Understanding Water Scarcity

Perhaps, to many people, water scarcity sounds like a distant problem. A problem which comes to surface when thinking about global warming in all of its abstract forms. Maybe it sounds like a problem designated to distant countries and cities, far into the future or halfway around the globe.

Unfortunately, water scarcity is present today, and its effects are global.

Since you’re reading this blog post, and perusing the webpage of an organic fair trade cotton company, that may not be you. But it may be. Who knows. Either way, we should all review the basics. What exactly is water scarcity, and what, if anything, can we be doing about it?

Water Scarcity Basics

Water scarcity has various causes and appearances, but its bottom line is the same. Where there is water scarcity, there is a population that struggles to gain access to clean water. Water scarcity is a global phenomenon which currently affects every country and 2.8 billion people.  

When a region doesn’t have enough clean water to provide for the people who live there, that region suffers from water scarcity. To be precise, a region experiences waterstress when it produces less than 1,700 m3 of water per person annually, water scarcity when that level has dropped below 1,000 m3, and absolute water scarcity when it has dropped below 500 m3. Again, the phenomena of water scarcity currently affects every country, and 2.8 billion people.

There are two types of water scarcity. Water scarcity which results from the physical lack of water in a region, and water scarcity which results from lack of investments and proper infrastructure. Physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity is experienced in arid regions--places which are naturally more dry. Physical water scarcity also results when water demands are higher than water supply in a given region. Economic water scarcity happens when there are possible water resources which could match the needs of a region, but inhabitants have not been supplied with, or able to create, proper ways of accessing and distributing that water.

When a region suffers from water scarcity, its entire ecosystem suffers. There may be habitat change and loss, causing wildlife to suffer. Humans may experience poverty, hunger and various health problems.

Water Scarcity Causes

Global water scarcity increase, of all kinds, results from many things. Primarily, it results from population increase, water demand increase, water pollution, and, of course, the intersections among these issues.

The United States is currently the second top water polluter in the world (second only to China). One of the primary ways that the United States pollutes water is through the use of harmful pesticides used in agriculture and cotton production. Pesticides run off farms and gardens, into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Pesticides, when consumed by people, can cause neurological problems, nervous system damage, kidney and liver damage, and cancer.

The United States is second on the list of top polluters, but, of course, water is being polluted globally. In both similar ways, and through variation. Pesticides pollute water globally. As do fertilizers, human and agricultural waste, oil leaks or spills, and any kinds of chemical leaks or spills.

In our current global consumerist culture, water use is increasing much faster than population growth (twice as fast!). One of the reasons water use is growing faster than population growth, is because of virtual water exchange. When water demand increases, often the flow of water is invisible. No, water does not become impossible to see as it flows through various channels and rivers, but the use of that water becomes invisible. This invisible water is called virtual water. Water is needed to produce everything. From petroleum to cotton, water is required in production. When these items are traded globally, water is being traded globally. Countries which constantly produce and export various products, are simultaneously exporting their own water resources. This water trade, virtual water trade, often goes unseen and unaddressed.

Water Scarcity and Cotton

Things which require large amounts of water in their production are also often things which pollute water resources. One such example, which we are particularly interested in at SOL, is cotton production.

India, like every other country on this planet, experiences water scarcity. By the year 2020, it is estimated that 21 cities in India will no longer have access to groundwater. They will simply run out.

India is a country which exports mass goods, and thus exports mass virtual water. One industry which disrupts water usage in India is the cotton industry.

India is one of the largest producers of cotton in the world. In 2013 85% of the nation could have been supplied with water from the amount which was used for cotton production. Cotton production in India is so harmful to water resources because of the ways it is grown. Often, due to political and capital corruption, cotton is grown in arid regions. The growth of this cotton, thus, inevitably stresses surrounding water resources. Cotton is also grown using harmful fertilizers and pesticides, which make the water used in its production unusable, unable to be recycled.

One way to disrupt this harmful cotton production cycle, without entirely destabilizing the economy, is by switching to organic cotton. Organic cotton does not use the same harmful fertilizer and pesticides in production, and its growth therefore does not pollute the water used in its production to the same extent. The water used still often has the chance to be recycled for more use.


As an issue with such breadth in its causes, water scarcity must be solved through breadth too. Consumer choice, choosing organics and limiting pesticide use is one way to combat water pollution, and thus water scarcity, both at home and around the world. Improvement in infrastructure, agricultural practices, and policy must also be aimed for. There is nothing, not even life itself without water. We must protect water whenever and wherever possible. We must fight for clean water access for all. From Flint, Michigan, to Bangalore, India.


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