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Water is the fundamental ingredient for life on Earth. You can find it in the atmosphere above us, in the ocean, rivers and lakes around us, and in the rocks below us. Of all of the water on Earth, 97% is saltwater, leaving a mere 3% as freshwater, approximately 1% of which is readily available for our use. The world’s population is becoming more and more reliant on this precious resource for power, irrigation, industrial practices, and daily consumption.
Sensors on a suite of NASA satellites
Sensors on a suite of NASA satellites observe and measure freshwater resources, including rainfall, snow and ice, rivers and lakes, groundwater, soil moisture, and water quality. These measurements are important to understanding the availability and distribution of Earth’s water, which is both vital to life and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and a growing world population.
There is the same amount of freshwater on earth as there always has been, but the population has exploded, leaving the world’s water resources in crisis.
A Clean Water Crisis
The water you drink today has likely been around in one form or another since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, hundreds of millions of years ago.
While the amount of freshwater on the planet has remained fairly constant over time—continually recycled through the atmosphere and back into our cups—the population has exploded. This means that every year competition for a clean, copious supply of water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sustaining life intensifies.
Water scarcity is an abstract concept to many and a stark reality for others. It is the result of myriad environmental, political, economic, and social forces.
Freshwater makes up a very small fraction of all water on the planet. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 percent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In essence, only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people.
Due to geography, climate, engineering, regulation, and competition for resources, some regions seem relatively flush with freshwater, while others face drought and debilitating pollution. In much of the developing world, clean water is either hard to come by or a commodity that requires laborious work or significant currency to obtain.
Water Is Life
Wherever they are, people need water to survive. Not only is the human body 60 percent water, the resource is also essential for producing food, clothing, and computers, moving our waste stream, and keeping us and the environment healthy.
Where is Earth’s Water?
“Water, Water, Everywhere….”
You’ve heard the phrase, and for water, it really is true. Earth’s water is (almost) everywhere: above the Earth in the air and clouds, on the surface of the Earth in rivers, oceans, ice, plants, in living organisms, and inside the Earth in the top few miles of the ground.
For an estimated explanation of where Earth’s water exists, look at this bar chart. You may know that the water cycle describes the movement of Earth’s water, so realize that the chart and table below represent the presence of Earth’s water at a single point in time. If you check back in a million years, no doubt these numbers will be different!
- Left bar: All water, freshwater and saline, on, in, and above the Earth.
- Center bar: All freshwater
- Right bar: Only the portion of freshwater residing in surface water (rivers and lakes, etc), snow and ice, and relatively-shallow ground water.
Here is a bar chart showing where all water on, in, and above the Earth exists. The left-side bar chart shows how almost all of Earth’s water is saline and is found in the oceans. Of the small amount that is actually freshwater, only a relatively small portion is available to sustain human, plant, and animal life.
Without water our planet
Without water our planet would be a barren wasteland. Of the three main ways in which people use water – municipal (drinking water and sewage treatment), industrial and agricultural (mostly irrigation) – farming accounts for the largest part, some 65 percent globally in 1 990.
Water is a finite resource: there are some 1 400 million cubic kilometres on earth and circulating through the hydrological cycle. Nearly all of this is salt water and most of the rest is frozen or under ground. Only one-hundredth of 1 percent of the world’s water is readily available for human use.
the population of developing countries
This would be enough to meet humanity’s needs – if it were evenly distributed. But it is not. In Malaysia 100 people share each million cubic metres of water; in India, the figure is 350 and in Israel, 4 000. And where there is water, it is often polluted: nearly a third of the population of developing countries has no access to safe drinking water.
the amount of water
In many countries, the amount of water available to each person is falling, as populations rise. By the year 2000, Latin America’s per caput water resources will have fallen by nearly three-quarters since 1950. In the twenty-first century the main constraint on development in Egypt will be access to water, not land. Over 230 million people live in countries – most of them in Africa or the Near East – where less than 1 000 cubic metres of water is available per person each year.