majik Water machines available in arid communities in Kenya. This would democratize clean and affordable water by offering safe drinking water, improved sanitation, and sources for irrigation to the most isolated areas.
However, that will depend on the ability to reduce the cost of the solar panels, which in 2018 accounted for $1,000 of the $1,400 cost of a 20-liter machine, according to Financial Times.
Nevertheless, Majik Water continues to design prototypes so it can reach its goal to offer more than 100-liter devices to off-the-grid communities.
Charity: Water—Telling Real-life Stories
While companies like Majik Water work to expand sources of clean drinking water, other organizations are raising awareness about the crisis in other ways.
Charity: Water, a New York-based nonprofit organization, uses virtual reality to spread awareness about the water crisis while raising funds for water projects.
The organization’s use of technology enables them to immerse people in real-life stories about water scarcity and its social impacts. Additionally, the money raised from these virtual experiences fund projects that bring clean drinking water to people in developing countries.
For example, the organization released a short film, entitled Selam. The film tells the story of a 13-year-old girl and her journey to collect water in Ethiopia. It’s debut event in New York raised over $2.4 million in funds, according to Charity Digital.
So far, Charity: Water has funded over 64,000 water projects in 29 countries, according to the organization’s website. Projects include constructing wells, building bio-sand household filters, installing rainwater catchment systems, piped spring protection systems, and more.
The Future of Water Scarcity
Education is the first step to combating water scarcity.
Fixing leaks can save one household just over 15,000 gallons of water per year. Something as simple as turning off the faucet while brushing one’s teeth can save 8 gallons of water per day. Doing so twice daily could save nearly 5,840 gallons per year. That is more than the amount held in a 15-foot round, above-ground swimming pool, according to Backyard City Pools.
Water is a basic human right, but it costs countless people their education, income, health, and lives to reach it. With proper management, populations throughout the world will only become thirstier.