Global water issues
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This article is written by Arush Mittal, a student currently pursuing B.A. LLB. (Hons) from Hidayatullah National Law University. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the global water issues and the action taken by the UN.


The United Nations General Assembly, in 2010, had recognized the right of humans to water and sanitation. Each and every person has the right to safe, physically accessible, sufficient, affordable and continuous water for personal use. Improvement in the water supply can help in boosting a country’s economic growth and development.

The UN addresses the global water crisis every year on March 22 as the ‘World Water Day’. There has been a constant struggle for the quality and quantity of water that is needed for cooking, drinking, bathing, etc due to the global water issues. There has been a lack of access to clean water for 844 million people globally. For generations, families get locked in poverty due to the lack of clean and easily accessible water.

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The global water issues are due to reasons such as pollution, overconsumption and unsafe drinking water. This article deals with them and what actions has the UN taken to tackle the global water crisis.

Global water issues

There has been a global water crisis but some measures can still be taken to prevent this issue from getting worse. The Second World Water Forum’s message was ‘Water is everybody’s business’ because the water issue affects aquatic life, decision-makers and each and every human in the world. There are various reasons due to which the global water issue exists. Some of the important issues are as follows:


Water Pollution takes place when certain harmful substances are dumped into various water bodies that degrade the quality of water making it toxic for the environment as well as humans. Around 80% of the wastewater is discarded without any treatment back to the environment, polluting the water bodies which jeopardizes the health of the public. The water that is drinkable is less than 1% of the total freshwater available while the demand for water keeps increasing due to the increasing population. Most Americans think that water pollution is not a problem as they get clean water at their houses daily but certain harmful substances have been found in the tap water of households. Water gets easily polluted as it can dissolve the harmful substances. Water pollution can take place at various places such as groundwater, ocean water, surface water, point source, and nonpoint source. 

What is the most common type of water pollution?

Agricultural Pollution 

The agricultural sector is the largest consumer of freshwater resources but also plays a major role in polluting water. In the United States, it is the biggest contamination source in streams and rivers, second largest in wetlands and third largest in lakes. When it rains, the animal waste, pesticides and fertilizers used in farms and certain pathogens like viruses and bacteria get mixed in the waterways. An excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water can also lead to the formation of algae which is harmful and causes pollution.

Oil Pollution

The gasoline and oil that leaks from cars and trucks in the seas during transportation accounts for a vast majority of oil pollution. Land-based farms, cities and factories account for nearly half of 1 million tons of oil pollution in the marine bodies. 10% of oil in the seawater is accounted for by tanker spills. One-third of the contribution is by the shipping industry via both legal as well as illegal discharge. 

Radioactive Pollution 

This pollution involves those substances that emit radioactive radiation resulting in environmental degradation. The release of the radioactive waste in water bodies that are generated from nuclear power plants, uranium mining, production of military weapons and hospitals results in water pollution. This waste can remain in the water bodies for a really long time. Therefore, the waste should be disposed of properly after treatment while keeping in mind the marine resources.

Effects of Water Pollution

Human health 

 According to the Lancet, water pollution has resulted in the death of 1.8 million people in 2015. Polluted water also makes people ill. Contaminated water results in the sickness of 1 billion people every year. Contaminated drinking water is a major cause of illness that transmits viruses and disease-causing bacterias. This results in typhoid, giardia and cholera. Certain heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and nitrate fertilizers come into the water supplies. If they are consumed with the water, they may result in severe health issues such as cancer, hormone disruption and even altered brain function. According to the EPA estimates, around 3.5 million people from the US contract skin rashes, respiratory infections, pinkeye and hepatitis by coming in contact with the sewage water.


A healthy ecosystem relies on all the living organisms and harm to any of them would result in a chain effect that would destroy the aquatic environments. When there is a formation of algae due to water pollution, there is a reduction of oxygen in the water. This results in the death of plants and animals due to the lack of oxygen. Certain algae also produce neurotoxins that can affect even sea turtles and whales. Industrial waste reduces the lifespan of the aquatic animals and also affects their ability to produce. Debris of plastic gets accumulated in the water bodies that suffocate and strangle marine animals. More than 200 species of marine organisms have been affected by thrown away fishing gear and also other types of debris. 


Every economic sector relies on freshwater for its business. Due to the increasing demand and high consumption of water, it is becoming increasingly scarce worldwide which tends to increase even further. The competition for water is growing day by day and this is having an adverse effect on food production. 

Overconsumption affecting Climate Change

Overconsumption of water directly affects climate change. This climate change, in turn, affects the frequency of droughts and floods and also long-term changes regarding the renewable water supplies. The overuse of water resources is responsible for the adverse effects on food and agriculture. Overconsumption of water leads to climate change and climate change directly affects agricultural production. 

Climate change also affects the soil health, water use and crop yield. The threats to agricultural production due to the overconsumption of water are increased demand for crop water, reduced crop yields and a decrease in the availability of water for agriculture. Due to climate change, there is unstable and less rainfall with high temperatures, this results in more evaporation and hence more demand for water. Due to evaporation from soil and plants, the land ecosystem would demand more water than usual to prevent a drought. 

Overconsumption leading to Water Scarcity

Water scarcity occurs when there is a lack of sufficient water resources(generally due to overconsumption) to satisfy the demands of water consumption in an area. Water scarcity takes place due to the depletion of freshwater resources due to the growing use of freshwater. Water scarcity has two concepts:

  • Physical Scarcity – when there is scarcity of water due to inadequate water supply to an area.
  • Economic Scarcity – when there is scarcity of water due to poor management of the available water resources.

According to the UNDP, the reason why economic scarcity takes place is that, though the countries have the water to meet the demands of industries, households, etc, there is a lack of means to provide the water in a proper manner. The goal of a lot of countries is to reduce the overconsumption of water that leads to water scarcity.

Unsafe drinking water

Unsafe drinking water leads to the transmission of diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, hepatitis A, dysentery, polio and typhoid. These health risks occur when the water is inappropriately managed and less care is given to sanitation. In certain health care facilities, patients, as well as the staff members, are at risk of developing an infection because of unsafe drinking water as very little attention is given to the sanitation and hygiene of the drinking water. Around 15% of people develop an infection while they are at a hospital. 

If the wastewater from industries, urban areas and agricultural lands is not managed properly, drinking water of millions of the population gets contaminated and polluted. Around 8,29,000 people and 297,000 children below the age of 5 years die every year due to diarrhoea which is caused by unsafe drinking water. This can easily be prevented by consuming safe drinking water and keeping sanitation and hygiene. Places where water is not in abundance, people do not consider washing their hands daily. Due to this reason, there is no hygiene which increases the chances of contracting diarrhoea. 

Though diarrhoea is the most common disease due to unsafe drinking water, around 220 million people, in 2017, had contracted a disease called schistosomiasis. This disease is a chronic disease that is caused by a parasitic worm that is present in infested water. Dengue fever cannot be ignored because it is caused by an insect called a vector. These insects breed in clean household drinking water containers as they serve as breeding grounds for them. Just by covering the containers, vector breeding can be prevented and therefore prevent the dengue fever.

Action taken by the UN 

The United Nations has taken many steps to address the global water issue. According to the UN, this is caused by an insufficient supply of water for the satisfaction of the needs of humans and increasing demand of the world for various water resources which are used to fulfil agricultural and commercial needs. 

Some of the important actions taken by the United Nations to deal with the global water issue are listed below:

The UN Water Conference

The First UN-Water Conference was held in 1977 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. This conference was a huge success as delegates from 105 countries had taken part in it (which also included inter-governmental as well as non-governmental institutions) to discuss the aspects of conservation of water. The conference which was the first inter-governmental meeting was presided over by the then President, Mr.Jorge Rafael Videla. 


The goals that the first international meet had were:

  • To evaluate the status of various water resources
  • To make sure that a supply of good quality water was made available to meet the needs
  • To enhance the efficiency of water use
  • To prepare for a crisis as a precaution
  • To avoid a crisis at the end of the century


A set of ten resolutions was made that included the following:

  • Supply of water to the community
  • Enhancement of water resources
  • Use of water for agriculture
  • Researching and developing the technologies used in industries
  • Role water plays to combat desertification
  • Developing countries cooperating technically
  • River commissions in river basins, internationally
  • Institution-based arrangements leading towards international co-operation in the marine sector
  • Policies concerning water in occupied territories
  • Financial arrangements for co-operation internationally
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There was a follow-up conference ten years later, in 1987, with the message ‘Improved Efficiency in the Management of Water Resources’. However, this was not done on a big scale as it could not be implemented at the conference of 1977 due to the lack of a single UN-body in charge. Implementation of the plan was finally made 13 years after the first inter-governmental meet i.e. 1990. A lot of programs that were made earlier were ignored during the implementation. Another reason for the failed implementation was that no timeline was created for the issues that had to be solved.

Due to the failure in the proper implementation of this conference, other measures were taken by the UN to prevent the global water issue.

The International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade

The United Nations General Assembly was concerned that the people did not have reasonable access to water facilities and no proper hygiene and sanitation were available and the population increased. The UN-Water Conference and the UN Conference on Human Settlement had discussed that there is a need for safe drinking water and a sufficient supply of water to meet the demands of the people. Keeping in mind the 25th resolution, ‘International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade’ was adopted in the Conference of UN Decade for Women Equality, Development and Peace in 1980.

Some of the important points regarding the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade are as follows:

  • This decade would extend from 1981-1990 known as the ‘International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade’, where the member countries have to commit to improve the drinking water quality and sanitation.
  • To call upon the member countries to develop reasonable policies and set a target. Proper implementation of these targets for the performance of certain activities to fight the global water issue.
  • It tells the member countries to strengthen their institutional frameworks to carry out the activities of awareness and support by providing education and public programs.
  • Urges the member countries and the bodies of the United Nations to increase the financial and technological co-operation with the developing countries so these countries can help in the attainment of the targets that are set. Also, coordinate the activities of these nations for better assistance.
  • It urges the regional commissions to have a periodic review of the progress that these member countries make of the national targets that they have set.
  • There would be a review at the 14th session regarding the progress made towards attaining the goals that were to be fulfilled in that decade. A comprehensive analysis of this review would be prepared by consulting the Administrative Committee and the Secretary-General. This report would be submitted to the General Assembly with the help of the Economic and Social Council.

This was the first-ever decade on water that had yielded good results. It brought water to more than 1.2 billion people and helped in the sanitation of 770 million people. Due to urbanization and rapid growth, there was a drastic reduction in keeping up with the need. Around 1.1 billion people did not have adequate access to water and approximately 2.4 billion people did not have proper sanitation after this decade had taken place.

The International Conference on Water and Environment

The International Conference on Water and Environment also called the Dublin Statement, had taken place in Dublin, Ireland in 1992. More than 500 participants had attended this conference that included designated experts from a lot of countries and representatives from the intergovernmental and non-governmental institutions. In this conference, it was decided that there would be development and management of the freshwater facilities which can be brought by immediate and substantial investments, awareness campaigns, institutional changes, development of technology and programs on capacity building. In the United Nations Conference of Environment and Development, the participants of the Dublin Statement had asked them to study the activities of the Dublin report and give recommendations for urgent action plans for sustainable development and water conservation.

Guiding Principles

To fight the rising threats of floods and droughts, overconsumption and pollution of water, the conference set out four guiding principles that would be applicable at international, national and local levels. The guiding principles are as follows:

Principle 1

Freshwater is a limited resource that is vulnerable. It helps in sustaining life, the environment, and its development. Water plays an important role in sustaining life and therefore there should be an effective management of the available water resources which would link the economic and social development along with the protection of the ecosystem. 

Principle 2

A participatory approach should be taken for the management of water that involves policymakers and planners. This approach involves spreading awareness about the importance of water. There are various plans on water management that should be implemented with public consultation.

Principle 3 

Women should also play a part in the management of water. There should be certain policies that empower the women for participation in different resource programs of water management, implementation and decision making. 

Principle 4

Water should be recognized as a product of economic importance since it has an economic value. Every person has the right to clean water at a reasonable price. If water is managed efficiently as an economic good, there would be optimum protection and equitable use.

Action Agenda

The implementation of the Dublin Statement aims towards bringing a lot of benefits such as:

Water Conservation

There has been a lot of wastage of water due to overconsumption. In a lot of irrigation schemes, 60% of water is lost on the way, therefore efficient irrigation schemes should be used to save freshwater. Around 30% of the water that is produced by urban utilities goes ‘unaccounted for’ in the developing countries. Better water management can easily reduce this wastage. Water can also be conserved by the way of recycling.

Rural Water Supply and Agricultural Production

Agriculture should not just focus on providing food for the people, but it should also help in saving water. Water-saving methods should be introduced among the rural people for the adoption of contemporary approaches for irrigation and other types of agriculture. Reasonable policies should be implemented for the benefit of the rural population.

Protection of Aquatic Wildlife

Aquatic Wildlife has many benefits which the people can avail and hence their well-being depends on it. Water pollution results in the degradation of water and destroys the aquatic ecosystem. A reasonable management can easily safeguard the aquatic wildlife.

To Resolve Water Conflicts

There should be an integrated planning of the transboundary river basins. The importance of these basins is the harmonization of the interests of the countries and also monitoring the quality of water. Management of international waters should be given a high priority as it is backed by international agreements to avoid any water conflicts. 

Earth Summit

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development also called the Earth Summit, Rio Summit, Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and the Rio Conference was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. The main aim of this summit was international co-operation regarding developmental issues of such type. These issues (such as the global water issue) were too broad for an individual nation to handle therefore the Earth Summit was held for international collaboration. 

Rio Earth Summit

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio in 2012. This conference is also known as Rio+20. The main issues that were discussed in this conference are as follows:

  • Observation of production of toxic substances that included gasoline and lead, poisonous chemicals and radioactive waste. 
  • Limited supply and increasing demand for water.
  • Observation of the congestion in cities that causes health problems due to the pollution in the air.
  • Replacement of fossil fuels with an alternate source of energy due to climate change.


The Earth Summit resulted in the Climate Change Convention that further led to the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol. The Convention for Biological Diversity had also come in for a signature during the Earth Summit. The Earth Summit had resulted in the following documents:

The “Water for Life” International Decade for Action

When did it begin?

In September 2000, a Millennium Declaration was adopted from which the Millennium Development Goals emerged. Among these goals, target 10 stated that there were a lot of people without sustainable access to water which was safe for drinking. In the Johannesburg Summit of 2002, this target was made to include water as a resource and the critical need to meet all the goals. Due to the magnitude of the risk, the 58th Session of the UNGA, in 2003, had adopted a resolution for proclaiming a water decade from 2005 to 2015 as ‘Water for Life’ International Decade for Action. 

Purpose of the decade

The main goal of this decade was to promote and fulfil the international commitments that were made on water and such related issues. It aimed to cooperate at different levels about the goals related to water from the Agenda 21 and the Millennium Declaration. It also calls for a focus on issues related to water with women as managers in such developmental goals. The purpose of this decade was to improve sanitation and focus more on action-related activities to ensure sustainable water management in terms of quality as well as quantity. An investment of time and cooperation is required to fulfil the goals set by this decade.

Initiatives by UN-Water

To support the water decade, two initiatives have been launched by the UN-Water Conference:

  1. The United Nations Office to Support the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life(UNO-IDA)
  2. The UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development (UNW-DPC)


A lot of goals had been decided to be fulfilled from 2005 to 2015. Some of the goals have been listed below:

  • Raise water profile as given in the agenda.
  • Focus the attention of the world on those who have done lifesaving work on various water projects.
  • Bridge the gap between diverse communities and nations.
  • Ensure the participation of women in this decade.
  • Achieve the goals as decided by the Agenda 21, Millennium Declaration and the Johannesburg Plan. 

Reforms and Suggestions

Some of the reforms and suggestions to tackle the issue of global water crisis are as follows:

Educate People

Proper education should be given to the people for controlled consumption of water. Most of the countries are already facing a water crisis and therefore changing the lifestyle according to the situation would help a lot in saving water.

Invention of Water Conservation Technology 

Innovation is needed urgently to provide some water conservation technology. Areas where the freshwater resources are in a lesser quantity and there is unstable rainfall, water conservation is strictly required in those areas.

Recycling of Wastewater

Recycling of wastewater makes a nation more self-sufficient. Countries should try to recycle the wastewater and use this water for other purposes.

Affordable price of water

Everyone has a right to safe drinking water and this right should not be taken away by charging high prices for water. The price of water should be the same for all.

Improve water harvesting

Countries that have been affected negatively due to the climate which causes unstable rainfall, sometimes suffer from droughts and have no other reliable source of water should work towards the improvement of water harvesting techniques.

Control Population Growth

One of the main reasons for the global water issue is the population growth. as the demand for water rises extremely, that results in overconsumption. If the population keeps on increasing, there would be a supply-demand gap of 65% by the year 2030.

Proportional Consumption of Water

There should be a controlled consumption of water. Overconsumption is a major reason that leads to the global water crisis. Wastage of water should also be avoided while consuming it.

Control Water Pollution

Water pollution is the reason for unsafe drinking water. When the contaminated water is consumed, various diseases spread and it also endangers the aquatic ecosystem. Strict measures should be taken against those who pollute the water.


No living being can survive without water. Two out of ten people do not have access to safe drinking water. Annually, millions of people die due to the diseases that are contacted through dirty and unsafe drinking water. Overconsumption, water pollution, and unsafe drinking water impacts the livelihood of the people and negatively affects the agricultural food. These challenges will keep increasing in the coming years due to the rise in the demand for water due to population increase and less availability of water due to the overconsumption of water. According to a report by the United Nations World Water Development, by 2050, around one in four people would suffer from the shortage of freshwater.

Due to this, the UN has taken a lot of steps to fight the global water issue that the world is suffering from. The UN has taken actions such as the UN-Water Conference, the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, the International Conference on Water and Environment, the Earth Summit and the ‘Water for Life’ International Decade for Action. All these actions were taken to prevent the overconsumption and use of unsafe drinking water and promote the efficient implementation of these actions to battle the global water issue.

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