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Last updated: 29 May 2024

Water Waste: Key Statistics and Environmental Impact

Water waste: Key stats and environmental impact. Learn about the significant effects of water waste on the environment and how we can reduce it

Water is a precious and finite resource essential for life on Earth. However, the world is facing a growing water waste crisis due to increasing demand, mismanagement, and pollution.

Due to mismanagement and waste, water is at the centre of a growing crisis. Globally, we face water scarcity, with billions of individuals lacking access to clean drinking water. The environmental impact of water waste exacerbates water supply and quality challenges.

The economic costs of water scarcity are significant, impacting agriculture, industry, and energy production. Reducing water waste is essential for a healthy global economy.

Around 30% of treated water is wasted globally, translating to roughly 9.5 trillion litres. That's enough water to fill billions of bathtubs! In addition, up to 50% of outdoor water use is lost due to evaporation, wind, and runoff from poorly designed irrigation systems. This is a massive waste, especially in drought-prone areas.

This article explores water waste's key statistics and environmental effects, highlighting the urgent need for water conservation and sustainable practices. 

Key Statistics on Water Waste

Water waste is a global challenge with significant implications for our immediate environment and future generations. Globally, the challenge of water waste is monumental, with substantial impacts on resources and human lives. 

Approximately 703 million people lack clean water, about 1 in 10. This scarcity is compounded by the fact that more than 1,000 children under the age of five die every day. These deaths are due to diseases linked to contaminated water and inadequate sanitation.

Furthermore, wastewater treatment needs to be improved globally; only 57.8 per cent of the world's domestic wastewater flow was treated safely in 2022. 

Here is the overview of the statistics of water waste according to UN-Water, World Health Organization (WHO), Our World In Data, Statista and other environmental impact studies

  • Between 2 and 3 billion people experience water shortages, which are expected to rise due to climate change and population growth.​ 
  • The economic losses of water scarcity and poor sanitation are estimated at £207 billion annually. 
  • Marine pollution alone accounts for about £6.4 billion per year to clean.
  • Homes worldwide waste a staggering 8 trillion litres of water annually, as leaks, inefficient appliances, and excessive outdoor watering are significant culprits.
  • Agriculture consumes 70% of the world's freshwater, while households account for around 10%​
  • Only 11% of domestic and industrial wastewater is currently reused despite the potential to recycle up to 320 billion cubic meters per year​.
  • At least 1.7 billion people use drinking water contaminated with faeces, leading to significant health risks​.
  • Inefficient water management costs the global economy an estimated £200 billion annually due to lost resources and health-related expenses​.
  • Approximately 80% of wastewater worldwide is released into the environment without adequate treatment, affecting human health and ecosystems.
  • Approximately 17 gallons of water is wasted from Leaking Faucet (1 drip/second) daily. 
  • Outdoor water usage in Arid Regions is 60% per household
  • Up to 50% of water is lost due to inefficient irrigation systems. 
  • Wastewater treatment must be improved globally; only 57.8% of the world's domestic wastewater flow was treated safely in 2022.
  • Heavily polluted rivers can reduce economic growth in downstream regions by 1.4% to 2.5%, translating to significant GDP losses. 
The provided sources discuss various aspects of water waste and management

Regional Water Waste Statistics

The disparity in access to adequate wastewater services is stark across different regions.

  • In Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia, less than 30% of the population had access to adequate wastewater treatment services as of 2022. 
  • In the Middle East & North Africa, some countries experience extremely high levels of water stress, with withdrawal rates often exceeding 100% of available resources.
  • In 2009, industries in Europe and North America used 50% of all water, compared to only 4-12% in developing countries, highlighting the disparity in water usage and treatment.

Country-Specific Data

  • India, China, and the United States are notable for their high levels of water withdrawals, driven by their large populations and substantial industrial and agricultural demands.
  • India's agricultural water consumption nearly doubled between 1975 and 2010 due to increasing population and food demand.
  • The average person in the UK uses approximately 142-152 litres of water per day, with slight variations depending on the source.
  • The UK wastes over 3 billion litres of clean water daily due to leakages, about 25% of the daily water consumption.
  • Household leaks in the US can waste 900 billion gallons of water yearly. That's enough to supply nearly 11 million homes.
  • The average American family wastes about 180 gallons of water per week due to leaks, amounting to 9,400 gallons annually. 
  • Around 10% of water withdrawals in the United States are used for municipal purposes, which is relatively small compared to agricultural and industrial uses.
  • In Europe, countries like Germany and the Netherlands use less than one per cent of their water withdrawals for agriculture, highlighting significant geographical and economic variances.

This comprehensive overview underscores the critical need for enhanced global water conservation and waste management efforts to address these pressing challenges effectively.

Environmental Impact of Water Waste

Excessive water use stresses freshwater sources like rivers and lakes, impacting ecosystems and aquatic life. Treating and pumping water requires a lot of energy. Water waste translates to wasted energy resources. Lower water consumption reduces energy use and carbon emissions associated with water treatment and distribution. This contributes to climate change mitigation efforts.

Furthermore, untreated wastewater can pollute rivers and streams, harm wildlife and jeopardise clean water supplies.

Understanding the magnitude and impact of our water usage helps bring about the changes needed to conserve this vital resource.

Let's break it down

Water Scarcity and Depletion

Water waste contributes to the depletion of freshwater resources, leading to water scarcity in many regions. This can severely affect ecosystems, agriculture, and human communities, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas.

Wastewater Pollution

Untreated wastewater is a significant environmental threat. It contaminates rivers, lakes, and oceans, affecting ecosystems and human health. Improved wastewater management can mitigate these effects and provide alternative water sources for agriculture and industry.

Industrial activities exacerbate this issue by discharging untreated waste directly into water bodies. This introduces toxic substances such as heavy metals and chemical solvents. These pollutants harm aquatic life and degrade water quality.

Climate Change

The relationship between water waste and climate change is profound. Mismanagement of water resources contributes to the degradation of peatlands and other carbon sinks. Peatlands are crucial for carbon storage and climate regulation.

Increased temperatures lead to higher evaporation rates and altered precipitation patterns, worsening water scarcity in many regions. Effective water management is critical to adapt to these changes​. Mismanagement of water resources contributes to the degradation of peatlands and other carbon sinks, which are crucial for carbon storage and climate regulation.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Treating and transporting wastewater contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change. Inefficient water use and waste also increase the energy demand for water treatment and distribution.

Biodiversity Loss

Water pollution and habitat degradation caused by water waste can lead to biodiversity loss. This threatens various plant and animal species that rely on freshwater ecosystems. Furthermore, eutrophication caused by nutrient-rich runoff promotes algal blooms that block sunlight. This reduces oxygen levels in the water. As a result, dead zones are created where aquatic life cannot survive.

By addressing these issues through improved water conservation and treatment practices, we can mitigate the environmental impacts of water waste and promote a more sustainable future.

Impact of Water Waste on Human Health

Contaminated water and inadequate sanitation link directly to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. When water, sanitation, and hygiene services are insufficient, individuals face heightened risks of infections and diseases. This includes staff and patients in healthcare facilities.

Water is critical for sustainable development, including environmental integrity and the alleviation of poverty and hunger, and is indispensable for human health and well-being.

Annually, unsafe water and poor hygiene contribute to approximately one million deaths from diarrhoea. Notably, 395,000 of these deaths are children under five years old, underscoring the preventable nature of such fatalities. 

Diarrhoea, while commonly known, is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2021, over 251.4 million people needed preventative treatment for schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms contracted through exposure to infested waters. Additionally, waterborne vectors can transmit diseases like dengue fever. These vectors often breed in clean water, and something as simple as an uncovered household water container can become a breeding ground for disease. 

Water Consumption in Different Sectors

Agriculture

Agriculture remains the most significant consumer of water worldwide, accounting for approximately 70% of global water withdrawals. This substantial usage is driven by the demands of irrigated agriculture, which not only consumes vast amounts of water but also contributes significantly to water pollution due to runoff from fertilisers, pesticides, and livestock effluents.

The sustainability of water resources in agriculture is threatened by intensive groundwater pumping, which depletes aquifers and can lead to adverse environmental impacts. As we approach World Water Day, we must emphasise the importance of improving water management in the agricultural sector.  This will ensure a sustainable food and water system. 

Industries

Industrial water consumption constitutes about 22% of global water usage. In developed regions like Europe and North America, industries consume up to 50% of all water resources, compared to only 4% to 12% in developing countries. This discrepancy highlights the varying levels of industrial development and the associated water usage patterns across different regions. 

The treatment and safe disposal of industrial wastewater are critical challenges that require ongoing investment and technological advancement. These efforts are essential to prevent environmental contamination and meet the increasing water demands.

Households

Household water usage varies significantly across different regions. In the UK, for example, the average household water consumption is influenced by the number of residents, ranging from 149 litres per day for a single person to 450 litres for a four-person household. For instance, Water UK reports an average of 142 litres per person per day, while other sources like Water UK and Ofwat suggest figures closer to 150 litres per day. 

This means a typical four-person household could use between 500 and 600 litres of water daily.

Everyday household activities such as showering, washing clothes, and flushing toilets are major contributors to indoor water use, with toilets, showers, and faucets alone accounting for 62% of all indoor water consumption. 

The data also reveals a concern for more awareness among the public about their water usage, with many underestimating their daily consumption. Promoting water-saving habits and efficient appliances is essential to reducing household water waste and conserving water resources.

Addressing water consumption across different sectors involves understanding each sector's needs and challenges. Implementing targeted strategies to promote efficient use and sustainable management of water resources is essential.

Breakdown of Water Usage

Water usage in households is distributed across various activities using eco-friendly appliances:

  • Showers: A power shower uses about 13 litres per minute, a mixer shower uses 8 litres per minute, and an electric shower uses 5 litres per minute.
  • Baths: A full bath uses approximately 80 litres of water.
  • Toilets: Modern toilets use about 5 litres per flush, whereas older models can use up to 9 litres per flush.
  • Washing Machines: Each washing machine cycle uses around 50 litres of water.
  • Dishwashers: Modern dishwashers use about 14 litres per cycle, with eco-settings using around 10 litres.
  • Hand Washing: Washing hands with a running tap can take up to 6 litres per minute while using a bowl takes about 8 litres.
  • Car Washing: A hosepipe can consume 250 litres per use, whereas a bucket uses about 30 litres.

Water Wastage

A significant portion of water is wasted due to inefficient practices and leaks:

  • Dripping Taps: A single dripping tap can waste approximately 4 litres of water daily, amounting to nearly 1,460 litres annually.
  • Running Taps: Leaving the tap running while brushing teeth can waste about 12 litres per session.
  • Leaking Toilets: Faulty toilet flushes can waste between 215 and 400 litres daily.

Water Scarcity by Regions

Water scarcity is a pressing global issue, with different regions experiencing varying levels of water stress due to climate change, population growth, and poor water management.

Water stress is a growing global issue driven by population growth, urbanisation, climate change, and poor water waste management strategies.

The geographical mismatch between water demand and availability poses a significant threat, especially in regions like China, where water scarcity is exacerbated by uneven distribution. Efforts to increase water supply through desalination and water transfer projects have yet to alleviate these challenges fully.

The Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia are currently the most severely water-stressed regions, driven by factors like low water supply, high demand, climate change, and population growth. However, water scarcity is a growing global issue that impacts most regions to varying degrees.

Here is a detailed look at water scarcity across different regions of the world:

Middle East and North Africa

This is the most water-scarce region globally. According to the research results:

  • The MENA region has the world's lowest per capita water availability, with many countries falling below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters per person per year.
  • 83% of the Middle Eastern and North African population is exposed to extremely high water stress.
  • Countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Palestine face extremely high water stress, using around 100% of their renewable water resources.
  • Factors driving water scarcity include low water supply, high domestic and agricultural demand, and climate change impacts like droughts.
  • Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE heavily rely on desalination for their water supply.

Sub-Saharan Africa

While not as highly water-stressed Currently, Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to face rapidly increasing water demand and scarcity:

  • Water demand in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase by 163% by 2050, the highest rate globally.
  • Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa face extreme water stress, with availability of less than 1 1,700 cubic meters per person per year.
  • Countries like South Sudan, Somalia, Chad, and Eswatini already face high water stress levels.
  • Factors like population growth, urbanisation, and lack of water infrastructure contribute to water scarcity in the region.

South Asia

South Asia is another highly water-stressed region:

  • 74% of the population in South Asia is exposed to extremely high water stress.
  • Countries like Pakistan face extremely high water stress levels.
  • Rapid population growth, urbanisation, and water-intensive agriculture increase water scarcity.

Europe

While most of Europe has adequate water resources currently, water scarcity is an increasing issue:

  • Southern European countries like Cyprus, Malta, Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain face significant seasonal water scarcity.
  • Southern Europe, including Spain and Italy, faces high levels of water stress, particularly during summer​.
  • Urbanisation and tourism significantly increase water demand in coastal areas.
  • Climate change and droughts are expected to exacerbate water scarcity across Europe.

North America

The water situation varies across North America, but some regions face high stress:

  • The southwestern United States is projected to see water stress increase by up to 70% due to climate change impacts.
  • However, efficiency improvements have plateaued national water demand in wealthier countries like the United States. 
  • Areas like the Southwestern United States and parts of Mexico experience significant water stress due to prolonged droughts.
  • Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in regions like California.

A snapshot of water stress levels across different countries, highlighting the severity and critical points related to water scarcity in each area as of 2024.

Efforts to Reduce Water Waste

The UK government has introduced several initiatives to reduce nutrient pollution and enhance water quality. One significant measure is the legal duty imposed on water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works by 2030 in 'nutrient neutrality' areas to the highest achievable technological levels. 

These efforts are complemented by increased farm inspections and new farming schemes that incentivise environmentally friendly practices. 

Recognising, measuring and expressing water’s worth, and incorporating it into decision-making, are fundamental to achieving sustainable and equitable water resources management.

Furthermore, advancements in technology are pivotal in the efforts to conserve water and reduce waste. Next-generation technologies include innovative irrigation systems that adjust water supply based on weather and soil conditions and innovative desalination techniques that lower costs and reduce environmental impact. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are increasingly used to monitor water quality and detect leaks, significantly enhancing water management efficiency. For example, Singapore's smart water grid system enables real-time monitoring and control, ensuring immediate leak detection and repair. 

There is a considerable gap between public perception and actual water usage. Research indicates that 46% of people believe their household uses less than 20 litres of water daily, which is far below the average. This misconception is particularly prevalent among younger age groups, with 66% of 18-34-year-olds underestimating their water usage.

To address water wastage and improve efficiency, several measures can be implemented:

  • Water Meters: Households with water meters tend to use less water, averaging 129 litres per day compared to 171 litres for non-metered households.
  • Water-Saving Devices: Installing low-flow showerheads, dual-flush toilets, and tap aerators can significantly reduce water consumption.
  • Behavioural Changes: Simple habits like turning off the tap while brushing teeth, taking shorter showers, and fixing leaks can save substantial amounts of water
  • Efficient Irrigation Systems: Drip and sprinkler systems minimise water wastage in agriculture.
  • Wastewater Recycling: Industries can treat and reuse wastewater for cooling, heating, and other processes, reducing freshwater demand.
  • Energy-Water Nexus: Optimising energy use in water management reduces water and energy consumption.
  • Low-Flow Fixtures: Installing low-flow showers and toilets reduces household water consumption.
  • Rainwater Harvesting: Collecting and using rainwater for non-potable purposes conserve freshwater resources.

Future Outlook on Water Waste

As we look towards the future, sustainable practices in water conservation are gaining momentum and are shaped by community initiatives and technological advancements.

One of the most promising trends in water conservation is the adoption of advanced water recycling and reuse technologies. Cities like Singapore and San Diego are at the forefront of this movement, implementing systems that treat and repurpose wastewater for various uses, including irrigation and industrial processes.

These initiatives reduce the demand for freshwater, help mitigate pollution, and preserve natural water bodies. Biological treatment, ultraviolet disinfection, and reverse osmosis make water recycling more feasible and cost-effective. These methods contribute to a more sustainable water management approach.

Efficient irrigation techniques are also playing a significant role in reducing water waste. Agriculture accounts for a substantial portion of global water use, and traditional irrigation methods often lead to considerable water loss. Smart irrigation systems, which use sensors and weather data to optimise water delivery, can save up to 50% of water compared to conventional methods.

Moreover, policy and regulatory measures are crucial in effectively promoting water conservation and managing water resources. Governments worldwide are implementing laws and regulations that mandate water conservation plans and efficient water use. For instance, the Water Conservation Act in the United States and the EU Water Framework Directive require developing strategies to reduce water waste and ensure sustainable water management.

These initiatives reduce the demand for freshwater, help mitigate pollution, and preserve natural water bodies.

The future outlook on water waste involves addressing the impacts of climate change. It also includes leveraging technological advancements and implementing effective water management strategies. These efforts are crucial for ensuring the sustainable use of water resources and reducing water waste in the coming decades.

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