Top 25 Countries Facing Extreme Water Stress


The World’s Growing Water Crisis: 25 Countries Facing Extreme Water Stress

Water is one of our most precious resources. Yet billions of people around the world face severe water stress, struggling to get the water they need for drinking, sanitation, agriculture and industry.

According to the World Resources Institute, 25 countries currently face “extremely high” levels of water stress. This means that more than 80% of the available water supply is withdrawn every year, leaving very little for ecosystems and future needs.

The crisis is only expected to get worse as populations grow and climate change disrupts weather patterns. Here is an in-depth look at the 25 countries facing the highest water stress and the mounting challenges they confront.

What is Water Stress?

Before diving into the most water-stressed countries, it helps to understand what water stress is and why it matters.

Water stress refers to the ability, or lack thereof, to meet human and ecological demand for water. It considers how much water is available relative to how much is withdrawn for human use.

Many factors determine water stress, including:

  • Water availability – The natural water supply in an area based on precipitation, groundwater, etc.
  • Water withdrawals – The total volume removed from water sources for human use. This includes water for agriculture, industry and municipalities.
  • Water demand – The desired or required water needs in a region to support human and ecological needs.

When water withdrawals significantly exceed availability, an area experiences water stress. The higher the demand and lower the supply, the worse the stress.

Water stress matters because it can lead to:

  • Water scarcity – When demand exceeds supply. Severe scarcity harms agriculture, economies, and human health and wellbeing.
  • Groundwater depletion – Excessive withdrawals from underground aquifers beyond recharge rates, leading to sinking water tables.
  • Conflict – Competition for scarce water can inflame political tensions and disputes.
  • Ecosystem collapse – Insufficient water for the environment wreaks ecological havoc. Rivers run dry, wetlands disappear, and species go extinct.
  • Food insecurity – Water shortages slash agricultural productivity, undermining food supplies and livelihoods.

Clearly, the effects of water stress are far-reaching and can become catastrophic. Next, let’s look at the places worldwide suffering from the highest levels.

The Top 25 Most Water-Stressed Countries

The World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Water Risk Atlas provides data and insights into water risks around the globe. Their overall Baseline Water Stress measures total annual water withdrawals relative to available supply.

According to WRI’s analysis, the following 25 countries face “extremely high” baseline water stress, meaning over 80% of available supply is withdrawn every year.

1. Qatar

Qatar faces the worst water stress globally, withdrawing over 97% of available water each year. The arid Middle Eastern country has low natural water availability yet very high per capita demand. Desalination plants provide much of its drinking water. Water stress poses risks to sustainability, especially as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

2. Israel

Israel withdraws over 89% of renewable supply every year. The semi-arid climate means most inhabited regions receive less than 400 mm of rain annually. Israel has taken extensive steps to boost supply and manage demand, including desalination, wastewater recycling and efficient irrigation. Population growth remains a challenge.

3. Lebanon

Lebanon extracts over 88% of available water. Droughts have worsened recently, with rainfall down over 50% in some years. The agriculture sector accounts for 60% of water use. Water scarcity poses economic, food security and public health risks. Political instability further complicates matters.

4. Jordan

Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries on Earth. It withdraws over 86% of available water each year. The arid climate sees high evaporation and erratic rainfall. Jordan relies on groundwater, which is being depleted. Recycled wastewater now provides 13% of supply. Better management is improving, but the refugee crisis places more strain.

5. Singapore

The tiny island nation of Singapore experiences water stress despite abundant rainfall. With limited land area, water catchment and storage are restricted. Singapore withdraws over 81% of annual supply, importing water from neighboring Malaysia as well. Technological advances like desalination and recycling help boost supply.

6. Bahrain

Bahrain’s extremely limited natural freshwater makes it highly dependent on desalinated seawater. The country uses over 77% of available renewable water. Further scarcity could threaten food imports and affect GDP growth. Bahrain aims to reduce demand and improve efficiency to address its water challenges.

7. India

India extracts the highest total volume globally, over 760 billion cubic meters per year. Water stress is severe in certain areas, with over 75% of supply withdrawn annually in the Northwest. This region includes Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana states, where droughts are common. India’s huge and growing population drives massive demand.

8. Pakistan

Pakistan uses over 70% of annual supply, mostly for irrigation to fuel agriculture. Droughts are frequent, including severe, multi-year droughts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Better water infrastructure could ease scarcity. However, financing and political challenges hamper progress on such projects.

9. Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan withdraws over 66% of water available. The arid climate provides just 104 mm of precipitation annually. Rivers depend on inflows from neighboring countries. For its municipal needs, the capital Ashgabat relies almost exclusively on groundwater. Turkmenistan must balance supply with rising agricultural demands.

10. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s hot desert climate means water is scarce. Over 65% of renewable supply is consumed each year, mostly for irrigating wheat and livestock feed. Groundwater deposits are being drained rapidly. Desalination now provides 70% of drinking water. More efficient use and management are needed to ensure long-term adequacy.

11. Marginal Small Island Developing States

Island countries like Maldives, Tokelau, Niue and others face extreme population density and limited natural supplies. There is immense competition for groundwater. Over-pumping of aquifers makes supplies vulnerable to seawater intrusion. Islands also risk droughts during El Niño events. Most rely on expensive desalination.

12. Libya

Libya withdraws over 65% of renewable water available. Groundwater in coastal regions has high salinity due to seawater intrusion. Libya has no permanent rivers, making it entirely dependent on groundwater replenishment. Droughts can slash yields of rainfed crops like wheat. Desalination could help ease pressures.

13. Kuwait

Kuwait satisfies nearly all water needs through desalination. Total usage surpasses 65% of available renewable water. Its sole freshwater source is the Al Batinah region. Vast oil wealth enables Kuwait to afford energy-intensive desalination. Still, reducing waste and improving efficiency are needed for long-term adequacy.

14. United Arab Emirates

The UAE withdraws high volumes from limited freshwater sources. Over 64% of available water is consumed annually. Groundwater reserves are being exhausted. The UAE relies heavily on desalination, which supplies 70% of domestic use. Reforms in irrigation and landscaping aim to reduce surging demand.

15. San Marino

The microstate of San Marino experiences similar conditions as nearby Italy. Rainfall is limited to certain months, and summer droughts common. San Marino depends heavily on groundwater. Total use surpasses 64% of renewable supply, and further growth could make demand unsustainable.

16. Bahamas

The Bahamas archipelago has minimal renewable water. It satisfies over 60% of its needs through seawater desalination. Groundwater resources are thin, and supplies are threatened by saltwater intrusion from rising seas. Recurring droughts underscore its vulnerability. Water supply adequacy is expected to decline further in coming decades.

17. Yemen

Yemen’s renewable water supplies are extremely limited. Over 60% are depleted annually, mostly for agriculture. Recurring droughts often lead to depleted reservoirs and groundwater. Water scarcity plays a huge role in Yemen’s dire humanitarian crisis. Improving efficiency could make supplies go further for essential needs.

18. Tunisia

Tunisia withdraws over 60% of annual renewable water. Per capita supply is under 450 m3, well below water poverty levels. Agriculture claims 80% of use. Tunisia relies on limited groundwater and desalination to supplement supply. Further infrastructure and efficiency gains are critical for adequate water in the future.

19. Bulgaria

Bulgaria taps around 60% of available water mainly for irrigation, municipal and industrial use. Droughts have reduced yields and hydropower output. Future supply may also be affected by retreating glaciers. Bulgaria will need to focus on modernizing infrastructure and increasing storage capacity.

20. Belarus

Belarus extracts over 58% of its renewable supply each year according to WRI data. Extensive wetlands provide bountiful groundwater. However, pollution from agricultural runoff threatens these resources. Belarus aims to improve water quality through pollution prevention and increased efficiency in industrial use.

21. Austria

Austria’s mountainous terrain produces ample runoff. However, seasonal and regional scarcity exists. Nearly 60% of renewable supply is consumed annually. Hydropower dams alter natural flow regimes. Stricter regulations, planning and infrastructure improvements can strengthen resilience to future scarcity.

22. Cyprus

Cyprus has a semi-arid climate with highly variable rainfall. Nearly 60% of water available is withdrawn, mostly for agriculture. Recurring droughts deplete reservoirs. A UN initiative is helping Cyprus improve monitoring, data collection and leak detection to boost efficiency. But greater supply will be needed to avoid future shortages.

23. Afghanistan

Decades of war severely damaged Afghanistan’s water infrastructure. Only around 31% of Afghans have access to safe water sources. Withdrawals total nearly 60% of supply, mostly for agriculture. Drought risks are high. Along with political instability, water scarcity poses major challenges to reducing poverty and malnutrition.

24. Australia

Australia is generally dry, but still extracts over 57% of its renewable supply annually. The Murray-Darling Basin faces excessive diversion for irrigation. Droughts have worsened recently, harming agriculture and wildlife. Improved water management policies aim to balance agricultural and ecosystem needs and build resilience.

25. Spain

Spain taps over 55% of its available water, though great regional disparities in climate and access exist. The arid southeast suffers frequent droughts and overexploitation of aquifers. Meanwhile, the wet north has ample supply. Reducing Madrid’s withdrawals remains a challenge. Better alignment of water and agricultural policies is needed.

Causes & Consequences of Extreme Water Stress

Clearly, the top water-stressed nations span the continents yet share several commonalities. Let’s examine the overarching factors behind such severe stress.

Limited Natural Water Availability

Low natural availability relative to demand is the primary cause of water stress. Climate factors like low rainfall, high temperatures and high evaporation produce conditions of scarcity for many countries. Limited surface water and groundwater recharge further constrain supplies, especially for nations lacking major rivers or lakes.

Smaller nations and islands are physically limited in how much water they can capture and store. Their tiny land area relative to population also creates massive demands that outstrip natural supplies.

High Population Density

Scarcity isn’t just about physical availability – it’s also about how many people are sharing the same resources. Many stressed nations have extremely high population densities, placing intense pressure on limited supplies.

Qatar, Bahrain, Maldives and similar countries have some of the highest population densities worldwide, with thousands of people crammed into each square kilometer. India, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Singapore and others also have hundreds of residents per square km.

Rapid Urbanization

Booming urban populations also exacerbate water stress. As countries shift from rural to urban societies, concentrated water and energy demands in cities escalate. From India to Jordan, water managers struggle to supply millions of new city dwellers.

Urban development usually means more industry too, a major water consumer. Although cities maximize efficiency with centralized water systems, their scale alone makes them prone to scarcity risks.

Agricultural Water Use

Agriculture soaks up the lion’s share of consumption for stressed countries. Irrigated agriculture accounts for 70% or more of usage in India, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan and many others. But irrigation infrastructures are often aging and wasteful, losing copious amounts through leaky canals and low-tech flood methods.

Climate conditions in arid regions also force farmers to apply more water than crops require. And much irrigation serves water-intensive crops like cotton, wheat and rice. Shifting practices and policies could free up supplies for communities and ecosystems.

Mismanagement & Inefficiencies

In some instances, resource mismanagement exacerbates water stress. Excessive diversions, leaky infrastructure, pricing distortions, and other governance and policy flaws allow scarcity to fester or worsen.

Removing perverse subsidies, reducing system leaks, accurate metering, and realigning practices with ecological needs are all essential reforms for smarter water management. Upgrades in irrigation, dams, desalination and wastewater reuse also help boost and stretch supplies.

Climate Change & Pollution

Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, intensifying water risks globally. Rising temperatures and growing climate variability will likely worsen droughts and water scarcity in already-stressed regions.

Pollution further jeopardizes strained water resources. Contaminated water becomes unsafe for either human or environmental uses. Restoring water quality is possible but requires major investments and policies targeting polluters.

Consequences of Extreme Water Stress

What happens when countries exceed sustainable levels of water consumption year after year? Let’s examine some of the potential ramifications.

Food Insecurity

With water vital for agriculture, unsustainable withdrawals put food security at risk. India, Pakistan, Jordan and many others could see severe crop failures and livestock losses as water runs out for irrigation. Even crops like wheat and rice that survive on rainfall become highly vulnerable to droughts.

Health Crises

When water supplies run dry, sanitation, hygiene and drinking water access plummets. Contaminated water can also spread cholera, diarrhea and other diseases. Yemen and some African nations already face massive health crises partially driven by water scarcity. Over-pumping groundwater can also expose populations to harmful toxins and heavy metals.

Economic Decline

Water is critical for many industries, as well as energy production using coal, nuclear and hydropower. Shortages drive up costs and hamper business activity and GDP growth. Tourism also suffers from depleted lakes and rivers. Unemployment and poverty may rise as a result.

Ecosystem Collapse

Nature requires adequate water to sustain biodiversity and ecological health. But over-stressed rivers and groundwater systems leave little for the environment. The Aral Sea disaster illustrates ecosystems unraveling to the point of no return. Wetlands loss, wildlife die-offs and extinctions may result.

Conflict & Instability

As shortages get severe, groups begin vying for access to limited water. Upstream-downstream disputes over transboundary rivers can inflame political tensions. Internal migration away from dried-up regions can also destabilize communities. Conflicts may turn violent in extreme cases.

Expensive Alternatives

With natural water unavailable, desalination, shipping and other alternative sources provide relief. But these come at a hefty financial and environmental price tag. Shifting supplies over long distances also wastes huge volumes to leakage. Costly alternatives may only be short-term solutions.

Falling Groundwater

Pumping exceeding natural recharge draws down non-renewable groundwater to perilous levels. Aquifers take eons to replenish once drained and compacted. Because stressed regions rely heavily on wells for irrigation and drinking water, depletion poses serious threats of permanent scarcity.

Options & Approaches for Relieving Water Stress

Water stress ranking high among threats worldwide, experts have proposed many possible solutions. Here are some of the most promising ways countries can secure adequate water access now and for the future.

Agricultural Water Use Reform

The biggest savings can come from transforming irrigation and agricultural practices. Reducing waste, lining earthen canals, upgrading equipment and other reforms could cut water demand by billions of cubic meters while maintaining farm productivity.

Policies should also discourage water-intensive crops in arid regions. For example, India subsidizes rice and sugar cane farming despite shortages. Changing incentives and shifting diets from meat can significantly lower water footprints.

Urban Water Management

Cities can drive efficiency through advanced meters, water reuse, and reducing system leaks. Pricing also helps curb waste. Public education campaigns create a water-saving culture. Rainwater harvesting provides supplementary supply and reduces storm runoff.

Urban planning should prioritize high-density development over suburban sprawl, and drought-resistant native plants for landscaping. Better management is critical with urban migration expanding.

Desalination Expansion

Seawater desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, but it provides a steady, local supply that eases pressure on natural sources. Continued desalination growth, plus improving technology and renewables integration, can boost access. However, concentrate disposal and marine impacts must also be addressed.

Water Reuse & Recycling

Wastewater recycling allows agricultural and industrial reuse of treated municipal effluent. Such reuse already provides over 10% of water in Israel, Singapore and Namibia. Although treatment costs are high, water reuse maximizes supplies and avoids over-extraction.

Rooftop Rainwater Harvesting

Capturing and storing runoff from building surfaces can supplement limited ground and surface water. Simple, low-cost techniques allow irrigation, washing, and even drinking when properly filtered. Implemented widely, it can appreciably dent demand. India has the potential for 85 billion liters of rooftop rainwater harvesting.

Watershed Protections

Shielding lakes, rivers, wetlands and recharge zones from pollution and overuse safeguards supply. Governments must regulate activities and land uses within watersheds. Retaining forests and floodplains allows storage and infiltration to replenish groundwater.

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