Different countries, cities and regions experience different levels of water stress, and some experience water scarcity.
In this guide, we look at the places that have the worst problems right now, and also what the forecast might be for the future.
It’s worth noting that the freshwater scarcity and stress of a city is one of the factors that contributes to how sustainable or green a city is.
Summary – Countries & Cities With The Worst Water Stress & Water Scarcity Problems
Water stress is a sliding scale – regions can have anywhere between very low to extreme levels of water stress
Water scarcity on the other hand refers to the point where high levels of water stress are reached, and there is essentially not enough renewable internal fresh water resources to meet demand (withdrawal rates) on those resources
As of 2020, around 17 countries in the world, containing roughly one quarter of the world’s population [1.7 billion people], are experiencing ‘extremely high’ levels of water stress (wri.org)
12 out of those 17 countries are found in The Middle East and North Africa, which are also the most water stressed regions on Earth (wri.org)
India is one of the major water stressed countries in the world
Around 44 countries, containing roughly one third of the world’s population, are experiencing ‘high’ levels of water stress (wri.org)
Several organisations provide ‘water stress level’ rankings where the water stress levels for every region of every country in the world can be seen.
It’s possible for water stress levels to differ significantly between different regions or States within one country. So, the average water stress of an entire country is not a reliable indicator of the stress within a specific region (i.e. it’s possible to have water stressed regions or States within a country that doesn’t have high levels of water stress on average/as an entire country)
Water stress or scarcity is expected to increase in some countries in the future, whilst it’s expected to decrease in others
Efficient use of water, managing population numbers, monitoring water intensive economic activities, and sustainable water management strategies at the government level are all some of the main solutions aimed at addressing water scarcity and stress.
A few other notes on water stress and scarcity:
It should be noted that there is a difference between potable fresh water for drinking, and non potable fresh water. Cities and countries can have secure drinking water resources, but may be facing non potable water stress and/or scarcity. So, this is something that needs to be clarified when dealing with water stress and scarcity
Something else that should be noted is that high levels of water stress and water scarcity aren’t always permanent – countries and cities can sometimes move to low water stress (and, away from water scarcity), when they undertake more sustainable fresh water management and strategy
What Is Water Stress, & What Is Water Scarcity?
Water stress refers to a set of water quantity related conditions that are slightly different than water scarcity.
For example, water stress is a sliding scale ranging from very high water stress (usually characterized by high demand for limited internal fresh water resources) to very low water stress (usually characterized by demand on water resources making up a very small share of the total fresh water resources available).
Water scarcity on the other hand only refers to situations of extremely high water stress, and can lead to water shortage events like the one seen in Cape Town in recent times.
Most Water Stressed Countries & Cities In The World
As of 2020, the top 50 most water stressed countries in the world (from 1 at the top, to 50 at the bottom of the list), according to WRI’s Aqueduct country rankings, are (higher values indicate more competition among users for available renewable water supplies in that country):
48. South Africa
See the full rankings for water stressed countries here (wri.org)
There’s also a set of 164 countries and an overall National Water Stress Rankings List, organised by different levels of water stress available here (wri.org)
According to Wikipedia.org:
Water stress is ever intensifying in regions such as China, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa, which contains the largest number of water stressed countries of any region with almost one fourth of the population living in a water stressed country.
The world’s most water stressed region is the Middle East with averages of 1,200 cubic metres of water per person.
In China, more than 538 million people are living in a water-stressed region.
Much of the water stressed population currently live in river basins where the usage of water resources greatly exceed the renewal of the water source.
Water Stress In The United States
On average, the United States has low to medium water stress, but it differs from state to state (wri.org).
There are some states in the US experiencing medium, high and extremely high water stress.
One forecast for the US in the future:
A study in the US from earlier this year, predicted that in just five decades, the central and southern Great Plains, the Southwest and central Rocky Mountain States, California, and areas in the South and the Midwest are likely to experience significant water shortages.
How Many People In The World Are Water Stressed?
More than one in every six people in the world is water stressed, meaning that they do not have sufficient access to potable [drinking] water.
Those that are water stressed make up 1.1 billion people in the world and are living in developing countries.
In 2006, about 700 million people in 43 countries were living below the 1,700 cubic metres of water per person, per year threshold.
Countries & Cities Experiencing Water Scarcity
Using the Criticality ratio (from Globalwaterforum.org): ‘… a country is said to be water scarce if annual withdrawals are between 20-40% of annual supply, and severely water scarce if they exceed 40%’.
There is a map available at this resource, which shows the regions in the different countries in the world that are experiencing different levels of water stress, and are withdrawing different amounts of their annual supply (wri.org)
There’s also another map here, which is WRI’s Aqueduct tool (wri.org)
As of 2020:
… around 17 countries in the world, containing roughly one quarter of the world’s population, are experiencing ‘extremely high’ levels of water stress
12 out of those 17 countries are found in The Middle East and North Africa, which are also the most water stressed regions on Earth
Around 44 countries, containing roughly one third of the world’s population, are experiencing ‘high’ levels of water stress
[Specifically with India -] ‘India ranks 13th for overall water stress and has more than three times the population of the other 17 extremely highly stressed countries combined [and their surface water and ground water resources are overdrawn for irrigation in agriculture]’
[Even though the United States and South Africa are countries with low water stress, they have pockets of the country experiencing extreme water stress – such as the Western Cape, and New Mexico. So, this shows that regions of countries can experience water stress differently than other parts.]
Some of the individual cities that have recently experienced water scarcity and different categories of water shortages are:
Cape Town, South Africa
How Many People In The World Currently Experience Water Scarcity?
… more than 1 billion people currently live in water-scarce regions [in the world]
One-third of the global population (2 billion people) live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least 1 month of the year
Half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round
Half of the world’s largest cities experience water scarcity
… a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year
32 countries are experiencing water stress of between 25 and 70 per cent; 22 countries are above 70 per cent and are considered to be seriously stressed; in 15 countries, this figure rises to above 100 per cent, and of these, four have water stress above 1,000 per cent.
The four countries are Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the demand for water is largely being met by desalination
– unwater.org (PDF report)
Trends In Water Stress Over The Last 20 Years
An analysis of trends in water stress for the past 20 years (1996–2016) shows that it has increased for most countries in the world.
In 26 countries, 15 of which are in Africa, water stress has more than doubled.
The likely reasons for these increases are increased economic activities, growing populations and improved ways to measure water usage, along with effects of climatic changes
On the other hand, water scarcity has decreased for 44 countries, half of which are in Europe.
Reducing water stress can be achieved by, for example, improving water-use efficiency and shifting economic activities to less water-consuming sectors.
– unwater.org (PDF report)
Countries & Cities Forecast To Experience High Water Stress Or Water Scarcity In The Future (Up To 2040)
Forecasting water stress and scarcity for the future is more of an estimate than a guarantee due to various factors.
According to WRI.org:
[climate models and socioeconomic scenarios] WRI scored and ranked future water stress in 167 countries—with water stress being a measure of competition and depletion of surface water …
… 33 countries face extremely high water stress in 2040
… Chile, Estonia, Namibia, and Botswana could face an especially significant increase in water stress by 2040
… Fourteen of the 33 likely most water stressed countries in 2040 are in the Middle East, including nine considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0: Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon
[Specific areas of the US and China] such as the southwestern U.S. and China’s Ningxia province, could see water stress increase by up to 40 to 70 percent
They list the top 33 water stressed countries by 2040 as (from 1 at the top to 33 at the bottom):
These cities are most likely to run out of water in the future (unless action is taken):
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Mexico City, Mexico
What Is The Future Trend For Water Scarcity & Water Stress?
Water Demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40% in 2030, if current trends continue [which could lead to stress and scarcity]
Scarcity can be expected to intensify with most forms of economic development, but, if correctly identified, many of its causes can be predicted, avoided or mitigated
How Many Total People Could Experience Water Stress In The Future?
Researchers at MIT say roughly half the world’s projected 9.7 billion people will live in water-stressed regions by 2050
How Many Total People Could Experience Water Scarcity In The Future?
… as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025
More Stats & Facts On Water Stress & Water Scarcity Around The World
See these resources:
Water Facts About Water Scarcity (UNwater.org)
Future Water Stats (seametrics.com)
Downloads/642-progress-on-level-of-water-stress-2018.pdf, ‘Progress On Level Of Water Stress’ (from unwater.org) [Has some good data on water stress levels across the different regions of the world]
20. Downloads/642-progress-on-level-of-water-stress-2018.pdf, ‘Progress On Level Of Water Stress’ (from unwater.org)