Infrastructure Problems

Below are the current biggest concerns with water infrastructure, divided into the categories of storage, supply, and usage. This page focuses on built infrastructure, with the exception of groundwater storage. 


Dams are the easy targets of the water storage infrastructure. Throughout the world there are hundreds of thousands of dams in existence (800,000 substantial dams), and thousands more in construction, planning, and future goals. Dams receive a lot of good publicity due to their ability to produce renewable carbon-free electricity and water supply for irrigation of our food. However, dams cause significant reductions in river processes, ecosystems, and water quality. These impacts are caused by dams flow manipulation, sediment trapping, fish migration, water temperature affects, and water quality issues. To learn more about the ways dams effect rivers and nature, please visit Dams page for full details. In regards to infrastructure, many of the worlds dams are over 50 years old and require constant upkeep, or removal for safety reasons. As in any infrastructure, these systems only have so many productive years, and will ultimately need to be replaced. This is a good think, as it provides the opportunity to evaluate if that dam is necessary and of course implement new technologies to reduce the compounding effects of the previously environmental-unfriendly dam caused. However, the problems are that most dams are not being replaced as they should be, leaving many around the world dangerously poised upstream of townships (e.g. 85% of U.S. dams are older than their lifespan intended).   

Source: The Groundwater Foundation

Source: The Groundwater Foundation

Ground water is the natural infrastructure for storage, and contains approximately 98% of the freshwater resources (excluding polar ice). While groundwater has been exploited as a seemingly constant source of water for irrigation and drinking water, it's quantity and quality have limitations. For many years, it was widely believed that pollutants on the ground surface would be naturally filtered through the soil and sediment, and thus preserving groundwater and the aquifers as pristine water. This belief however is wrong, and not only can the groundwater and aquifers become polluted, but it can take many decades for them to be clean once again. With 1.5 billion people getting their drinking water from groundwater, including many people in developed countries (51% in U.S., 75% in Europe, 32% Asia-Pacific, 29% Central and South America, and 15% Australia), groundwater must be protected. Major problems to ground water pollution are various but big pollution sources are hydraulic fracturing, leaking storage and septic tanks, uncontrolled hazardous waste (e.g. abandoned mines and factories), landfills, and the application of fertilizers/pesticides/road-deicing agents. However, ground water is being exploited for drinking water and agriculture. 


While some of the worlds richest countries suffer from outdated, inefficient, and failing systems, some suffer from pipes contaminating the drinking water.  While Europe has continued to improve wastewater collection, only 11 of the 27 European capitals had ‘adequate’ treatment systems in 2013. In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave wastewater, drinking water, and inland waterways failing grades (D), and much of the rest of world suffers from similar aging, outdated, or lack of water infrastructure.

When water infrastructure systems fail, large volumes of water are wasted, which can cause significant damages, and long periods of water interruptions. However, the small unnoticed leaks cause the greatest waste. Annually, it is estimated that irrigation from dams to farms looses approximately 1,500 trillion liters, and due to worn household fixtures, many more trillion are wasted annually. Just in the United States, it is estimated that more than 1 trillion gallons (3.78 trillion liters) are wasted annually. 


Worldwide, more than 1.4 billion people live in river basins and their use is exceeding groundwater recharge levels, which is devastating rivers and depleting available ground water. This is the case for 60% of European cities with more than 100 000 residence, who will soon face water shortages. 

Looking at the average daily consumption rates across the world (2006) ranges from 525 liters per person per day to nearly single digits liters per day. Obviously, the countries that are the largest offenders are typically the more developed countries, with U.S., Australia, and Italy being the top three, and Rwanda, Uganda, and Mozambique consuming the least. This data highlights the gross overuse of water throughout the world. While it is difficult to measure average unnecessary waste (e.g. leaving the sink on while you brush your teeth), the utilizes using the most water are toilets, baths, and showers.

These abuses go beyond individual consumers and transition into corporations and industries. Hands down, agriculture uses the most water, which consumes 69% of global freshwater. Next, industrial applications such as manufacturing, processing, and energy use the largest amounts of water. Often, water conservation is not discussed in the same breath as energy conservation, but it is an important topic as energy production uses a lot of water. Currently, the world's largest energy production is from fossil fuels, accounting for approximately 87%. While there are many conservation issues with fossil fuels, these energy producing options consume large amounts of water every one-megawatt-hour of electricity needing 687 gallons for coal, 198 gallons for natural gas compared to 0 gallons for wind, and 26 gallons for solar thermal with dry cooling and solar photovoltaic.


Wastewater is a big concern, as it is often returned to the rivers, lakes, and wetlands with little to not treatment. Worldwide, it is estimated that 80% of the wastewater is not collected or treated. In developing countries, it is estimated that 70% of untreated industrial waste is dumped in to the waterways, which is also a large portion of peoples water supply. This direct passage to waterways often can led to poor water quality through elevated temperatures, and the introduction of toxins, nutrients, and other undesirable rubbish or other matter that fish consume and can cause human health conditions. In fact, water related diseases are the leading cause of worldwide deaths, and are estimated at 3.4 million per year.  While much of this water could be recycled to meet drinking water standards, or non-drinking standards that can be reserved for applications like irrigation, fire-fighting, etc., less than 1% of the world’s water is recycled.

Looking at the average daily consumption rates across the world (2006) ranges from near single digits to over 525 liters per person per day( Obviously, the countries that are the highest offenders are typically the more developed countries, with U.S., Austrial, and Italy being the highest consumers, and Rwanda, Uganda, and Mozambique consuming the least. This data highlights the gross overuse of water throughout the world. While it is difficult to measure average unnecessary waste (e.g. leaving the sink on while you brush your teeth), the utilities using the most water are toilets, baths, and showers. Often, these fixtures' seals begin to degrade overtime, and evenutually waste several gallons of water every day. An average household leak can accumulate to 10,000 gallons a year, but upgrades can be simple and fast. 

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