What is the percentage of Earth’s surface water that is drinkable?

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By Kristy Tolley

The Importance of Drinkable Water

Water is an essential resource for human survival and it is crucial that we have access to clean and safe drinking water. However, not all water sources are suitable for human consumption. The percentage of Earth’s surface water that is drinkable is a significant concern, particularly as the world population continues to grow and climate change threatens water availability. In this article, we will explore the different types of surface water, what makes water drinkable, and the challenges of accessing safe drinking water.

Surface Water vs. Groundwater

Surface water and groundwater are the two main sources of freshwater on Earth. Surface water refers to freshwater found above ground in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, while groundwater is found underground in aquifers. Surface water is more visible and accessible compared to groundwater, which requires drilling and pumping to access. However, surface water is more vulnerable to contamination and pollution, whereas groundwater is naturally filtered by layers of rock and soil.

What is Surface Water?

Surface water is freshwater found on the Earth’s surface, including lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. It is replenished through rainfall and snowmelt, and it plays a crucial role in maintaining the Earth’s ecosystem, supporting biodiversity, and providing water for agriculture and human consumption. Surface water is also used for recreational activities such as swimming, boating, and fishing.

The Distribution of Surface Water

Surface water is unevenly distributed around the world, with some regions having abundant water resources while others suffer from water scarcity. Regions with high levels of precipitation, such as the Amazon basin and Southeast Asia, have high surface water availability, while arid regions like the Sahara Desert and Australia’s Outback have very little surface water. The distribution of surface water is also influenced by topography, soil types, vegetation, and human activities.

The Different Types of Surface Water

There are several types of surface water, including lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. Lakes are large bodies of water surrounded by land and are fed by rivers or groundwater. Rivers are natural watercourses that flow from higher elevations to lower elevations and eventually empty into the ocean or a lake. Wetlands are areas where the land is saturated with water, promoting the growth of plants that are adapted to wet conditions. Reservoirs are man-made structures that store water for various purposes, including irrigation, hydroelectric power, and drinking water.

What Makes Surface Water Drinkable?

Surface water must meet certain criteria to be considered safe for human consumption. The water must be free from harmful contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, chemicals, and heavy metals. It should also be clear, odorless, and tasteless. To make water drinkable, it must be treated through a process of filtration, disinfection, and sometimes, chemical treatment. The quality of water can also be enhanced through natural processes such as wetland restoration and reforestation.

Human Impact on Surface Water Quality

Human activities have a significant impact on surface water quality. Pollution from agricultural activities, industrial discharge, and wastewater treatment plants can contaminate surface water, making it unsafe for human consumption. Climate change is also affecting surface water quality by altering precipitation patterns and causing more frequent and severe droughts and floods.

The Percentage of Drinkable Surface Water

Of all the surface water on Earth, only a small percentage is suitable for human consumption. According to the United Nations, only 2.5% of the world’s water is freshwater, and of that, less than 1% is accessible for human use. Furthermore, not all freshwater sources are drinkable, with much of it being locked up in ice caps and glaciers or being too saline for human consumption.

The Challenges of Accessing Drinkable Water

Access to safe drinking water is a significant challenge in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries. Lack of infrastructure, insufficient resources, and political instability are major barriers to providing safe drinking water to populations in need. Climate change is also exacerbating water scarcity, particularly in regions that depend on surface water for agriculture and human consumption.

The Future of Earth’s Surface Water

The future of Earth’s surface water depends on sustainable water management practices. This includes protecting and restoring natural water sources, reducing pollution and wastage, and investing in water infrastructure and technology. It also requires a coordinated effort from governments, businesses, and individuals to ensure that water resources are managed in an equitable and sustainable way.

Conclusion: The Need for Sustainable Water Management

Access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right, and it is essential that we work together to ensure that this right is realized for all people. Sustainable water management practices are necessary to protect and conserve Earth’s surface water resources for future generations. By working together, we can ensure that the percentage of Earth’s surface water that is drinkable increases, and that all people have access to safe and clean drinking water.

References and Further Reading

  • United Nations. (2019). Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/
  • World Health Organization. (2019). Water sanitation and hygiene. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/water-quality/en/
  • National Geographic. (2021). Surface Water. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/surface-water/
  • Environmental Protection Agency. (2021). Surface Water. Retrieved from
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Kristy Tolley

Kristy Tolley, an accomplished editor at TravelAsker, boasts a rich background in travel content creation. Before TravelAsker, she led editorial efforts at Red Ventures Puerto Rico, shaping content for Platea English. Kristy's extensive two-decade career spans writing and editing travel topics, from destinations to road trips. Her passion for travel and storytelling inspire readers to embark on their own journeys.

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