Water Consumption

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Freshwater is an essential for the sustainability of human life and as such is essential to the survival of all organisms.[1]

Fresh water consumption

Freshwater resources are have significant environmental and economic importance for the world. Their distribution varies widely among and within countries. In arid regions, freshwater resources at times may be limited to the degree that demand for water can only be reached by surpassing sustainable use in terms of quantity. Freshwater abstractions, especially for public water supplies, irrigation, industrial processes and cooling of electric power plants, exert a major pressure on water resources. They have significant implications for the quantity and quality of water resources. Principal concerns relate to the inefficient use of water and its environmental and socio-economic consequences: low river flows, water shortages, salinisation of freshwater bodies in coastal areas, human health problems, loss of wetlands, desertification and reduced food production.

Water Consumption Definition

Water consumption is defined as the freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources, either permanently or temporarily, and conveyed to the place of use. If the water is returned to a surface water source, abstraction of the same water by the downstream user is counted again in compiling total abstractions.
Mine water and drainage water are included. Water used for hydroelectricity generation is an in situ use and is excluded.[2]


It should be noted that definitions and estimation methods of water consumption employed by member countries may vary considerably and change over time. In general, data availability and quality is best for abstractions for public supply, representing about 15% of the total water abstracted in OECD countries.


Long-term trends

Most OECD countries increased their water consumption over the 1960s and 1970s in response to demand by the agricultural and energy sectors. Since the 1980s, some countries have stabilised their abstractions through more efficient irrigation techniques, the decline of water-intensive industries (e.g. mining, steel), increased use of cleaner production technologies and reduced losses in pipe networks. More recently, this stabilisation partly reflects consequences of droughts while population growth continues to drive increases in public supply.

Water consumption worldwide

At a world level, it is estimated that water demand rose by more than double that of the rate of population growth in the last century, with agriculture being the largest user of water[3]. Additionally, 15% of freshwater is used for energy supply, which jeopardizes the availability of water to ensure increased energy security[1]. Additionally, agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater where 60% is wasted due to inefficient farming practices and irrigation management systems[2].

According to the UN, baseline data in achieving the sustainable development goals, indicate that access to useable, clean water confront more than 2 billion people worldwide. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population is likely to experience threats of water shortages[2]. According to the 2016 Sustainable Development Goals Report released by the UN, over 90% of people worldwide use improved drinking water sources compared to the data on water sources during the Millennium Development Goals agenda in 2000 (see differences here), but not all sources are safely managed[1]. Water shortages not only mean less available drinking water, inadequate sanitation becomes a problem as well, which can create disease. Additionally many of the places that experience higher water scarcity also don’t typically have the resources to invest in safe and efficient wastewater reuse technologies. Inadequate sanitation facilities are still used by a third of the world’s population, and 946 million people don’t have access to facilities at all3. The 2030 Agenda (SDGs) has set targets for the integrated management of water resources in every region of every country. This includes actions aimed at halving the proportion of untreated wastewater, and emphasis in increasing the capacity and investments for increased recycling and safe reuse globally.


[1] United Nations (2016). The Sustainable Development Goals Report. New York. Print.

[2] WWF. “Water Scarcity” (n.d.). http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity


See also



  1. BBC Health
  2. [ http://stats.oecd.org/OECDStat_Metadata/ShowMetadata.ashx?Dataset=CSP2010&Coords=%5BSUB%5D.%5BWATER%5D&ShowOnWeb=true&Lang=en OECD.Stat]
  3. OECD. Environment, Air and Land. Water