06.08.2019 |

Quarter of the world’s population faces extremely high water stress

Many countries face water stress (Photo: CC0)

Countries across the globe, which are home to a quarter of the world’s population, are currently at severe risk of running out of water. According to new data published by the global environmental think tank “World Resources Institute”, 17 countries worldwide are facing “extremely high” water stress, meaning that they are using nearly all the water available. In those countries, irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of available surface and groundwater in an average year. Another 44 countries, home to one-third of the world’s population, face “high” levels of stress, where on average more than 40% of available supply is used every year. “Water stress is the biggest crisis no one is talking about. Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability,” said Dr. Andrew Steer, President and CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI). When demand rivals supply, even small dry shocks – which are set to increase due to climate change – can produce dire consequences.

WRI’s updated Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas ranks water stress, drought risk and riverine flood risk across 189 countries and their sub-national regions, using open-source, peer reviewed data. The researchers found that water withdrawals globally have more than doubled since the 1960s due to growing demand. The hot spots for water risk are concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, home to 12 of the 17 countries facing “extremely high” stress. The region is hot and dry, so water supply has always been low, but increasing demand pushed countries further into extreme stress, WRI warns. Climate change is set to complicate matters further. The World Bank says that this region has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050. Qatar, Israel and Lebanon rank in the top 3 on the list of “extremely highly” water stressed countries, followed by Iran and Jordan. India, ranked 13th on the list, has more than three times the population of the other 16 countries in this category combined. Northern India faces severe groundwater depletion. “The recent water crisis in Chennai gained global attention, but various areas in India are experiencing chronic water stress as well,” said Shashi Shekhar, former Secretary of India’s Ministry of Water Resources. But even in countries with low overall water stress, communities may still be experiencing extremely stressed conditions. South Africa, for example, ranks 48th on the list, yet the Western Cape experiences extremely high stress levels. In 2018, Cape Town was on the brink of running out of water and the government announced “day zero” – the day when all dams in the city would be dry.

However, there are also many opportunities to boost water security. The World Resources Institute highlights three ways to reduce water stress. The first is to increase agricultural efficiency: “The world needs to make every drop of water go further in its food systems. Farmers can use seeds that require less water and improve their irrigation techniques by using precision watering rather than flooding their fields.” And consumers can save water by reducing food loss and waste, which uses one-quarter of all agricultural water. Second, WRI calls for more investment in grey and green infrastructure. Their research shows that built infrastructure (like pipes and treatment plants) and green infrastructure (like wetlands and healthy watersheds) can work in tandem to tackle issues of both water supply and water quality. Third, WRI recommends treating and reusing wastewater. In the MENA region, for example, about 82% of the region’s wastewater is not reused; harnessing this resource would generate a new source of clean water. “A new generation of solutions is emerging, but nowhere near fast enough. Failure to act will be massively expensive in human lives and livelihoods,” Dr. Steer added. There are undeniably worrying trends in water, he said. But by taking action now and investing in better management, we can solve water issues for the good of people, economies and the planet. (ab)

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