Phrases For Different Global Water Issues, & What They Each Mean

There are different phrases used to describe the different water issues in the world.

Different organisations or individuals may describe different things when using these phrases, and may use them in different contexts.

To clear up some of the potential uncertainty or confusion, what we’ve done in this guide is unofficially describe each phrase individually, and also describe them relative to each other.


(*Note – separate water issues outside of the scope of this guide are 1. Natural disasters involving water such as floods, and 2. Access to clean and safe drinking water, and basic sanitation and hygiene (a common issue to underdeveloped or developing regions))


Summary – Global Water Issue Phrases

Core Global Water Issues

Global water issues generally revolve around these three key problems:

Quantity of water supplies

Volume of available fresh water supplies, and the ratio of water being withdrawn and consumed vs the water resources being renewed


Quality of water supplies

Whether water is in an adequate condition for it’s end use – for example, drinking water vs water used for irrigation … potable vs non potable water


– Access to water supplies

Being able to extract, treat, transport and deliver water to it’s end use)


Different Phrases Used To Describe Different Aspects Of Global Water Issues

The different phrases used to describe different aspects of these problems are:

Water Availability – relates to quantity 

Water Stress – relates to quantity 

Water Scarcity – relates to quantity 

Water Shortage – relates to quantity 

Water Access – relates to quantity (mostly for developing and underdeveloped regions though)

Water Pollution & Contamination – relates to quality, but also affects quantity 

The Water Crisis – relates to access, and quantity

Water Security – general water phrase

Water Risk – general water phrase


Factors That May Impact The Different Global Water Issues

Read more about these potential factors in this guide.


Water Issues Differ From Place To Place, & Can Change Over Time

It’s important to note that with some water issues, only certain types of water might be affected e.g. only non potable water, and not potable water.

And additionally, a city or region that might be water stressed right now, doesn’t always stay water stressed.

They could for example permanently address the problems in their water management strategy, or, there could be seasonal or yearly (or more) fluctuations in water supplies that impact water stress, water shortages, and so on.

The onset and the end of a drought is one example of this.

So, water issues can be fluid and change from location to location.

Although – some places in the world face permanent challenges like a very dry and hot climate, and naturally small water supplies, which can mean permanent water issues.


Water Availability

Water availability is the water available to withdraw or consume from a water supply resource in a particular geographic region.

This could be water from a surface water source (like a river or lake), or a ground water source for example.

Water that is not available (at least not immediately without further treatment or processes) might include water such marine water, brackish water, frozen water, and some types of underground water.

Non available water can also include rainfall that doesn’t inflow into a usable water supply source (because it evaporates, drains into a non usable water source, or is transpired by plants).

The resource has a good explanation of Australia’s water availability.


Water Access

Water access usually refers to basic access to safely managed and clean fresh water resources, which people can drink, or use for other uses such as household, industry or agricultural activities.

Water access is critical for both drinking water, and socio-economic development (and a range of critical applications across society).


Barriers To Water Access

Water access usually has three main barriers:

– Physical Water Access

Some water can’t be accessed because of physical limitations such as being too isolated, being located underneath rock layers, being frozen, or being physically challenging or impossible to get to in some other way.


– Economic Water Access

Having the financial resources to invest in water infrastructure and systems to extract, treat, transport, and deliver the water to the end user


– Political/Institutional

Inadequate political or institutional management of water.

Can including access to water, general services and infrastructure, and overall water management strategy


Level Of Water Access Differs Between Regions

Water access differs by city, region and country.

For example, a developing region may use simple water wells to extract drinking water from the ground, whilst a developed region may have full water treatment plants, pipes, taps, and so on.


Water Stress 

Water stress is a term used to describe the ratio of freshwater withdrawals (which essentially equals freshwater demand), to total renewable freshwater resources.

The higher the ratio of water withdrawals to available (and safe to use) internal freshwater resources, the more water stressed a city or town becomes.

So, ‘water stress’ is reached when freshwater withdrawal rates exceed the available freshwater resources, or, when withdrawal rates outpace renewal rates.

But, there’s different levels of water stress, from very low, to very high (or extreme)

Read more information about water stress, and also how it relates to water scarcity and water shortages as issues in this guide.


Water Scarcity

Water scarcity might be considered a more extreme water issue compared to water stress.

It’s the point where there isn’t enough freshwater resources to meet the basic demand for freshwater in a city or town.

At the point of water scarcity, water demand (the withdrawal rate) usually exceeds the renewal rate of internal water resources, and the volume of available freshwater resources might have declined to a low level.

Some reports say this volume of freshwater might be around 20% of total capacity or lower.

There may be two main types of water scarcity – physical water scarcity, and economic water scarcity.

Read more information about water scarcity, and also how it relates to water stress and water shortages as issues in this guide.


Water Shortage

The term ‘water shortage’ is often used to describe the same conditions as water scarcity, and they are sometimes grouped as the same issue or event.

‘Water shortage’ is a phrase sometimes used to describe a specific type of extreme water scarcity event where clean fresh water resources are getting to low enough levels where extreme water restrictions (say, level 7 or 8 water restrictions – sometimes called ‘Day Zero’) have to be enforced, and municipal tap water may have to be temporarily turned off.

You can read a case study of the Cape Town water shortage in this guide.

Read more information about water shortages, and also how they relate to water stress and water scarcity as issues in this guide.


Water Pollution & Contamination

Water pollution and contamination initially impacts the quality of the water.

But, if water can’t be treated or purified, it also impacts quantity of water.

We’ve put together a full guide about water pollution and it’s causes, sources, effects plus solutions here.


Water Security

Water security is a similar concept to food security.

Water security might be defined as a population:

– Having an adequate quantity and quality of water for all their needs, such their health, and also their living needs (daily activities, economic production

– Being adequately protected from water related risks (via proper water management and risk mitigation)


Countries with high water stress, high levels of water contamination and pollution, and poor water management strategies, might be considered as having poor water security.

Countries with low water stress, high quantities of internal accessible fresh water resources, and that have no foreseeable threat to the quantity or quality of their available water supplies in the future, might be seen as having high water security.


Water Risk

Water risk, as summarized above, it the probability or possibility of a city or town experiencing water issues that could impact their water security, or present them with a water related challenge.


A water related challenge can be a challenge like the ones listed above (e.g. water scarcity, water stress), but could also be other challenges like natural events affecting water supplies (such as droughts), water infrastructure leaking or being inadequate, and so on.


Pacinst has this to say on water risk:

Companies and organizations and governments [must have a good understaning of] various components of water stress (i.e. water scarcity, accessibility, environmental flows, and water quality), as well as additional factors, such as water governance [in order to mitigate water risk]

Many water-related conditions, such as water scarcity, pollution, poor governance, inadequate infrastructure, climate change, and others, create water risk for many different sectors and organizations simultaneously


The Water Crisis

The ‘Water Crisis’ is the term used in two main ways:

1. To refer to the serious health crisis whereby people in mostly low income or underdeveloped regions lack access to basic water services such as clean and safe drinking water, and basic sanitation and hygiene.

So, for this point, it relates to:

– Water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases, and reducing the occurrence rates of people dying from these diseases with access to safe water or sanitation

– Reducing rates of children dying from water related diseases

– Reducing rates of developing countries having inadequate access to clean water

The significant challenge in many of the regions affected is low income, and/or poor institutional governance/management.

Read more in the and resources about stats on this these issues


2. To refer to other water issues getting worse in the future, whereby an increasing number of even developed countries are heading towards higher rates of water stress unless they address these issues (much like Perth in Western Australia has done) – and, this of course has the potential for worsening consequences.





2. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Water Access, Resources & Sanitation”. Published online at Retrieved from: ‘’ [Online Resource]
















18. Downloads/642-progress-on-level-of-water-stress-2018.pdf, ‘Progress On Level Of Water Stress’ (from


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