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New data maps world’s most water-stressed regions

A quarter of the world’s population lives in water-stressed regions that are at risk of running out of water.

‘Day Zero’ – the day when taps run dry – has threatened large cities from Cape Town to Chennai in recent years, while Australian country towns across New South Wales and Queensland are facing the reality that their drinking water supplies might dry up.

Now, the World Resources Institute (WRI) has found 17 countries face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, with irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdrawing more than 80% of the available supply every year.

Meanwhile, one-third of the Earth’s inhabitants – spread across 44 countries – face high levels of water stress as more than 40% of the available supply is used per year.

Such small gaps between supply and demand mean even short dry spells, which are set to increase due to climate change, can have dire consequences for communities.

The Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas ranks water stress, drought risk and riverine flood risk across 189 countries, including Australia.

The WRI compiled the information using its Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, which ranks water stress, drought risk and riverine flood risk across 189 countries and their sub-national regions, like states and provinces.

To provide an indication of baseline water stress, it compared available surface and groundwater supplies to the amount withdrawn for domestic, industry, irrigation and livestock use. 

President and CEO of the WRI Dr Andrew Steer said 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,” Steer said.

“A new generation of solutions is emerging, but nowhere near fast enough. Failure to act will be massively expensive in human lives and livelihoods.”

Feeling the heat

Twelve of the 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa, with Qatar, Israel and Lebanon topping the list. 

According to the WRI, hot and dry conditions mean water supply in the region is low to begin with, but population growth has put more demand on existing resources.

Climate change is set to make this worse, with the World Bank finding the area has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, at about 6% to 14% of GDP by 2050.

Geopolitics also complicates things – some 60% of surface water resources in the region are transboundary, and all countries share at least one aquifer.

But it’s not all bad news. Just 18% of the area’s wastewater is currently reused, which means it is an untapped resource that could help boost water security. Oman is leading the way and already reuses 78% of the wastewater it collects.

Australia came in at 50th on the WRI’s list, with medium-high baseline water stress overall. But, as the data shows, pockets of extreme stress can exist even in countries with relatively low scores.

For example, while the US has low-medium stress on average, the state of New Mexico has extremely high stress levels, as does the Western Cape in South Africa, which is home to Cape Town.

“The populations in these two states rival those of entire nations on the list of most water-stressed countries,” the WRI said.

“While it’s helpful for policymakers to understand and take action on water stress at the national level, water is an inherently local issue.”

To find out more about water stress around the world, click here.