What is your definition of global water shortage?

A few weeks ago a freshman from City College of New York contacted me to ask a simple question for her Environmental Psychology class: “What is your take on the global water shortage?” She believed many people were not aware of the issue, or they thought such a scenario wouldn’t affect them. After pondering her question for a few minutes, I realized she made a good point in the North American context. In many lower-income countries where water access is a big problem, people are familiar with the idea of global water shortages. In North America, it feels like the general public is more aware of global water shortages existing primarily in other countries (now this may slowly be changing in areas such as the arid southwest US or in areas experiencing drought).

Nasa Image of Water Earth
Above Photo: Through the Cupola on the International Space Station by NASA

Let us first define global water shortage. A general definition of global water shortage is an excess of humans worldwide not having safe, potable water. There are around 800,000 people globally without access to water. People don’t have water because they can’t afford systems to convey and treat water or they live in locations where water is physically scarce. The global water shortage is compounded by affects of climate change, population growth, human migration, pollution, and competition. Climate change could result in longer periods of drought or intense flood events and people, even those living in the United States, will experience water supply variability. Population growth and human migration, pollution from factories and homes, and competition between water users will further limit available water resources even in the United States. There are two areas of concern when thinking about a global water shortage from a North American perspective: 1) ensuring all people have equitable access to water supplies globally, and 2) ensuring that we in the United States are learning conservation methods and preparing for times of water scarcity.

Regarding these two areas of concern, it seems North Americans are more empathetic to the global component but less empathetic to the water conservation component. Popular groups like charity: water and water.org use famous celebrities like Matt Damon to help explain the global water shortage message to the North American public. The general public may not know the exact number of people without adequate water, but they seem to understand that people live without water in other countries. But when they turn on the tap, they don’t understand how using less water will help their community or how learning water conservation techniques could help their community. This might arise from a lack of understanding about local water policies, the energy used to treat such water, or even the basic water cycle. People don’t realize how what they do is connected to the bigger picture. For example, using less water requires the municipality to treat less water which will use less energy which could mean less gas extracted for energy production. International NGOs, federal and state governmental organizations, and even/especially I could do a better job communicating the global water shortage to the North American public to help avoid this global/local divide. What is your definition of a global water shortage?

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