Population and its Impact on Water Sustainability

What’s the Problem?

When looking at environmental sustainability, there are many different aspects that are in need of attention for our environment and planet to thrive. One of those is water. Water is a very important resource, as it is a necessity to every living organism on earth; for example, humans. Right now, there are an approximately 7 billion people in the world; this is a number that continues to grow daily (U.S. and World Population Clock).  What does our current population have to do with water?

The earth is made up of 75% water. If we take a closer look at the 75% of earth being water, a staggering 97.5% of it is ocean which means it is salt water and not able to be consumed by humans. The remaining 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh water, able to be consumed and a necessity to human survival. Again, if we look more closely at this very small amount of non-renewable resource, we can see that only about 0.003% of that fresh water is accessible to humans (Effects of Human Overpopulation, 2013). Even further analysis has shown that nearly all of the developed countries in the world exceed their water demand by 50%. When considering these facts, it is clear that these numbers are alarming. With the earth’s population growing and the earths limited fresh water supply dwindling daily, this is a definite cause for concern. Under the topic of environmental sustainability, water is a very important resource, where its use needs to be continually examined and hopefully we can find a sustainable solution that can help delay or defer any future water shortage crisis.  The map below shows the projected freshwater stress in the future, should we continue to consume water in the same ways we do now.

Source: Effects of Overpopulation, 2016.

For a video with information on our growing population, click here!

For more information on freshwater and future scarcity, click here and watch this short video

Water and the Growing Population

The greatest concern regarding water on our planet is that our population is growing to the point where we will run out of it.  Freshwater is a finite resource, and our population is putting increasing demands on it.  Why is our population such a problem when it comes to water?   For several reasons.  Human beings consume freshwater for many things.  Quite obviously, we drink it and use it to prepare other foodstuffs.  While that does not seem like a lot, we have many other uses for water in our lives.  We shower, brush our teeth, flush toilets, wash our dishes, cars and homes.  We do laundry and feed pets.  Table One shows how much water use is recommended per individual.  Table Two shows the upper limits of actual use per individual.  It is clear to see that human being, especially in developed nations, use a massive amount of water on a daily basis.

Table One.  Information retrieved from source


Table Two.  Information retrieved from source

The number of humans on this planet has led to climate change.  Global warming has occurred due to the increased need for oil, coal and gas in order for us to be able to maintain our lives the way that we live them at this moment (Scientific American, 2016).  The problem with global warming is that it has been causing the world’s glaciers to melt, which in turn increases the sea level.  What does this mean for humans, though?  Well, rising sea levels will erode shorelines, and allow salt water to intrude on freshwater, making it undrinkable (Glick, 2016).

Freshwater is also important for humans, because it helps us produce the food we eat.  This is problematic because as population grows, so does the amount of food needed to sustain it.  Increasing numbers means increased use for not only personal use, but for survival as well.

Using Water to Produce Food

When talking about population growth it is important to take into consideration how much food will be necessary to feed this large amount of people. The crops we grow and the livestock we raise both need water to flourish. Agriculture accounts for 70% of all water withdrawn by the agricultural, municipal and industrial (including energy) sectors (UN-Water: Water And Food, 2016). This means that we use large amounts of water daily to make everything that the population eats and drinks. Since diets tend to be shifting to more meat and dairy based as opposed to starch based, water use has increased more so. Producing 1 kg rice, for example, requires about 3,500 L water, 1 kg beef some 15,000 L, and a cup of coffee about 140 L. (UN-Water: Water And Food, 2016).  This shift has had a large impact on the environment and will continue to into the future. With the population expected to expand to 8.3 billion in 2030 and 9.1 billion in 2050 we need to implement solutions to resolve the growing use of the limited water sources we have.


Picture from Source.

Check out how much water different foods use here!

So What Can We Do?

As a species, we need to come up with solutions to preserve the freshwater we have.  One technology that we are using is converting ocean saltwater to freshwater.  This process is called desalination, and it works by removing the saline aspects from saltwater, which makes it safe for humans to consume.  While this may seem like good news on the surface, desalination could actually be considered a wicked problem.  Why is it a wicked problem, you ask?  Good question!  Here are a few of the cons of saltwater desalination that contribute to it being a wicked problem:

  • It is a very costly process- The average desalination plant these days takes 2 kWh of energy to produce 1 cubic meter of freshwater, and this is coming at the cost of fossil fuels that are needed to provide electricity to the plants;
  • The plants are expensive to build, meaning that some communities or countries can not afford to use this technology;
  • It demands high energy costs;
  • It produces greenhouse gases;
  • Brine, which is the by-product produced by desalination, can have a negative impact on marine life when it is placed back into the water (NYLN, 2015).

If you are interested in the process of desalination, you can find a video here!

While it may seem that desalination is a positive technology that can sustain life on earth, we must consider if we are causing more destruction to the earth by doing it.  Will it be sustainable in the long run, or will we have to come up with newer and better technology to keep our most precious resource from disappearing?

Sydney, NSW seawater desalination plants.  Source here.
Seawater desalination plant
Seawater desalination plant.  Source here.


Effects of Human Overpopulation. (2013, November 20). Retrieved November 04, 2016, from http://www.everythingconnects.org/overpopulation-effects.html

Glick, W. (2016). Global Climate Change, Melting Glaciers – National GeographicNational Geographic. Retrieved 3 November 2016, from http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/big-thaw/#page=2

NYLN. (2015). Desalination Pros and Cons List. Retrieved 4 November 2016, from http://nyln.org/desalination-pros-and-cons-list

Scientific American. (2016).  Does Population Growth Impact Climate Change?. Retrieved 3 November 2016, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/population-growth-climate-change/

“UN-Water: Water And Food”. Unwater.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

U.S. and World Population Clock Tell us what you Think. (n.d.). Retrieved November 04, 2016, from http://www.census.gov/popclock/world

Yau, N. (2015). Gallons of water to produce foodsFlowingData. Retrieved 2 November 2016.


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