Saturday July 13, 2024

Cities with no water

By Audil Rashid
November 25, 2018

Water scarcity is a condition that surfaces when water resources are insufficient to fulfil people’s usage demands. For any region or country, water scarcity occurs if the availability of water is less than 1,000 m3/person/year. This is among the most serious problems that the world is currently facing.

The reasons for this scarcity are surprisingly difficult to identify. We cannot determine whether water scarcity is the result of insufficient water availability on the global scale or if water is available but remains scarce due to poor water management.

More than half of the world’s population is living under water stress and this situation will continue to increase due to the depletion and contamination of water resources. We are facing major challenges because there is not enough water in some places and too much water in others. If the global water consumption patterns remain the same, about 70 percent of the world’s population may face water scarcity by 2025.

Urban centres are facing an enormous water shortage due to the rising population density and the overexploitation of water resources. Globally, more than 50 percent of the population lives in urban areas and the number of urban dwellers continues to rise. With the rapid migration from rural to urban areas, about 60 percent of the world’s population will move to urban areas by 2020.

Rural communities migrate to urban areas when their access to water becomes limited. As a result, there is an increase in the urban water demand. Poor water availability and sanitation issues are among some of the most unprecedented challenges of swift urbanisation. In the developing world, every month about five million people migrate to cities. Water demands are increasing in urban areas and the situation may be further aggravated due to climate change and other hydro-environment changes.

Around 14 out of the world’s 20 mega-cities are now experiencing water scarcity or drought conditions. The fastest growing cities in the 21st century are geographically located in areas of limited water availability. Three out of 10 people don’t have access to safe piped water at home.

Access to clean water and adequate sanitation is the most essential component for the sustainability of cities. One of the most pressing issues of the present century is to cope with the growing needs of water within cities. Around 828 million citizens who live in slum areas don’t have access to clean water for daily use due to inefficient and inequitable water management in cities.

With an increase of six million each year, this number will increase to 889 million by 2020. In the next 20 years, water usage in agricultural and industrial sectors will also increase by 40 percent. With the increase in the population, the use of water for farm irrigation increases as more food production requires more farms to be irrigated. The demand for irrigation water adds to the ever-growing demand of clean water for drinking purposes.

The situation will worsen in the near future, with more hot and dry summer months due to climate change, and reduce water availability. Due to a dearth of clean water for our daily needs, people living in the cities have been forced to use unclean water. The use of unsafe water to meet daily needs has resulted in serious health consequences. In developing countries, four-fifths of all illnesses are caused by waterborne diseases, with diarrhoea being the leading cause of death among children.

In the southern hemisphere and most of the tropics, waterborne diseases and degrading ecosystem conditions are directly linked with water shortages. In Pakistan, this condition has resulted in undesirable and deadly health outcomes as disease vectors and the sporadic epidemics of waterborne diseases have recently emerged as an uncontrollable public health challenge.

Recent episodes of dengue fever in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, cases of diarrhoea in the rural areas of Sindh and Punjab, and the child mortality ratio are key indicators of the unavailability of safe and hygienic water for public use. High health risks are found in areas where safe water isn’t available for washing our hands, brushing our teeth, drinking and cooking purposes, and other everyday tasks.

In addition, unsafe water and poor sanitation are the cause of several diseases. About 1.6 million deaths each year are specifically attributed to these health determinants. Owing to a grave water scarcity, people living in slum areas are dependent on the piped water regardless of whether it is safe or not. Many children die from water-related diseases and many contract illnesses and face discomfort. Insufficient and unsafe water usage affect children as well as adults as 84 percent of the total number of diarrheal patients across the globe are children under the age of five.

As urban areas in Pakistan continue to expand and the creation of new cities is not on the agenda of most governments, it is assumed that inadequate water supply will lead to the spread of diseases caused by the direct or indirect use of contaminated water. Consequently, diseases – including eye infections; the spread of cholera, especially among children; and the risk of diarrhea – are likely to increase when people only consider the availability of water and ignore the importance of safe and clean water.

The limitations for urban dwellers are much higher as adequate safe water alternatives are very limited in cities. In our water-scarce world, urban dwellers are, therefore, more exposed to chemically contaminated water. Painful skin rashes that lead to skin cancer, and lung and kidney infections may caused by long-term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in drinking water. Millions of people are potentially exposed to arsenic poisoning in cities as they are dependent on water supply that is often contaminated with arsenic.

The mode of transmission in all these diseases is the consumption of unsafe and contaminated water. One of the ways to reduce the transmission of waterborne diseases is to promote hygienic behaviour among people and provide them with sufficient and safe water. People should also conserve as much water as possible.

The writer is the group leader of EcoHealth Research. Email: