Oil, electricity, the internet – all integral pillars of modernity. But our dependence on the planet’s most primordial resource – water – trumps them all. Oceans dominate the globe, but an infinitesimal proportion of the world’s wet stuff is fit for human consumption. As populations boom and the atmosphere heats, that scant supply is dwindling ever faster. We’re facing a full blown water crisis, experts warn, and there’s precious little time to reverse the trend.

Water is the great equaliser. Old or young, rich or poor, hydration unites us. Access to clean water is as basic a human right as you’ll find – but every day 2.1bn people struggle to source it. Water privation is worse in the developing world, but no single nation is sheltered from the looming crisis. In the planet’s warmest places, like the Middle East, deposits are running dry at an alarming rate; and in countries where supplies remain steady, there is evidence of sliding quality.

These are the findings of a new report by the World Bank, which examines the health, environmental, and economic consequences of diminishing clean water reserves. In poorer countries, up to 80% of domestic waste is released into natural waterways without treatment, the researchers found, infesting drinking supplies with faecal bacteria and other dangerous pathogens. As a nation’s GDP increases, so too does the presence of nitrogen (mostly from agricultural runoff), pharmaceutical pollutants, and plastic waste in its drinking water. 

‘Blue baby syndrome’, a fatal infant infliction caused by a lack of bodily oxygen, is but one condition closely correlated to worsening water quality, the report concluded. An increasing paucity of fresh water strains local food supplies, also, with harvest yields dropping sharply as salt concentrations surge. Rising sea-levels, growing dependence on coastal extraction, and mounting urban pollution drive down the fertility of farmland. The consequences are unfathomably grave – everyday food enough for 170 million people, the population of Bangladesh, is lost to contaminated water. 

Climate change is driving the crisis. With rising temperatures comes greater evaporation, depleting water reserves, and intensifying droughts. The warmer atmosphere is also holding more vapour, increasing the frequency of acutely heavy rainstorms, which, in turn, cause greater flooding and fresh water contamination. Explosive population growth is not helping matters. By 2025, 8bn people will roam the planet. Half will live in water-deprived areas, with a quarter facing what the World Resources Institute (WRI) describes as “extremely high” water stress. 

Jostling for control of dwindling supplies, water-driven conflict is predicted to intensify. Already wars are being fought for drinking rights, experts say. Amid Islamic State’s explosive mid-decade expansion across Iraq and Syria, Sunni militants seized control of dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, depriving Shi’ite holy cities like Karbala and Najaf of fresh water. Global warming will all but drain these waterways by 2100, “making conflict over what remains even more tempting if contested political control returns to the [area],” said Sagatom Saha of the Atlantic Council, a think tank.  

In Jordan, a lethal convergence of population growth and climate change is driving water availability to the brink. As rising temperatures bake the land, years of regional strife have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees to settle in the Middle Eastern state. Since 2006, the population has nearly doubled, putting unbearable stress on the underground aquifers which provide two-thirds of Jordan’s water. The country has twelve of these subterranean reservoirs – ten are being pumped at a deficit. More sustainable avenues exist, like the desalination of seawater, but lacking the fossil fuel wealth of its neighbours, Amman simply cannot afford to pursue such measures.

A nation not lacking liquidity (in any sense of the word) is the United States. With an economy 500 times the size of Jordan’s, and 60-fold its fresh water availability, Americans might hope to be sheltered from the crisis. They are not. While ‘day zero’ scenarios – when the taps run dry – are not a reality, from coast-to-coast there are issues of water quality. In Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey supplies are contaminated with lead-based toxins; and in California, almost a million people struggle with groundwater depletion and chemical contamination.

The water crisis is not going unchallenged, however. In an effort to address local limitations, large scale aid programmes are funnelling billions into regional sustainability projects. Jordan’s creaking water infrastructure is bolstered by $700m in US support, and around 60,000 handpumps – long considered a symbol of development aid – are installed in sub-Saharan Africa every year. But despite the investment, scarcely half of Jordan’s clean water comes from renewable sources – and at any one time, 40% of African handpumps are in need of repair.  

To truly turn the tide, experts say a more sweeping approach is needed. “At a high level, adaptation strategies must include planning responses to water demands increases, overhauling some of the current water policies, and investing in research and modeling of climate risk,” says Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, a climate expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Also important is providing water education and training to farmers and the general public”.

Only when local, regional, and state actors are working in synchrony, can the world’s water crisis be adequately addressed. All efforts must be in tandem with broader climate change strategies – the two issues are inextricably linked. Until that happens, independent of location, wealth, or age, we’re all at risk.