Freshwater Resources & Supplies On Earth

We’ve already put together a guide about all the water on Earth (i.e. saltwater and the various other types of water).

However, the guide below is specifically about fresh water resources and supplies on Earth.

We outline things such as where they are located, how we use them, and other important considerations.

 

Summary – Freshwater Resources, Supply & Usage Around The World

The Earth’s Water Resources – Saltwater & Freshwater

Earth contains both saltwater and freshwater resources

We’ve already put together a guide outlining the entirety of the Earth’s water resources.

 

Main Natural Sources Of Freshwater On Earth

Surface water and ground water are the two main natural sources of freshwater on Earth that we withdraw from for use in society

 

Other Sources Of Freshwater

There’s a number of other sources of freshwater on Earth, with man made sources, and also methods for augmenting freshwater supplies also used

We link to guides that talk further about these man made sources and augmentation methods in the guide below

 

Geographic Distribution Of Freshwater Resources On Earth

Freshwater resources are distributed unequally amongst the different countries and regions on Earth – some have much more than others

 

Countries With The Most Freshwater Resources – Total Volume

Brazil has the most internal freshwater resources by volume, followed by Russia, and then the US

And, the top 6 countries may have up to 50% of the world’s freshwater resources

 

Countries With The Most Freshwater Resources – Per Capita

Greenland has the most renewable internal freshwater resources per capita, followed by Iceland, and then Guyana

 

Largest Sources Of Surface Water In The World

Various reports indicate that the largest surface water sources in the world are Lake Baikal in Russia, the North American Great Lakes, and the African Great Lakes (in different African countries).

 

Countries That Withdraw The Most Freshwater Resources – By Volume

The country that withdrew the most freshwater by volume in 2014 was India, followed by China, and then the US

 

Countries & Regions That Withdraw The Most Freshwater Resources – Per Capita

In 2010, Iceland withdrew the most freshwater per capita, following by Turkmenistan and then Chile

By region, South America withdraws the most renewable freshwater, followed by Oceania, and then Eastern Europe

 

Industries/Sectors That Withdraw The Most Water

The main sectors responsible for fresh water withdrawals globally are agriculture, industry, and municipal.

Globally, on average, the breakdown is agriculture (with irrigation playing a significant role) at 70%, industry (particularly wet cooling in thermo electric power plants) at 19%, and municipal (household and public services) at 11%.

But, water share across the three sectors differs between individual countries, and developed vs developing, and high vs low income countries.

Lower income countries tend to use more fresh water for agriculture in general according to ourworldindata.org

 

Sectors That May Use The Most Water In The Future

Agriculture may continue to have the highest withdrawal and consumption rates of all industries in the future

 

Water Withdrawn vs Water Consumed

We outline the difference between water withdrawn and water consumed when it comes to water use in the guide below

In short, withdrawal can include returning water back after use to it’s source such as a river or lake, whilst consumption includes water that is used and isn’t returned back to the source

 

Recent Freshwater Use Trends

In terms of trends with freshwater use – rates of global freshwater use have increase six fold since the year 1900, and increased sharply from the 1950s onwards, but since 2000 slowed somewhat (up to 2019 at least)

 

Per Capita Freshwater Resources

Due to factors like replenishment slowing, per capita renewable fresh water resources have declined recently across some major countries 

Brazil, the US and China might be some examples

India might be another example of a country that fits this description – extracting a lot of water for irrigation for agriculture. 

 

Future Freshwater Demand Forecasts

Global freshwater demand appears to be increasing each year for a range of reasons

Additionally, both the agricultural (for irrigation mainly) and energy industries are forecast to increase water use in the future too

As populations grow, more countries become developed, and demand grows for water intensive products like fossil fuels and meats, as well as energy generation and biofuels, water in general will be in more demand

 

Will We Have Enough Freshwater In The Future?

This guide summarises some factors that may impact whether we will have enough fresh water resources in the future.

 

Water Stress & Water Scarcity

Some cities experiencing water stress or water scarcity problems augment their fresh water supply with technology such as desalination or waste water recycling

Dry and warm regions with low or variable annual rainfall levels, and higher surface temperatures, tend to be some of the more water scarce regions in the world.

This is generally because rainfall and the hydrological cycle (rainfall, evaporation, inflow into surface water sources such as rivers and lakes and eventually into ground water aquifers) tends to be the natural process that refills and renews fresh water resources

 

Factors That Can Impact Freshwater Resources & Supplies

Read more about global fresh water problems and their associated factors in this guide.

 

All Water On Earth – Salt Water vs Fresh Water vs Drinking Water 

We’ve already put together a guide outlining the entirety of the Earth’s water resources.

It’s worth noting that most of the water on Earth is found in the Earth’s ocean.

Only a small % of all the Earth’s water – about 2% or 3% – is freshwater.

There’s even less accessible and available freshwater once water locked up in ice and snow is taken into account

Of this accessible and available freshwater, only a very small % is drinkable

Read the linked guide for a more thorough breakdown of the Earth’s water resources

 

The Main (Natural) Freshwater Sources

There’s two main types of natural fresh water resources on the Earth’s surface:

1. Surface Water

Water found in lakes, rivers, dams (dams are technically man made) and above ground sources

Surface water tends to be more renewable (from the natural hydrologic cycle) and recharges at a much quicker rates compared to ground water.

This is because surface water sources and natural catchments (that filter into surface water sources) receive rain water inflow, and are renewed from rainfall that isn’t evaporated or transpired by plant life.

 

2. Ground Water

Water found in below ground aquifers.

Ground water tends to recharge at much slower and sometimes negligible rates on the human time scale – it can take 5 years or longer to see meaningful changes in some ground water sources.

Ground water can suffer from ground water depletion from over withdrawing, and, some ground water can also be brackish/saline and may or may not be able to be treated and used (so, quality of the water resource must be considered).

For these reasons, some ground water resources are referred to as non renewable.

 

Other Sources Of Freshwater

As mentioned previously, freshwater is also found in other places on Earth other than surface water and ground water sources.

We’ve also written more about the different sources of fresh water in this guide, including man made freshwater source.

The fao.org resource also explains the different types of freshwater sources 

 

Augmenting fresh water supplies is also an option …

 

Augmenting Fresh Water Supplies

Populations can augment their natural water supplies with technology such as desalination, waste water and run off water recycling and re-use, ground water replenishment, and other methods.

On a smaller scale, technology like atmospheric water generators might be used to in some instances to produce fresh water and drinking water

Rainwater harvesting is also a method of making more fresh water available

 

Geographic Distribution Of The Earth’s Freshwater Resources

The Earth’s freshwater resources are distributed unequally geographically around the world

Different countries therefore have different volumes of freshwater resources 

 

*A Note About Internal vs Shared, Transboundary & External Water Sources

Internal fresh water sources that belong to a State or country should be differentiated from shared, or transboundary and external fresh water sources.

Shared, transboundary or external fresh water sources may be involved in water trade, and water import/export

 

Countries With The Most Fresh Water Resources – By Volume

Brazil has the most internal freshwater resources by volume, followed by Russia, and then the US

And, the top 6 countries may have up to 50% of the world’s freshwater resources

 

According to wikipedia.org, the countries with the most total internal freshwater resources, in kilometres cubed (km3), are:

1. Brazil – 8233

2. Russia – 4508

3. United States – 3069

[In order after the US is Canada at 2902, followed by China, Colombia, the European Union, Indonesia, Peru, India, Democratic Republic Of The Congo, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and then Nigeria]

Wikipedia.org shows an extended list of the top 172 countries here 

 

According to worldatlas.com: ‘The freshwater in Brazil accounts for approximately 12% of the world’s fresh water resources’

[worldatlas.com also describes where freshwater is found in each of these countries in their guide]

[For example, the Amazon region contains over 70% of the fresh water in Brazil, and Lake Baikal holds up to approximately 1/5 of fresh water in the world]

 

6 countries (Brazil, Russia, Canada, Indonesia, China and Colombia) have 50 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves (livescience.com)

 

Countries With The Most Fresh Water Resources – Per Capita

Greenland has the most renewable internal freshwater resources per capita, followed by Iceland, and then Guyana

 

According to FAO, AQUASTAT data, and via Indexmundi.com, renewable internal freshwater resources (internal river flows and groundwater from rainfall) per capita (in cubic metres person) worldwide are as follows:

1. Greenland – 10,662,190.00

2. Iceland – 519,264.70

3. Guyana – 315,695.80

[In order after Guyana is Surname at 180,680.70, followed by PNG, Bhutan, Gabon, Canada, Solomon Islands, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Congo, Liberia, Colombia, Belize, Vanuatu, Panama, and then Fiji]

 

Largest Sources Of Surface Water In The World

Various reports indicate that the largest surface water sources in the world are Lake Baikal in Russia, the North American Great Lakes, and the African Great Lakes (in different African countries).

 

From wikipedia.org:

[Of all the surface water in the world in lakes, swamps, and rivers, there is] 29% in the African Great Lakes, 22% in Lake Baikal in Russia, 21% in the North American Great Lakes, and 14% in other lakes. 

Swamps have most of the [remaining] balance with only a small amount in rivers, most notably the Amazon River

 

[Of all the surface water in the world …] The American Great Lakes account for 21 percent, Lake Baikal in Russia holds about 20 percent [and, then several African Lakes are some of the largest in the world for surface area, length, depth, volume, and other measurements, in addition to being some of the largest sources of surface water] (the71percent.org)

 

Largest Sources Of Groundwater In The World

The jpl.nasa.gov resource in the sources list at the bottom of this guide has a graphic/map that shows where the 37 largest ground water sources are located across the world.

They are spread out over many different countries.

 

Are Some Of These Groundwater Sources Depleting?

Interestingly, huffingtonpost.com.au writes this about the depletion of the world’s largest ground water sources:

Twenty-one of those aquifers have exceeded their sustainability “tipping points,” meaning they lose more water every year than is being naturally replenished through processes like rainfall or snow melt

Out of those 21, eight were found to be “overstressed,” meaning there is “nearly no natural replenishment” to restore water used by humans

 

So, the replenishment of these groundwater sources might become more an issue to address both now, and in the future.

 

Countries That Withdraw The Most Fresh Water (By Volume)

The country that withdrew the most freshwater by volume in 2014 was India, followed by China, and then the US

 

Per OurWorldInData.org, in 2014, the biggest users of freshwater by volume were:

India – over 760 billion cubic metres per year.

China – just over 600 billion m

United States – 480 to 490 billion m3

[After the US, Pakistan was next, followed by Indonesia]

 

Countries & Regions That Withdraw The Most Fresh Water (Per Capita)

In 2010, Iceland withdrew the most freshwater per capita, following by Turkmenistan and then Chile

By region, South America withdraws the most renewable freshwater, followed by Oceania, and then Eastern Europe

 

Freshwater Withdrawals Per Capita, By Country

Per OurWorldInData.org, in 2010, the biggest users of freshwater per person were:

Iceland – 11,042 cubic metres (per person, per year)

Turkmenistan – 5,753 cubic metres

Chile – 2152 cubic metres

 

Fresh Water Withdrawals Per Capita, By Region

Per OurWorldInData.org … Average per person, per year, renewable freshwater withdrawal rates by region are as follows (in cubic metres):

South America – 30,428

Oceania – 29,225

Eastern Europe – 21,383

[After Eastern Europe is North America at 12,537, followed by Central America and Caribbean, Western & Central Europe, and then Sub Saharan Africa]

 

Freshwater Withdrawals By Sector – Right Now

The main sectors responsible for fresh water withdrawals globally are agriculture, industry, and municipal.

However, different regions and countries across the the world withdraw fresh water resources in different amounts across each sector.

There can be differences for individual countries, but also developed and developing countries, as well as high and low income countries.

The general averages across the sectors though are (according to various sources):

– 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals for agriculture

– 19 percent of total water withdrawals are used for industrial purposes

– And, 11 percent of withdrawals are used for municipal purposes [and the] majority of countries use less than 30 percent of withdrawals for domestic purposes

 

Agriculture (& Irrigation)

Per OurWorldInData.org: 

[Water used in agriculture can be rain fed, or pumped irrigation]

[Water is used for] food crop, livestock, biofuels, or non crop production

[India is the largest user of agricultural water, and China is second for agricultural water withdrawals]

[The average agricultural water use for low-income countries is 90 percent; 79 percent for middle income and only 41 percent at high incomes]

… [Some countries like] Germany and the Netherlands use less than one percent of water withdrawals for agriculture

[Irrigation levels differ across the world, and irrigation is] particularly prevalent across South & East Asia and the Middle East; Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Korea all irrigate more than half of their agricultural area. India irrigates 35 percent of its agricultural area.

 

Per globalagriculture.org:

Irrigation provides approximately 40% of the world’s food, from an estimated 20% of agricultural land, or about 300 million hectares globally.

Almost half of the total area being irrigated worldwide is located in Pakistan, China and India, and covers 80%, 35% and 34% of the cultivated area respectively.

 

In the US, agriculture accounts for 38 percent of the nation’s freshwater withdrawals but it accounts for approximately 80 to 90 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use (water that is evaporated, or otherwise removed from the watershed) (watercalculator.org)

 

Industry

Per OurWorldInData.org: 

Industry water use involves industrial applications such as … dilution, steam generation, washing, and cooling of manufacturing equipment. [It also includes] cooling water for energy generation in fossil fuel and nuclear power plants (hydropower generation is not included in this category), or as wastewater from certain industrial processes.

The United States is the largest user of industrial water, withdrawing over 300 billion m³ per year. … [and] China is the second largest, at 140 billion m³

Rates are typically much lower across Sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of South Asia

… industrial water tends to dominate in high-income countries (with an average of 17 percent), and is small in low-income countries on average 2 percent.

 

Industry accounts for nearly 20% [of fresh water withdrawals] … and there are indications this demand will rise.

In advanced economies as much as 45% of all water demand is generated by industry.

– ge.com

 

In industrialized nations … industries consume more than half of the water available for human use.

Belgium, for example, uses 80% of the water available for industry.

– worldometers.info

 

Worldwide, high-income countries use 59 percent of their water for industrial use, while low-income countries use 8 percent (cdc.gov)

 

Municipal (Households & Public Services)

Per OurWorldInData.org: 

[Defined as water use] for domestic, household purposes or public services.

[Examples include water we use for] drinking, cleaning, washing, and cooking.

… China’s domestic water demands are highest at over 70 billion m³ per year [and] India … is the third largest municipal water user.

The United States, despite having a much lower population, is the second largest user as a result of higher per capita water demands.

Domestic uses of water withdrawals can also dominate in some countries across Europe with high rainfall …

 

Freshwater Withdrawals By Sector – Future Projections

Pacinst.org also has a graphic which shows both the global water withdrawal and water consumption volumes, by sector, by the year 2040.

Agriculture by far has the highest withdrawal and consumption rates.

 

Water Withdrawn vs Water Consumed – There’s A Difference

There’s a difference between water withdrawn vs water consumed when it comes to water use

This difference is important to know from a sustainability perspective

 

Sustainabilityreport.duke-energy.com defines water withdrawn vs water consumed as:

Water withdrawn is the total volume removed from a water source such as a lake or river. Often, a portion of this water is returned to the source and is available to be used again.

Water consumed is the amount of water removed for use and not returned to its source

 

Past Freshwater Usage & Withdrawal Trends

There are global averages for fresh water usage/withdrawal trends, and there’s also trends and stats for each individual country, State or province, or city or town.

In the last 50 years, freshwater withdrawals have tripled, and since the year 1900, global freshwater use has increased nearly six-fold, according to two different reports

 

From ourworldindata.org:

[Globally, there is a ‘fresh water withdrawals since the year 1900 graph available at ourworldindata.org]

A growing global population and economic shift towards more resource-intensive consumption patterns means global freshwater use … has increased nearly six-fold since 1900.

Rates of global freshwater use increased sharply from the 1950s onwards, but since 2000 appears to be plateauing, or at least slowing.

 

From worldometers.info: Freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years.

 

You can view a live global water use counter at worldometers.info

 

Per Capita Renewable Fresh Water Resources Are Declining Across Major Countries

Per capita renewable fresh water resources appear to be declining across some major countries

Brazil, the US and China are three examples

 

According to ourworldindata.org:

[… many major countries’ per capita renewable fresh water resources are declining as replenishment slows or isn’t moving quick enough, and populations grow]

[Brazil by far has the biggest per capita supply decrease from 1962 to 2014, with the US and China being examples of other countries with notable decreases] 

 

At worldometers.info, if you click through to India’s data for example, you can see a decrease in per capita renewable fresh water resources since 1962.

 

Forecast For Water Use In The Future

Global freshwater demand appears to be increasing each year for a range of reasons

Additionally, both the agricultural and energy industries are forecast to increase water use in the future too

 

Global Freshwater Demand In General

From worldometers.info:

Demand for freshwater is increasing by 64 billion cubic meters a year (1 cubic meter = 1,000 liters)

[Some of the reasons for these increases might be:]

The world’s population is growing by roughly 80 million people each year.

Changes in lifestyles and eating habits [are more water intensive]

The production of biofuels has … increased sharply in recent years [and it’s water intensive]

Energy demand is also accelerating, with corresponding implications for water demand.

 

Forecasted Agriculture Related Water Usage

– By 2050, the global water demand of agriculture is estimated to increase by a further 19% due to irrigation needs (globalagriculture.org)

– As the world’s population reaches 9 billion, demand will require a 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in … water withdrawals (worldbank.org)

 

Forecasted Energy Related Water Usage

By 2035, the world’s energy consumption will increase by 35 percent, which in turn will increase water use by 15 percent and consumption by 85 percent (worldbank.org)

 

Will We Have Enough Fresh Water In The Future? (To 2050 & Beyond)

This guide summarises some factors that may impact whether we will have enough fresh water resources in the future.

 

Variables & Factors That Can Affect Available Natural Freshwater Resources & Supplies

There’s three main global fresh water problems that can impact available fresh water resources supplies in an area – quantity related problems, quality related problems, and access related problems.

Each one of these categories of problems has different factors and variables to consider.

Read more about global fresh water problems in this guide.

 

 

Sources

1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Water Access, Resources & Sanitation”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/water-use-stress’ [Online Resource]

2. http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4473e/y4473e06.htm

3. Miaschi, John. “Which Country Has the Most Fresh Water?” WorldAtlas, Sept. 24, 2018, worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-most-freshwater-resources.html

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_total_renewable_water_resources

5. https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/ER.H2O.INTR.PC/rankings

6. http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4473e/y4473e08.htm#TopOfPage

7. https://web.archive.org/web/20150612123716/https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2201.html

8. http://www.worldometers.info/water/

9. https://www.ge.com/reports/global-thirst-water-use-industry/

10. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/industrial/index.html

11. https://pacinst.org/worlds-water-challenges-2017/

12. https://sustainabilityreport.duke-energy.com/2008/water/withdrawal.asp

13. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2014/01/16/will-water-constrain-our-energy-future

14. https://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/water.html

15. https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/foods-big-water-footprint/

16. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/will-we-have-enough-usable-water-in-the-future-what-will-happen-if-we-dont-have-enough-the-future-of-freshwater-for-humans-society/

17. https://www.livescience.com/29673-how-much-water-on-earth.html

18. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4626

19. https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/06/17/groundwater-depletion-nasa-study_n_7603292.html?ri18n=true

20. https://www.the71percent.org/the-worlds-fresh-water-sources/

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