When the wells run dry

Dr. Mary Antonette Beroya-Eitner

CIFAL Philippines Fellow


In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most  essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.

–Rachel Carlson

Water is life. We know that. We also know that water means livelihood. Without water, most, if not all, industrial, agricultural and other economic activities will not be possible.  As WWF (2017) said, “Where fresh water is available, accessible, and well-managed biodiversity can be sustained, economies can grow, and communities can thrive”.

Yet we tend to treat water like it is an expendable resource.  A large amount of water is wasted each day due to improper use, while pollution and over-extraction continue to destroy and dry up our rivers, lakes and aquifers (i.e., that rock layer beneath the earth that contains groundwater, and therefore the source of water that comes out of our wells). Indeed, water is the most valuable, yet most undervalued, of all resources.

Meanwhile, the population continues to rise exponentially, which means an ever growing demand for water.  The earth continues to warm rapidly, which results in lesser supply of water in some regions.  Destruction of wetlands continues, which means the loss of our natural water purification systems.

All these combine to create the proverbial “perfect storm” for water scarcity.


Water scarcity amidst plenty

Water scarcity can be broadly understood as the lack of water of sufficient quantity and quality to meet human and environmental requirements.  Where water is scarce, life as we know it may break down, and serious social disruptions and acute conflicts may arise.  As such, water scarcity is arguably the greatest challenge in the 21st century.

But we may ask: How is it possible for us to experience water scarcity when more than 70% of the planet is covered in water? The answer can be found in Figure 1.  Here, you can see that only a very small portion of the world’s water is actually suitable for human consumption.  About 97.5% of the total water on Earth is salt water.  Of the remaining 2.5%, 68.9% is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover, 30.8% is in the form of groundwater, and only 0.3% is stored in river and lakes.




To further appreciate the fact that fresh water is actually a limited resource, look at the scaled figure below (Fig. 2).  With the size of the Earth as reference, the biggest blue sphere represents all of Earth’s water, including all of the water in the oceans, ice caps, lakes, rivers, groundwater, atmospheric water, and including the water in our body, in the body of our dogs and cats, and in the tomato plant in our garden.  The sphere next in size represents all the liquid fresh water, including groundwater, lakes, swamp water, and rivers.  Finally, the dot-sized sphere (you may need to use a hand lens) represents the water in our river and lakes, where we and other lifeforms get most of our daily water needs (USGS 2016).




In sum total, only about 200,000 cu. km of water, or only 0.01% of all the water on Earth, is usable to human- and eco- systems (Gleick 1993; Shiklomanov 1999).  Yet, that is still a great amount of water.  In fact, we have enough freshwater to sustain the needs of 7 billion people (UN 2014).  However, as we know, water is not evenly distributed in space and time. There are places and times that water is plentiful, while there are also places and times that water is extremely scarce.  Water is such a capricious resource that is both variable and mobile. Furthermore, as already mentioned earlier, much water is being wasted from improper use, as well as a lot couldn’t be of use due to contamination from pollution. 


The global picture of the water problem

Although there is no global water scarcity as such, and although we have actually already achieved a lot in terms of improving our global water, sanitation and hygiene situation, there are still a great many people who are experiencing serious water scarcity and problems associated with it.  Consider the latest data from WHO (2017) and WHO and UNICEF (2017), which show that as of 2015,

  • 29% of the global population or 2.1 billion people still don’t have safely managed drinking water services (i.e., one that is located on premises, available when needed and free from contamination);
  • 844 million do not have basic drinking water service;
  • 61% or 4.5 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services (i.e. use of toilet or latrine for safe disposal or treatment of excreta);
  • 3 billion people do not have basic sanitation service;
  • Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 of diarrheal deaths annually.

In light of the global changes mentioned earlier, such as changes in demography, climate and urbanization rate, the situation is expected to further worsen in the future.  In a recent study by the World Resource Institute, where future water stress  (a measure  of competition and depletion of surface water) was scored and ranked in 167 countries by 2020, 2030, and 2040, it was determined that 33 countries will face extremely high water stress in 2040 (Fig. 3) (Maddocks et al. 2015).




In the Philippines, meanwhile…

Sadly, the water situation in the Philippines is not much different from the global situation.  We are surrounded by water, yet of the 101 million Filipinos, 9 million do not have access to clean and safe water supply.  Nineteen (19) million people do not have proper sanitation facilities (Water.org 2017). Based on 2000 data, the country ranks 2nd to the lowest in Southeast Asia in terms of amount of water available to each person per year, which is only 1,907 cu. m (World Bank 2003).

As we know, the pollution of our water sources has a major role in our water situation.  According to the Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB 2014), of the 688 classified surface water bodies (e.g., rivers and lakes) as of 2013, just over a third or 35% are designated as sources of public water supply.  With regard to our groundwater, of the 59 wells that were monitored by the EMB, only 6 passed the fecal coliform standard for drinking water (Fecal coliform is a type of bacteria that can be found in the fecal material of humans and other warm-blooded animals).

It is of no wonder then that water-related diseases are very common in the country. Using the data of the National Epidemiology Center of the Department of Health, the World Bank (2003) reported that 31% of the diseases that were recorded in 1996-2000 were water-related.  In 2004, 5.5% of deaths in the country were related to water, sanitation and hygiene (Pink 2016).

And what does the future hold for the country’s water supply?  If we go back to Figure 3 above, we can see that we are expected to face high level of water stress in 2040.  Not a very nice picture, indeed.


Okay, fine. But for a problem of such magnitude, is there something we can do as individuals?

Of course, there is.  While addressing water scarcity requires collaborative actions at global, national, local and river basin levels, individual actions are just as critical.  For example, we can start with the following:

  1. Learn about the issue. Let’s raise our own awareness of our current water problem. We will be in a better position to find a solution if we understand the issue well.
  2. Get involved. Let’s help in raising the awareness of others about the issue. Take part in efforts and activities that aim to conserve our natural resources, including water.
  3. Let us acquire the right attitude towards water.
  • Use water wisely. For example, instead of letting the tap run continuously, we can use a washbasin or put the sink stopper in, when washing our dishes. Minimize the time we spend in the shower. If possible, use the good ole bucket and dipper, since we can conserve more water that way. We can also reuse water. For example, instead of throwing away the water we use in rinsing our clothes, we can use it to clean the floor, toilet etc.
  • Dispose garbage properly. Always remember that all the rubbish we indiscriminately throw away would eventually find their way into our water sources and return to us as illness and diseases, or as flood as they clog our water systems.
  • Plant trees and plants in the garden. This will help prevent fertilizer, pesticides and contaminated water from running off into nearby water sources.

To conclude, the English poet Lord Byron once said: “Till taught by pain, men know not what water’s worth”. Let’s wait not for the pain. Let’s do our part now to protect and conserve this most precious of all resources.



The author wishes to thank  Ms. Victoria Villar-Demmer for proofreading the article.



Gleick, P. H. (ed), 1993. Water in Crisis: A guide to the World‘s Fresh Water Resources, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 473p.

Maddocks, A., Young, R.S. and Reig, P. (2015, August 26). Ranking the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries in 2040. Retrieved from http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world%E2%80%99s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040

DENR-EMB (Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Environmental Management Bureau) (2014). Nation Water Quality Status Report 2006-2013. Quezon City: DENR-EMB.

Pink, R.M. (2016). Water Rights in Southeast Asia and India. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shiklomanov, I.A., 1999.  World Water Resources: Modern Assessment and Outlook for the 21st Century, St Petersburg, Federal Service of Russia for Hydrometeorology and Environment Monitoring, State Hydrological Institute.

UN (United Nations) (2014, November 24). Water Scarcity. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml

UNEP-GRID ARENDAL, 2002. Vital Water Graphics. A World of Salt: Total Global Saltwater and Freshwater Estimates. Retrieved from http://staging.unep.org/dewa/assessments/ecosystems/water/vitalwater/01.htm

USGS (United States Geological Survey) (2016 December 2). How Much Water is there on, in, and above the Earth? Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html

Water.org (2017). Philippines’ water and sanitation crisis. Retrieved from https://water.org/our-impact/philippines/

WHO (World Health Organization) (2017 July. Drinking Water Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs391/en/

WHO and UNICEF (World Health Organization and United Nations International Children Emergency Fund) (2017). Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Baselines . Geneva: Who and UNICEF. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

World Bank. 2003. Philippines – Environment monitor 2003. Washington, DC: World Bank.  Retrieved from http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/144581468776089600/pdf/282970PH0Environment0monitor.pdf


This article first appeared in the EarthThink blog.


About the Author

Dr. Mary Antonette Beroya-Eitner is a consultant in ecosystem services management, hazard and vulnerability assessment, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and urban resilience. She is the founding president of EarthThink. Dr. Beroya-Eitner is also currently a subject matter expert at  Earthquake Megacities Initiatives  (EMI) and a consultant at the Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders (CIFAL-Philippines) under the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Additionally, she serves as an Editorial Board Member of the Gravitazz Quarterly Publication Series on “African Perspective on Disaster Risk Reduction hosted by the Gravitazz Institute for Disaster Reduction and Emergency Management in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dr. Beroya-Eitner completed bachelor and master degrees in Geology from the University of the Philippines, and a PhD degree in Engineering Geology from the University of Hong Kong. She has a second master degree in Global Change Ecology under the Elite International Masters Study Program of the University of Bayreuth, Germany. More recently, she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the United Nations University-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) and Tokyo University.