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Water Scarcity and the Housing Market

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Mar 27, 2020

One of the things that differentiate our planet from virtually every other known world in our solar system and beyond is the abundance of water. We are known as the blue planet precisely because water makes up over two-thirds of Earth's surface. However, of the 1,386 billion km³ (333 million cubic miles) of water on our Earth, only 2.5 percent of that water is freshwater. And, of that fresh water, only 0.3 percent is in liquid form on the surface of the Earth.

Water is an essential element of life and civilization. Among the many challenges that our growing world population faces, water scarcity will affect many aspects of our lives. For the building industry, the shortage of freshwater resources drastically affects how and where homes are built. 

Below, we briefly explain the scope of the coming water scarcity crisis, and we look at how it could potentially affect the housing market and building industry. Then, we explain steps homeowners can take to increase their resiliency in the face of future water shortages.

Theewaterskloof Dam, Capetown, South Africa
Theewaterskloof Dam, Capetown, South Africa

What Is Water Scarcity? 

From mid-2017 to mid-2018, extended droughts in southern Africa led to the Cape Town water crisis. With a population of over half a million people and a much larger metropolitan area, the city of Cape Town relies almost exclusively on water from nearby dams. During the extended drought that was caused in part by climate change, the water levels in reservoirs reduced to about 15 percent of total capacity. Fears that the city might have to "shut off" its water supplies and force residents to queue for daily water rations led to massive restrictions on water usage. These water use restrictions enabled the city to cut its total water usage in half. This halving of water use helped them to avoid "Day Zero" when municipal water systems would become dysfunctional.

Though the Cape Town water crisis thankfully never reached the "Day Zero," it offers a useful example of how changing weather patterns, increased urbanization, and other demographic changes are leading to severe water scarcity issues around the world.

Water scarcity is defined as the lack of sufficient freshwater resources that are available to meet the demands of water use within a given city or region. Around the world, over 2.8 billion people are affected by water scarcity crisis for at least one month each year. Similarly, over 1.2 billion people have limited or no access to clean drinking water, which is essential for healthy lives.

On a technical level, water scarcity can be divided into different levels of urgency, known progressively as:

  • Water stress
  • Water shortages
  • Water deficits, and
  • Water crises. 

For example, if your local, municipal water company sends out flyers asking homeowners to stop watering their lawns or wash their cars, it is probably due to local water stress. If local or state governments impose mandatory water rationing, this is most likely because of more severe water crises.


What Are the Main Causes of Water Scarcity? 

Water scarcity is occurring more regularly worldwide due to several different causes. The United Nations links global climate change, extended droughts, and exacerbated water scarcity in certain regions. Changing weather patterns often leads to different precipitation cycles. 

Many areas around the country and the globe used to rely on stable climates. Extended droughts followed by more intense storms, monsoons, and downpours are becoming more common.

Another cause of water scarcity is related to the changes in demographics. Not only is our world population growing, but increased urbanization is leading to challenges with water procurement. Past centuries' decentralized, primarily rural communities most likely settled in areas with reliable, local water resources. Today, however, the over 2.6 million people in Las Vegas (and growing by around 3 percent each year) require water pumped into the city, frequently from hundreds of miles away. In the United States, water-scarce regions in the western part of the United States expect population growth. Nevada and Arizona are expecting more than 100 percent growth, with Texas witnessing an increase of 60 percent. 

As the aging Baby Boomer generation retires to sunny, warm areas, population growth in dry areas will further expand water scarcity. Water shortages will continue to occur because of wasteful agricultural and residential uses. The Ogallala Aquifer is a massive underground reservoir of water underneath the Midwest region of the United States. Due to excessive pumping of this aquifer for agricultural and residential water use, the Ogallala Aquifer has been dropping at record levels. 

No matter where they live, homeowners can do their part to limit water demand by investing in water-smart irrigation technology for their lawns, dual flush toilets, low flow faucets and showerheads, and other water-saving technology for the home.

Hoover Dam on the Colorado River
Hoover Dam on the Colorado River

What States Are Impacted by Water Scarcity? 

In the United States, water scarcity is a problem that homeowners in every part of the country should take seriously. Recent studies have found that humans collectively withdraw about 4,000 cubic kilometers of water each year. That amount is equal to the amount of water in Lake Michigan, and water consumption continues to increase 1.6 percent each year. At this rate, and along with the threats from climate change, water crises could pop up in virtually any part of the world.

Currently, however, water scarcity and water shortages are most severe in the populous states of the western part of the United States. New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and parts of Colorado are the states most at risk for serious water scarcity problems in the coming years. In the southwestern part of the country, primary water sources are already starting to run dry. The Colorado River often does not make it to the sea in the dry season due to water demand. Similarly, Lake Mead, which supplies water to over 22 million people, might go dry as early as 2021.

Silver Lake Reservoir
Silver Lake Reservoir, LA. Photo Credit: Curbed LA

What Cities Are Affected by Water Scarcity?  

As cities continue to grow in size, supplying millions of people in concentrated areas with potable water presents an authentic challenge for city planners and politicians. Unfortunately, poor planning and aging infrastructure (think Flint, Michigan) mean that many cities across the United States are at risk of running out of water. The four cities most affected by water scarcity include:

  • El Paso, Texas: This growing city only gets 9 inches of rainfall each year. Its primary water source, the Rio Grande, is shared with Mexico and has recently experienced historic lows.
  • Phoenix, Arizona: This city is literally in the middle of a desert. Both the Colorado and the Salt Rivers suffer from water stress, and the town has limited other options should either of these rivers run dry.
  • Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles imports almost 90 percent of its water from a distance of more than 200 miles. The distance itself is a risk factor, and the dwindling supplies from the Colorado River and others present a real challenge to this city.
  • Miami, Florida: Miami is located in a tropical region that receives regular rainfall. However, rising sea levels due to climate change are causing the salty ocean water to creep into the city's aquifers, thus compromising water quality.
Rainwater Barrel by Good Ideas
Rainwater Barrel. Photo Credit: Good Ideas

How Can We Prevent Water Scarcity? 

Water shortages and water scarcity will continue to affect homeowners and the building and real estate industries. Dry and arid regions may see a decrease in home building, thus shifting the overall housing market. On the plus side, water scarcity is forcing homeowners, builders, and government authorities to come together to reduce water demand in residential and commercial buildings. Rainwater harvesting systems are growing at exponential rates in several areas around the country.

Individual municipalities and city governments around the country are implementing offset programs for water usage. There has been a lot of focus on carbon offsetting programs for energy use in home construction. However, programs could require builders to build towards net-zero demand for aggregate water resources. This would be an excellent strategy for reducing water demand and limiting the effects of water scarcity.

Rain Barrels Pheasant Hill Homes
Rain Barrels. Photo Credit: Pheasant Hill Homes

On an individual level, homeowners can increase their level of autonomy and resiliency through investing in rainwater harvesting systems and cisterns. Even if you live in an arid area, the amount of water you can harvest from your rooftop might be enough to supply your home with your annual water needs. You can use this online tool to calculate how much rainwater you might be able to harvest based on the size of your roof and your annual rainfall.

Homeowners can invest in water-saving faucets, showerheads, toilets, and appliances. Each person in the United States uses an average of 80 to 100 gallons of water each and every day. Cutting back on our usage of water is essential to avoid water scarcity.

Xeriscaping in Toronto. Photo Credit: Janet Rosenburg & Studio

Another primary source of our collective water demand is for our lawns and residential landscapes. If you must water your lawn, consider investing in drip irrigation technology or other water-saving irrigators. Even better, consider using native species as part of a xeriscaping strategy. Xeriscaping aims to eliminate any irrigation needs for your landscape. This will attract native bees and other wildlife, and add a unique aesthetic touch to your home.

Water scarcity and water shortages will most likely continue to affect certain areas of the country in the coming years and decades. Instead of instilling fear and worry, these crises can serve as a catalyst to help us design and inhabit more water-smart homes.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2022-01-19T02:58:37+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.