And yet lack of water has become one of the world’s most pressing challenges. Only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh water; about two-thirds of it is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps and we have long over-stretched this precious resource.

Population growth, industrial and agricultural development, pollution, wetland drainage, river channelization and deforestation causing sedimentation have all put a massive strain on the world’s freshwater systems.

Two billion people need water from 263 rivers that cross the borders of 145 countries. Competition over this finite supply can test the limits of peace. But analysts’ predictions of ‘water wars’ are proving premature as a new cooperation is emerging over sustainable water management. IUCN is playing a key role in making sure that there is enough water in the world for both people and nature.

Water scarcity and vulnerabiliy are being brought ever closer to home in the face of climate change. No country is immune. We live in an increasingly water-interdependent world where unsustainable policies in one country can affect an entire region.

Poverty and ill health are inextricably linked with water, its availability and quality. Today, nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water. With a burgeoning global population, integrated and fair water use and distribution is vital if we are to achieve sustainable development and reduce poverty.

And it’s not just the water supply that we need to be concerned about but the biodiversity that it supports. Freshwater habitats cover less than 1% of the world’s surface, yet provide a home for over 25% of all described vertebrate species, not only fish. They provide important goods and services including the provision of food, clean water, building materials, and flood and erosion control. The livelihoods of many of the world’s poorest communities depend on freshwater resources.

More water facts
  • It is estimated that the average person in developed countries uses 500-800 litres compared to 60-150 litres per day in developing countries.
  • Globally between 1,085,000 and 2,187,000 deaths due to diarrhoeal diseases can be attributed to the 'water, sanitation and hygiene' risk factor, 90% of them among children under five.
  • Only 0.3% of the world's freshwater is available from rivers, lakes and reservoirs; 30% is groundwater, while the rest is stored in distant glaciers, ice sheets, and mountainous areas.
  • About two-thirds of the human body is water. For example, 70% of your skin is made up of water.
  • You can survive about a month without food, but only 5 to 7 days without water.
  • Currently, more than 80 countries, representing 40% of the world's population, are experiencing serious water shortages. South West Asia faces the greatest threat: Over 90% of the region's population is suffering severe water stress.
  • Raindrops are not tear-shaped as commonly believed. Scientists, using high-speed cameras, have discovered that raindrops resemble the shape of a small hamburger bun.
  • Around 50% of the world's wetlands present in 1900 had been lost by the late 1990s, with conversion of land to agriculture being the main cause.
  • Worldwide, 70% of water that is withdrawn for human use is used for agriculture, 22% for industry and 8% is used for domestic services.

 

But the outlook is not all bleak. Through decades of experience we have learned how to achieve sustainable water management. We know that sound management of ecosystems such as watersheds, mountains and wetlands can help preserve our water supplies. And there is a growing recognition that watersheds are best governed by the people who inhabit and depend on them.

All sectors of society from big business and government to local communities are waking up the urgency of the water security challenge, while efforts to put a price tag on the value of freshwater goods and services are making an ever-stronger case for conserving watersheds.

From Asia’s Mekong River to Nigeria’s Komadugu Yobe River and Tanzania’s Pangani River Basin, IUCN works towards managing and protecting our water reserves for the benefit of all. We help to create policies and laws in which all users, rich and poor, urban and rural, have a say in how their increasingly stressed waters are allocated, managed and conserved.

This month we focus on some of IUCN’s work on water resource management and freshwater conservation: how we’re engaging governments, businesses and local communities to use and manage water resources more sustainably. Listen to interviews with our water experts, read stories from around the world about how local people are transforming water use for the better, and test your knowledge about freshwater by taking part in our quiz.