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Navigating water stress: Global challenges and resilient solutions

Thursday, 31 August 2023

New data has found that 25 countries globally face extreme water stress each year regularly using up almost their entire available water supply. Aquatech takes a closer look at the findings of the World Research Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas.

The world’s water stress landscape

WRI’s research has unveiled a comprehensive understanding of the world's water stress landscape. The analysis spotlights 25 countries, encompassing a quarter of the global population, that are grappling with various degrees of water stress. These nations, including Bahrain, Cyprus, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Oman, are consistently using around 80 per cent of their annual water supplies.

The report also underscores global escalation in water demand and the data reveals that since 1960, water demand has surged two-fold. Remarkably, while regions such as Europe and the United States have attained a state of equilibrium in water demand, the trajectory is distinctly ascending for Africa. Pioneers of water project a potential surge of 20 to 25 per cent in global water demand by 2050.


Variations in stress and exposure

The research casts a spotlight on nations that are under varying levels of water stress. Saudi Arabia, Chile, San Marino, Belgium, and Greece are among the 25 countries facing notable water stress. In terms of the most stressed nations, Bahrain, Cyprus, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Oman find themselves at the forefront of this challenge. These countries are navigating the delicate balance between supply and demand, a crucial factor that influences their water stress levels.

Like many other water-scarce countries, Oman, for example, heavily relies on desalination as a primary source of freshwater. Groundwater is also a vital resource in the country. The government has implemented regulations to manage and control groundwater extraction, preventing overexploitation and ensuring the long-term sustainability of aquifers.

The government of Cyprus has invested in enhancing water infrastructure, including expanding the capacity of existing reservoirs, upgrading distribution networks, and investing in modern water treatment technologies. The country is also exploring innovative technologies and research initiatives to optimize water use and manage water resources more effectively. This includes exploring new desalination techniques, improving water storage methods, and utilizing advanced monitoring and data management systems.

Despite its relatively small size, Belgium has a high population density, which puts pressure on its water resources. Additionally, industrial processes and agricultural activities contribute to water demand. The country has adopted a multi-faceted approach that involves efficient water use, technological advancements, and sustainable management practices to tackle the issue.


Population growth and water stress

Half of the global population, around four billion people, experience extreme water stress for a limited period annually, the research points out. Looking ahead, projections suggest that by 2050, this figure could potentially rise to nearly 60 per cent.

Speaking to Aquatech Online, water expert Dr David Lloyd Owen, managing director of Envisager, an advisory service company, says: “Future water stress is not simply a function of population growth, it is also driven by per capita consumption. 

“If at some point between 2030 and 2050, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) which sets out to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, is actually met and urban household access to safe water becomes the norm, per capita consumption will also rise.”

The World Health Organisation defines basic access as at least 0.02 m3 per capita per day, adequate access as at least 0.05 m3 and a tap nearby and optimum access as at least 0.100 m3 with two or more taps inside each dwelling.

According to Owen, water stress at the country level tends to be “misleading”.

“Some of Ethiopia is indeed low water stressed, other parts are prone to extreme stress and drought. Australia includes both areas of great abundance and extreme aridity with many of its coastal cities and the Murray Darling River Basin (the main agricultural area) precariously between,” he tells Aquatech. 


Agriculture and water stress

The research brings to light the potential economic and agricultural consequences of escalating water stress. An estimated 31 per cent of global GDP, valued at approximately $70 trillion, could be exposed to high water stress by 2050. 

This marks a significant increase from the 24 per cent ($15 trillion) observed in 2010. Notably, India, Mexico, Egypt, and Turkey are expected to contribute more than half of this exposed GDP.

In the context of agriculture, an essential pillar of food security, 60 per cent of the world's irrigated agriculture grapples with extreme water stress. Crops like sugarcane, wheat, rice, and maize bear the brunt. To meet the needs of a projected 10 billion people by 2050, the world must navigate the intricate interplay of water stress and climate-induced challenges to ensure food security.

Charting the path to resilience

The report underlines that proactive measures can prevent water stress from escalating into a crisis. Real-world success stories, including Singapore and Las Vegas, highlight the power of adopting sustainable water management strategies. These strategies, encompassing desalination and wastewater treatment, can alleviate the impacts of water scarcity.

Collective efforts are vital. From embracing sustainable technologies to implementing integrated water resource management, governments, communities, and industries play a pivotal role in crafting a resilient water future. 

Owen agrees. “As the SDG6 process shows us, there are many countries which still need help in developing the management capacity not just to deliver SDG6 but to go beyond and secure their future water resilience,” he says. 

“Demand management is also crucial. This means minimising leaks, using smart metering to encourage efficient water consumption and developing more water efficient appliances.”

The future

In a world facing escalating water stress, the findings of the WRI Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas offer a sobering glimpse into the challenges ahead. With 25 countries, home to a significant portion of the global population, regularly utilising nearly all their available water supply, the urgency of sustainable water management cannot be overstated.

The data highlights the critical need for countries to adapt and innovate to meet rising water demands. From Bahrain to Cyprus, from Saudi Arabia to Oman, nations are grappling with the delicate balance of supply and demand. Desalination, groundwater management, and advanced water treatment technologies have emerged as essential tools in this battle.

Yet, amidst these challenges, opportunities for progress shine through. The success stories of Singapore and Las Vegas demonstrate the potential of resilient water management strategies. By embracing technology, enhancing infrastructure, and fostering international collaboration, the path to water security becomes clearer.

As we navigate towards 2050, when nearly 60 per cent of the global population could experience extreme water stress, the collective effort becomes crucial. Governments, industries, and communities must unite to conserve water, reduce wastage, and implement forward-thinking policies.