Background: Water is life

At first glance, our planet’s water resources seem to be inexhaustible. After all, over 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans and seas. But a mere 2.5 per cent of these resources are freshwater, the majority of which is more or less inaccessibly bound up in ice and glaciers. That leaves just under 1 per cent of the world’s water resources for human use.

In Germany, where water is relatively abundant, people are lucky, since drinking water is available from the tap year-round. In many countries, the situation is very different. Heavy regional and seasonal fluctuations in twater supply cause millions of people to have only very limited access to the vital resource.

In developing countries, population growth and rapid urbanisation pose huge challenges for water supply and wastewater disposal. Worldwide, demand for clean water in recent years has grown twice as much as the global population. Today, consumption is already outpacing the availability of water resources. It would take the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to meet the increasing  demand. In India, China, the United States and Pakistan, groundwater levels have dropped significantly in the past decade. In north-western India they have dropped by one meter within the past three years alone.

The contamination of water poses an additional challenge. Some 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater still enters the environment untreated. In many places, industry discharges wastewater directly into rivers. Fertilisers used in farming also enter the water cycle. In addition, human faeces contaminate the groundwater, since one in three people in the world has insufficient access to sanitation facilities.

Without water, there is no harvest

Without water, people lack food security. Whether grain, maize or vegetables, all crops need water. Extended periods without rainfall quickly result in crop failures, which jeopardise the livelihoods of people in poorer countries in particular. Water scarcity always means less food, and especially in economically underdeveloped, undersupplied regions, can lead to severe famine, as is the case today in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.

As the largest water user worldwide, agriculture plays a key role in the conservation of water resources. The type of agricultural management determines whether water in ecosystems is stored below or above ground or whether it drains off quickly, offering few benefits. The proportion of irrigated fields has greatly increased in recent years and many developing countries are choosing to invest in irrigation technologies. While this can significantly boost yields, it consumes even more of the already scarce resource. If too much water is drawn out of the soil, groundwater levels drop.

This interaction between land and resource management shows that one cannot exist without the other. Whenever decisions are taken to increase production in arable farming, animal husbandry and forestry, it is therefore always vital to pay attention to sustainable water management and hence less water-intensive irrigation methods.


Dirty water causes illness

Contaminated water causes diseases such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea. Every day, over 1,200 children worldwide die of the consequences of contaminated water. For children under five, diarrhoea is one of the most frequent causes of death. Safe drinking water is therefore a basic prerequisite for a healthy life.

In Germany, safe and hygienic drinking water and sanitation is a given. In many developing countries, however, contaminated water is a huge problem. In many places, industrial wastewater, fertiliser residues and human excrement are discharged untreated into rivers and the groundwater. Once the water is contaminated, it takes a great deal of energy and money to return it to a purified state. 

Without toilets, there is no education

A lack of water supply and sanitation facilities is an obstacle to education, especially for girls. In many of the world’s regions, girls have to help their mothers with household chores and often walk long distances to fetch water. This squanders a great deal of time that could be better used for learning. When young girls menstruate, they often stay at home rather than go to school, in part because schools lack clean, gender-segregated toilets and handwashing facilities with soap.

Clean water and toilets are basic prerequisites for a conducive learning environment. By the same token, schools are appropriate venues for practising new routines and learning new habits. In German development cooperation projects, schoolchildren learn the importance of hygiene and using toilets and integrate regular handwashing with water and soap into their everyday school routine.

When water flows, so does money

Fetching water is a domestic chore and thus in many of the world’s regions is relegated to women. In many cases, long, time-consuming treks to water sources and toilets, sometimes along unsafe routes, compromise the conditions in which girls and women live. After all, the time women use for fetching water is not available for earning money. This restricts their economic independence and impedes progress in gender equality.

The availability of safe drinking water is also a prerequisite for economic development. A deficient drinking water supply hampers productive forces and in turn exacerbates poverty. The new World Bank report Uncharted Waters shows that the negative impacts of sustained water shortage continue to have a lasting effect across generations as manifested by malnutrition and low income. Every dollar invested in water supply and sanitation generates 4.3 dollars in economic return gained from increased productivity.

Water for energy

Hydroelectric plants generate energy without emitting climate-damaging greenhouse gases. However, such plants can still have a detrimental impact on people’s lives. When water is dammed in the upper course of a river, there is less scope to use if for irrigation further downstream. Large reservoirs also affect ecosystems, since habitats for people, animals and plants are destroyed. Other types of power plants, such as nuclear and coal-fired power plants, consume and contaminate valuable water resources needed for agricultural use. Thus, development cooperation often experiences conflicts  of objectives  between the water, energy and agricultural sectors.

Creating sustainable overall solutions calls for an integrated approach to securing reliability of supply. This means that user groups from the three sectors should look beyond their own needs and seek to include the interests of other resource users in their planning. Joint planning processes can help to find solutions that are acceptable for all users. By committing to the 2030 Agenda, Germany has pledged to implement an integrated Nexus perspective on water, energy and agriculture.

Biodiversity needs water

The Earth’s ecosystem is dependent on water. Damaged ecosystems lose their natural capacity to store and clean water and provide protection from flooding. The loss of biodiversity in ecosystems is particularly rapid in wetlands. Half of these natural spaces, which are so important for the ecosystem, have already been destroyed.

Sustainable use of water resources has a positive impact on the environment and in turn on biodiversity. Protecting water bodies and securing the quality of water can contribute to conserving and regenerating wetlands and riparian zones. This benefits the entire ecosystem, since intact wetlands such as swamps and marshes are natural reservoirs for carbon dioxide and are home to a wide variety of animal and plant species. 

Find out more about the topic in the BMZ’s special feature on biodiversity.

Lack of water security is a source of conflict

Droughts and famines, floods and extreme weather events jeopardise the livelihoods of many people in developing countries. Recurring floods were what forced one third of the 8.3 million internally displaced people to leave their homes in 2015. Like disasters caused by flooding, water shortages too can destroy livelihoods and create potential for conflict.

In places where water scarcity is increasing, competition among the water users is growing as well. While farmers need water for their fields and livestock, the urban population need water for cooking and washing. Branches of industry such as steel and textiles cannot produce goods without enough water and are dependent on a reliable water supply.

Clashes of interests among water users fuel the risk of violent conflict. The sustainable management and distribution of water resources is therefore crucial, especially in arid regions such as North Africa and the Middle East. To prevent conflicts, German development cooperation strengthens institutions that enable integrated transboundary water resources management, such as the Mekong River Commission and the Niger Basin Authority.

Effects of climate change

Climate change is particularly problematic for water supply. Even today, some four billion people suffer severe water scarcity for at least one month per year. Countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, on the other hand, regularly battle flooding and parts of Central America and Asia suffer from extremely heavy rains.

Climate change will exacerbate the existing problems. Experts assume that in many places extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy rainfall will occur more frequently and more intensively than to date. The polar ice caps are melting and the oceans are warming, causing sea levels to rise and threatening the existence of smaller islands in particular. In some high mountain areas such as the Andes and the Himalayas, the ice is melting from glaciers. In the long run, this trend can jeopardise the supply of drinking water. In addition, some regions are experiencing more frequent and more intensive heavy rainfall events and flooding. In most cases, poor people are hit hardest, since they often live in areas particularly at risk, such as on mountain slopes, along rivers or in drought-prone areas.

In the Paris climate agreement, nearly all of the world’s nations committed to limiting the increase in global temperatures to 1.5°C if possible. This goal is to be realised in the individual countries by means of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Water is the most frequent priority in the adaptation chapters of the NDCs, attesting to the importance of water as the linchpin for adaptation efforts in the future.

Yet it is not only the consequences of climate change that are impacting water so severely. Treating and supplying drinking water and treating wastewater all consume a great deal of energy and emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. Inadequate or non-existent wastewater management also leads to emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, which are extremely harmful to the climate.