How Water Gets Where It's Needed — If It Does

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Water for more.

Going into our bathrooms or kitchens, turning on the tap, and having a stream of clean, safe water come rushing out is a simple action that most of us take for granted. But this is a luxury that much of the world doesn't share. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2015 there were approximately 663 million people worldwide with no access to improved and sanitary drinking water, and only 58 percent of the world's population has the convenience of clean water through a piped supply. That means water for drinking, but also for sanitation, agriculture, and food production.

Those of us who do have ready access to good water get it from a complex series of underground pipes that bring it into our houses and workplaces from various sources, often far away. In New York City, famous for the pleasant flavor of its tap water, water is sourced from a network of 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes in a 1,972-square-mile watershed that extends northwest of the city. The system has a storage capacity of 550 billion gallons. Water flows from these various sources into two main reservoirs near the city, 95 percent of it by gravity, through three aqueducts, the oldest of which was built in 1890. Two water tunnels (a third is under construction) bring water into the city and its network of pipes. In Los Angeles, water comes from the Colorado River, from groundwater, and from the Owens River, Mono Lake Basin, and other sources in the eastern Sierras. A 223-mile-long aqueduct shuttles it to the metropolitan area. (The city of Los Angeles and farmers in the Sierras waged what has been called the California Water Wars in the early decades of the 20th century; the film Chinatown revolved around a fictionalized version of the conflict.) Most cities and towns have water towers designed to store a day's worth of water (typically around a million gallons) for the local citizenry.

That's fine for most of us. But there are 750 million people in the world without regular access to clean water sources, 345 million of those in the continent of Africa, according to According to Rosemary Gudelj, senior manager of public affairs at, water insecurity can be attributed to many different causes. "One we deal with regularly in India," she tells us, "is the inability to hook into the community water supply. We have millions of people living in 'unofficial settlements' with city piping running right by their homes, and yet they stand in queue for hours to get water once a week, or pay exorbitant prices to water vendors."

In many communities in need, water can be drawn from underground wells, or directed through a system of man-made dams and canals. When these are constructed in rural communities, however, they often disturb agricultural systems. Also, digging wells or other underground water storage systems for catching rainfall are skilled jobs that require training resources, says Steve Fleischli, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) water program director. And wells, dams, and canals aren't much use in desert communities, like the arid Thar Desert on the border between India and Pakistan. In many of these dryer communities, water must be flown or trucked in a few times a week to centrally located communal distribution facilities.[pullquote:left]

Water experts emphasize that water distribution is a global problem, and, contrary to media portrayal, water insecurity does not only exist in poor African or Asian communities. The thirstiest areas of the world include sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and much of the Middle East, where rapidly changing and developing countries combine with frequent political turmoil. As a result, issues like thirst and agricultural shortages are pushed aside, says Dr. Zafar Adeel, director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. But there are many rural parts of the United States with limited access to drinking and agricultural water. For instance, California has declared a state of emergency due to extreme droughts that persisted throughout 2014 and 2015. Areas without access to clean and safe water are usually poorer, rural communities that are not located near major urban areas.

Dr. Adeelhas worked abroad in areas in Africa and Asia, where clean water shortages are part of everyday life, and makes the point that these shortages affect more than just people's thirst. "There are close linkages to food and energy that are not very obvious to people," Adeel says. "When you throw away food, you are throwing away water. When you eat a kilogram of beef, a large part of it is water, and so on. Water is intricately linked to all of these problems of waste, over-consumption, and starvation."

If water distribution isn't as simple as putting homes on an interconnected water grid, how do we get water to where it's needed? Unfortunately, there's no blanket solution, especially when the world's fresh water supply is slowly dwindling as the global population increases. But the United Nations and World Health Organization are working on methods for reducing our agricultural water consumption (drip irrigation systems and dry farming); they're also making efforts to get water to where it's needed by building complex dam and irrigation systems and even shipping water to isolated rural communities.

"In the U.S., we have laws that provide for public process, but they don't always guarantee that those most in need are heard," says Steve Fleischli. "Of course, internationally, those issues are amplified, and voices without resources are not heard. But everyone has a right to water and our voices need to be heard."

Unfortunately, the problems don't stop when we find a way to distribute drinking water. Often, the water is contaminated with sewage, bacteria, or heavy metals, and needs to be purified before it can be safely consumed. According to, 3.4 million people die each year from water-related illnesses (that's almost the population of Los Angeles), and almost half of these victims are children under the age of five. Of course, water purifiers cost quite a bit of money, although local and international fundraising helps. So does education about proper hygiene and sanitary practices.

Dr. Adeel, who has worked abroad to provide personalized solutions for communities suffering from water scarcity, believes that creativity is needed to provide access to water. In small rural communities in Uganda, for instance, the United Nations set up kiosks where merchants can sell water cheaply through a pumping station, bringing down water transportation costs and boosting the local economy.

Water experts are also looking at ways to reduce the agricultural use of water.  In the future, says Fleischli, drip irrigation will become much more prominent. In drip irrigation, instead of flooding fields with water, just the right amount of water is applied to individual crops. Another solution, introduced in Pakistan, is inland aquaculture (or fish farming). This may seem counterintuitive for a region experiencing a water shortage, but, unlike plants, fish can thrive in stagnant water that's useless for crop agriculture.

 "Providing food and agricultural solutions in the international market is a way to reduce the stress on areas which might be facing water shortages," said Adeel. "There are no magic bullets that will work everywhere, and you have to analyze each situation to find a solution, or a combination of techniques, that will work."