Freshwater supplies and usage/withdrawal rates around the world differ by country.
How much freshwater we have, how much of it we use and what we use it on are all important stats and trends to look at so we can manage our water resources within each country.
We take a look at these stats and certain trends and patterns in this guide.
Summary Of Freshwater Worldwide
- We have different types of freshwater sources in the world – some are more renewable than others
- Freshwater is distributed unequally all over the world – some countries have huge natural freshwater supplies, and some are very water scarce
- Freshwater usage is only increasing as population increases
- Freshwater is used in the three following areas in society – agriculture, industry (energy generation and business), and municipal (household). Agriculture usually uses the most (around 70% of total), but in some countries industry uses almost as much as agriculture. Household usually uses about 10% or less.
Different Types Of Freshwater Sources
One of the most important freshwater sources to know about is renewable water resources.
These are defined as the average manual flow of rivers and recharge of aquifers generated from precipitation (precipitation from the atmosphere is what fills freshwater sources).
In layman’s terms – these are sources that are regenerated from the natural water cycle of rainfall, use and evaporation – and the cycle repeats itself.
From a sustainability perspective, if withdrawal rates (how much freshwater a country uses) stays within the renewable water supply rate, a country should have a better chance of staying out of water stress or water shortage territory (but there’s also natural events, climate change, socio-economic factors and other factors that can affect water supply).
According to FAO.org, there are different types of freshwater sources such as:
- Renewable freshwater sources – renewed by the water cycle. They represent the long-term average annual flow of rivers (surface water) and groundwater.
- Non renewable freshwater sources – groundwater bodies (deep aquifers) that have a negligible rate of recharge on the human time-scale and thus can be considered non-renewable.
- Natural freshwater sources – the total amount of a country’s water resources (internal and external resources), both surface water and groundwater, which is generated through the hydrological cycle
- Human (actual) influenced freshwater sources – the sum of internal renewable resources (IRWR) and external renewable resources (ERWR), taking into consideration the quantity of flow reserved to upstream and downstream countries through formal or informal agreements or treaties and possible reduction of external flow due to upstream water abstraction. Unlike natural renewable water resources, actual renewable water resources vary with time and consumption patterns and, therefore, must be associated to a specific year.
- Internal freshwater sources – water resources (surface water and groundwater) generated from endogenous precipitation i.e. water from within the country itself
- External freshwater sources – the part of a country’s renewable water resources that enter from upstream countries through rivers (external surface water) or aquifers (external groundwater resources) i.e. water from other countries
- Surface Freshwater – rivers, lakes, streams etc. that are above ground
- Groundwater Freshwater – underground aquifers of water
When freshwater sources are talked about, often the water quality is not taken into consideration i.e. whether it is contaminated, polluted or not suitable to drink or use.
Freshwater though does naturally contain a very little amount of dissolved salts and naturally occurs on the surface of the earth in lakes, rivers, caps, streams, ponds, icebergs, glaciers, and ponds.
Freshwater sources do not usually account for brackish, saline and non-conventional water sources.
You can read more about the different types of freshwater sources here – http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4473e/y4473e06.htm
Freshwater Supply By Country
According to WorldAtlas.com, total freshwater supplies in kilometres cubed (km3) are:
- Brazil – 8233
- Russia – 4508
- United States – 3069
- Canada – 2902
- China – 2840
- Colombia – 2132
- European Union – 2057
- Indonesia – 2019
- Peru – 1913
- India – 1911
- Democratic Republic Of The Congo – 1283
- Venezuela – 1233
- Bangladesh – 1227
- Myanmar – 1168
- Nigeria – 950
WorldAtlas describes where most of the freshwater in each of these countries is found, so their guide is worth a read.
Wikipedia also shows an extended list of 172 countries (which you can find in the sources part of this guide).
According to Food and Agriculture Organization, AQUASTAT data, and via Indexmundi.com, Renewable internal freshwater resources (internal river flows and groundwater from rainfall) per capita (per person, in cubic metres) worldwide are as follows:
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How Is Freshwater Distributed By Sources
Of the Earth’s water, 97 percent is saline while 3 percent is freshwater (with low concentrations of dissolved salts and other total dissolved solids).
- Nearly 69 percent is held in glaciers and ice caps.
- Another 30 percent is groundwater that is held in underground soil and rock crevices
- The remaining one percent is surface water and other sources.
- Of that water considered to be surface water, 87 percent exists in lakes, 11 percent in swamps, and 2 percent in rivers.
- The American Great Lakes account for 21 percent of the Earth’s surface fresh water.
- Lake Baikal in Russia is considered the deepest, oldest freshwater lake in the world. It holds about 20 percent of the Earth’s unfrozen surface fresh water, the largest volume in the world.
- Lake Victoria, which spreads across the African countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, is the second largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area.
- Africa’s Lake Tanganyika is the second deepest freshwater lake, and holds the second largest volume of fresh water. It’s the longest lake, and extends across Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Different countries and states across the globe have their freshwater located in different sources, and access their usable and drinkable water from different sources.
If we take Indiana in the US as an example, groundwater supplies approximately 60 percent of the treated water delivered to homes and businesses for drinking, bathing, chores, and more. In a 2 year span, Indiana American Water proactively invested more than $130 million in its water and wastewater infrastructure around the state – the71percent.org
You can read more about how much water we have on earth
Variables That Can Affect Available Freshwater Supplies
A country may have enough freshwater for drinking and use, but people and businesses in that country may not get access to the water.
A country may also have declining freshwater supplies year on year despite not being a high usage country.
Why does this happen? Well, it can be for a few reasons:
- Barriers to freshwater access – barriers can be physical or economic. Freshwater sources may be difficult from a logistical level to access, or the country may be a low income/low GDP country and may not financially be able to build and maintain water access infrastructure and equipment
- Contamination and pollution of freshwater sources which lessens water quality – there may be access to freshwater, but those freshwater sources might not be well protected against potential contaminants (especially bacteria like E coli) and pollution
- Poor governance and freshwater management plans – there may be enough freshwater supply and access to the water, but the water usage and management plans in place may not be adequate
- Natural events – droughts, heat waves, floods (can cause contamination), change of seasons and monsoons, can all temporarily affect water supply levels
- Human induced events – climate change and global warming can decrease freshwater supply levels
Freshwater Usage On A Global Level
- A growing global population and economic shift towards more resource-intensive consumption patterns means global freshwater use — that is, freshwater withdrawals for agriculture, industry and municipal uses — 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.
- Evidence of that can be seen by looking at 2004 where the global population used 3.85 trillion cubic metres of freshwater, and 2014 where the global population used 3.99 trillion cubic metres of freshwater
Freshwater Usage/Withdrawal By Country (Withdrawal Rate)
Total Freshwater Withdrawals
Per OurWorldInData.org, in 2014, the biggest users of freshwater were:
- India had the largest freshwater withdrawals at over 760 billion cubic metres per year.
- This was followed by China at just over 600 billion m3
- United States at 480-90 billion m3
- Pakistan at 183.5 billion m3
- and, Indonesia at 113.3 billion m3
Freshwater Withdrawals Per Capita, Per Year
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
- Uzbekistan – 2106 cubic metres
Renewable Internal Freshwater Withdrawals Per Capita
Renewable internal freshwater resources refers to the quantity of internal freshwater from inflowing river basins and recharging ground water aquifers.
According to OurWorldInData:
Per capita renewable resources depend on two factors: the total quantity of renewable flows, and the size of the population.
If renewable resources decline — as can happen frequently in countries with large annual variability in rainfall, such as monsoon seasons — then per capita renewable withdrawals will also fall. Similarly, if total renewable sources remain constant, per capita levels can fall if a country’s population is growing.
The trends we see for a lot of countries is a slow decline in renewable internal freshwater supplies based on withdrawal rates.
Brazil by far has the biggest per capita supply decrease from 1962 to 2014, going from over 70,000 cubic metres of water, to under 30,000 cubic metres.
In that same time span, the United States has gone from 15,106 cubic metres to 8,845 cubic metres.
China has gone from 4,225 cubic metres, to 2,016 cubic metres.
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
- North America – 12,537
- Central America and Caribbean – 8,397
- Western & Central Europe – 4,006
- Sub Saharan Africa – 3,879
Freshwater Usage/Withdrawal By Industry & Sectors (How & Where We Use Water)
Per findings and stats by OurWorldInData.org:
Agriculture Water Usage/Withdrawal
Water is used in agriculture (food crop, livestock, biofuels, or other non-food crop production) from both rainfall, and pumped irrigation.
In 2010 India was the world’s largest agricultural water consumer at nearly 700 billion m3 per year. India’s agricultural water consumption has been growing rapidly — almost doubling between 1975 and 2010 — as its population and total food demand continues to increase. China is the world’s second largest user, at approximately 385 billion m3 in 2015, although its agricultural freshwater use has approximately plateaued in the recent past.
Globally we use approximately 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals for agriculture.
- However, this share varies significantly by country – as shown in the chart below which measures the percentage of total freshwater withdrawals used for agriculture. Here we see large variations geographically and by income level. The average agricultural water use for low-income countries is 90 percent; 79 percent for middle income and only 41 percent at high incomes.
- There are a number of countries across South Asia, Africa and Latin America which use more than 90 percent of water withdrawals for agriculture. The highest is Afghanistan at 99 percent. Countries in the global north tend to use a much lower share of water for agriculture; Germany and the Netherlands use less than one percent.
Irrigation Water Usage/Withdrawal
Irrigation is the deliberate provision or controlled flooding of agricultural land with water.
The share of total agricultural area (which is the combination of arable and grazing land) which is irrigated:
- 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.
- Levels of irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa have increased, and continue to have, lower levels of irrigation relative to South Asia and the Middle East & North Africa. Poorer progress in increasing crop yields in recent decades in Sub-Saharan Africa has been partly attributed (among other factors including fertilizer application rates and crop varieties) to lower uptake of irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Industrial (Business) Water Usage/Withdrawal
Water is used in industries and business in dilution, steam generation, washing, and cooling of manufacturing equipment. as well as 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.
- This is significantly greater than China, the second largest, at 140 billion m³
- Most countries across the Americas, Europe and East Asia & Pacific regions use more one billion m³ for industrial uses per year. Rates are typically much lower across Sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of South Asia where most use less than 500 million m³.
Globally, just under 20 percent (18-19 percent) of total water withdrawals are used for industrial purposes.
- In contrast to the global distribution for agricultural water withdrawals, industrial water tends to dominate in high-income countries (with an average of 44 percent), and is small in low-income countries on average 3 percent).
- Estonia uses the greater share of withdrawals for industrial applications at 96 percent. The share in Central and Eastern Europe tends to be greater than 70 percent; 80 percent in Canada; and approximately half in the United States. Across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, this tends to contribute less than 10 percent to total withdrawals.
Municipal (household) Water Usage/Withdrawal
The water we use for domestic, household purposes or public services. This is typically the most ‘visible’ form of water: the water we use for drinking, cleaning, washing, and cooking.
- With the largest population, China’s domestic water demands are highest at over 70 billion m³ per year.
- India, the next largest populace 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.
Despite being the most visible use of freshwater, domestic demands for most countries are small relative to agricultural and industrial applications. Globally around 11 percent of withdrawals are used for municipal purposes.
- The majority of countries use less than 30 percent of withdrawals for domestic purposes.
- The share of municipal water in some countries across Sub-Saharan Africa can be high as a result of very low demands for agricultural and industrial withdrawals.
- Domestic uses of water withdrawals can also dominate in some countries across Europe with high rainfall, such as the United Kingdom and Ireland where agricultural production is often largely rain fed and industrial output is low.
1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Water Access, Resources & Sanitation”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/water-access-resources-sanitation’ [Online Resource]