Water usage

Water usage differs greatly from country to country, depending on how developed a nation is. Other influencing factors include agriculture and supply networks.

The global demand for water

The amount of water used in the world every day is very uneven. MEDCs use more water than LEDCs – households, farming and industry all demand water.

What is the water used for?

What the water is used for depends on the country. The pie charts below show the difference in water usage in four countries.

  • In general LEDCs (like Bangaldesh and Malawi) will have most of their water used in agriculture (farming) and little in industry or domestic use. Bangladesh has farming as a large part of its economy so a large percentage of their water is used for that purpose.
  • MEDCs (like the UK) have a more significant use of water for domestic reasons. MEDCs also tend to have a higher percentage for industrial use.
  • There are exceptions. The USA is an MEDC, but it still has a high amount of water used for agriculture because there is also lot of farming across the country.

The % share of total water usage:

Pie chart showing Bangladesh's water usage
Pie chart showing the UK's water usage
Pie chart showing the USA's water usage
Pie chart showing Malawi's water usage

The amount of water used

The amount of water used per person in each country changes dramatically. The bar chart shows the total amount of water used per person in selected countries.

Bar graph showing the difference in water use between MEDCs and LEDCs.

The graph shows that people in MEDCs use far more water than those in LEDCs

Why are there so many differences in the way water is used?

Agricultural irrigation

Agricultural irrigation in a soya bean plant field, Iowa, USA


  • In MEDCs irrigation is mechanised. Sprinklers or timed irrigation feeds are used. Where agriculture is common, vast amounts of water can be released at a touch of a button.
  • In LEDCs irrigation channels are prone to loosing water through evaporation.

Industrial use

Cow dung soap production, India

many women mixing ingredients to make cow dung soap in India.

  • Industries in MEDCs can be on a large scale, and so demand a lot of water. Corus Steelworks in South Wales is an example of an industry which needs a large water supply.
  • LEDCs have smaller scale cottage industries. They demand less water in the production of items. However as more multinational companies locate in LEDCs there will be more demand on water. For example in India Coca-Cola uses over a million litres of water a day to produce drinks.

Domestic water use

  • In MEDCs there are a lot of facilities which demand water use. For example showers, baths, washing machines and swimming pools.
  • In LEDCs many people do not have access to piped water and so use it more sparingly. Water may be brought to the home from a well or stream.

As a country becomes more wealthy, there will be an increase in its demand for water. Higher levels of industrialisation and more domestic goods such as washing machines all lead to an increase in demand for water. With greater wealth there is also more demand for spas, golf courses and even baths and showers.

Management of water usage in MEDCs

There are problems in supplying water in MEDCs. These are:

  • the quality of available water
  • distribution
  • the seasonal changes in supply
  • broken pipes when transporting water

Both water supply and the demand for water need to be managed.

Managing water supply

In the UK there is a big issue with water supply. Areas which receive high amounts of rainfall tend to be sparsely populated.

One third of the UK population live in South East England. This is also the driest area in the UK.

Ways to manage the water supply include:

  • making sure the broken pipes are mended (as water loss from broken pipes can be as much as 30 per cent)
  • using reservoirs and dams in one area to pipe water into large urban areas
  • making sure that the water supply is of good quality – reducing fertiliser use on farms helps this

In December 2010 over 40,000 people had water supply problems in Northern Ireland. One reason was because the water pipes were quite old – some over 60 years old. This meant that when there was a spell of very cold weather, many pipes could not cope and the pipelines failed.

Managing water demand

The demand for domestic water can be monitored. Households with water meters in the UK use less water in general than those without. Households can also conserve water. Ways to do this are:

  • having a shower not a bath
  • collecting rainwater to use on the garden rather than tap water
  • recycling bath water to flush the toilets with
  • installing more efficient versions of appliances such as washing machines

Industries can also look to recycle waste water. For example, when using water for cooling in steel-making, the water can be recycled again and again in the process.

In agriculture, drip-feed irrigation systems could be used rather than sprinkler systems.

Case study: management of water usage in MEDCs

Elan Valley Water Transfer Scheme

Much of Birmingham’s tap water comes from over 100 km away. There are five dams in the Elan Valley which can supply Birmingham with 160 million litres of water a day.

Craig Goch, Elan Valley

The Craig Goch Dam, Elan Valley.

Reasons for choosing the Elan valley location

  • Deep narrow valleys to hold the water in.
  • Impermeable rock means the water wouldn’t leak away.
  • A high annual rainfall of 1830 mm.
  • The area is higher than Birmingham, so the water can flow using gravity rather than pumps.
Pen-Y-Garreg reservoir, Elan Valley

Pen-Y-Garreg reservoir, Elan Valley

Future expansion of the scheme raises problems. The local environment would be damaged. There would be increased traffic and noise from the construction of dams to provide extra capacity. The river flow downstream would be affected, along with the wildlife. Also more land would be affected when pipes are run across it.

Management of water usage in LEDCs

There are problems in supplying water in LEDCs. These are:

  • lack of availability of clean water
  • diseases spread via the water supply
  • water pollution

Managing water resources

One in eight people of the world population do not have access to safe water. Sixty million children are born each year in LEDCs who do not have access to safe water.

In LEDCs using appropriate technology is usually the best way to manage supply.

Women and children collecting drinking water from a manmade well

Women and children collecting drinking water from a manmade well in Senegal.

  • Wells, dug by hand, are a common way of accessing water – but the supply can be unreliable and sometimes the well itself can be a source of disease.
  • Gravity-fed schemes are used where there is a spring on a hillside. The water can be piped from the spring down to the villages.
  • Boreholes can require more equipment to dig, but can be dug quickly and usually safely. They require a hand or diesel pump to bring the water to the surface.

In addition to locating new sources of water, some strategies help to reduce the need for water. These include:

  • harvesting (collecting) rainwater landing on buildings
  • recycling waste water to use on crops
  • improving irrigation techniques
  • growing crops less dependant on a high water supply
  • minimising evaporation of water

As LEDC cities grow, so does the demand for water. The problem doesn’t end when water supplies have been improved and pipes put in place. The water has got to come from somewhere, and the source of supply may be scarce. It is LEDCs which have the lowest access to safe water as the map below shows:

Graph showing the percentage of world popluations that have access to safe water

Many countries in Africa and the Far East have a below average population size that have access to safe water.

Managing safe water

Without safe water people cannot lead healthy and productive lives. Areas which are in poverty are likely to remain in that way. One example where non-governmental charities have helped break this cycle is in Nigeria.

In Nigeria only 38 per cent of people have access to sanitation. A community led total sanitation project (CLTS) was started by one non-governmental charity. In one year, the project helped 2.5 million people gain access to sanitation. Areas with poor infrastructure, high rates of illness and poverty were identified, and the charity worked with the local population in these areas. The teams worked with the people and educated them as to how poor hygiene and sanitation can make people ill. This included how it can also make others in the community ill. Toilets were built using local, affordable materials. Key people in the community led the work.

Case study: management of water usage in LEDCs

The Marunda project

Woman in a market in Jakarta

Woman in a market in Jakarta

Jakarta in Indonesia has a rapidly growing population and water companies do not have the resources to supply reliable and safe water to everyone. This means that a large proportion of the population are drinking contaminated water and are vulnerable to disease. In addition, salt water is also contaminating groundwater, which is making the problem worse. This is a particular problem in shantytowns such as Marunda.

Like most shantytowns, Marunda lacks basic services such as water supply, sanitation and electricity. People there have a poor standard of living and a low quality of life. Conditions are crowded and disease spreads easily, contributing to low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates.

In the past, people have relied on water from tankers or street sellers who charged high prices.

The solutions

The Jakarta city authorities tried to invest in basic services but there was a lack of funding. They then sought investment from abroad. In 1999, Thames Water began a £60,000 project to bring piped water to Marunda. The project involved local people from the early stages to ensure that their needs would be met appropriately and that the project was sustainable.

How successful was it?

Statue of Great General Sudirman in Jakarta

Statue of Great General Sudirman in Jakarta

By the year 2000, over 1600 homes in Marunda had piped water. Water can now be obtained more cheaply, allowing money to be spent on food, clothes and education which is vital for the country’s long-term prospects. There have also been health benefits because the risk of disease from contaminated water has been reduced.

This scheme was a success as it was sustainable and worked with the people to meet their needs. Not all schemes have been as successful as this one. The Pergau Dam in Malaysia, for example, was constructed in partnership with the British government with the aim of providing safe and reliable water and electricity. But it did not meet the needs of the poorest people and the scheme was an example of tied aid (this means that conditions were attached which did not benefit Malaysia’s population).


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