Water Stress: Causes, Effects, Solutions, Forecast & Stats

Water Stress: Causes, Effects, Solutions, Forecast & Stats

Water stress is tightly linked to other global water issues.

The reason it is important to know about and keep track of is, the more water stressed a country or region gets, the closer they get to a water shortage.

In this guide we look at what it is, what causes it, the effect it has, potential solutions, as well as other important stats and information about water stress.


Summary – Water Stress

  • Water stress can be an indication of how much pressure a city’s fresh water supplies are under, and how close they are to being depleted. Water stress can be measured in cubic meters of fresh water remaining per person, per year. The lower the measurement get, the more water stressed a region becomes
  • Causes of high water stress can include lack of natural or standard freshwater reserves, High water usage/demand and increased consumption of water in all sectors (residential, commercial, industrial) and particularly agriculture, population growth or high population density (like in big cities), high temperatures and dry climates, increasing temperatures, droughts, lack of rainfall, or variability in rainfall, and natural events and natural disasters like floods which pollute or disrupt a water supply
  • More than one in every six people in the world is water stressed, meaning that they do not have sufficient access to potable water.
  • Some estimates predict that by 2040, around 33 countries could face extreme water stress
  • Governments implementing short term and long term water conservation and water supply policies and actions are KEY to preventing water stress in the future – especially in dry, warm, low rainfall, drought prone cities with growing populations


What Is Water Stress?

A few different definitions and explanations of water stress are:

– Water stress is the ratio of total withdrawals to total renewable supply in a given area. A higher percentage means more water users are competing for limited water supplies, and therefore that area/country is more stressed – wri.org

– Water stress is defined based on the ratio of freshwater withdrawals to renewable freshwater resources. Water stress does not insinuate that a country has water shortages, but does give an indication of how close it maybe be to exceeding a water basin’s renewable resources. If water withdrawals exceed available resources (i.e. greater than 100 percent) then a country is either extracting beyond the rate at which aquifers can be replenished, or has very high levels of desalinisation water generation (the conversion of seawater to freshwater using osmosis processes). – ourworldindata.org

– According to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, a country or region is said to experience “water stress” when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres per person per year. At levels between 1,700 and 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, periodic or limited water shortages can be expected. When a country is below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, the country then faces water scarcity . – Wikipedia.org


Water Stress Ratings & Scale

According to the WRI, countries can fit into the following ranges, based on ratio of water withdrawals to water supply in the country:

  • Low – less than 10% (i.e. the country is withdrawing less than 10% of their overall water supply)
  • Low To Medium – 10 to 20%
  • Medium To High – 20 to 40%
  • High – 40 to 80%
  • Extremely High – more than 80%

So, a country withdrawing more than 80% of their water supply would be classified as having extremely high water stress.

– wri.org


Causes Of Water Stress

It differs depending on the country. But general factors can include:

  • Lack of freshwater reserves
  • High usage/demand and increased consumption of water in all sectors (residential, commercial, industrial) and particularly agriculture
  • Population growth
  • High temperatures and dry climates
  • Climate change
  • Droughts
  • Lack of rainfall, or variability in rainfall
  • Natural events and natural disasters like floods which pollute or disrupt a water supply


Some of the other factors can include:

  • Rapidly growing populations will drive increased consumption by people, farms and companies
  • More people will move to cities, further straining supplies
  • An emerging middle class could clamor for more water-intensive food production and electricity generation

– wri.org


  • Another popular opinion is that the amount of available freshwater is decreasing because of climate change.

– Wikipedia.org


  • Every water-stressed country is affected by a different combination of factors. Chile, for example, projected to move from medium water stress in 2010 to extremely high stress in 2040, is among the countries more likely to face a water supply decrease from the combined effects of rising temperatures in critical regions and shifting precipitation patterns.
  • Botswana and Namibia sit squarely within a region that is already vulnerable to climate change. Water supplies are limited, and risk from floods and droughts is high. Projected temperature increases in southern Africa are likely to exceed the global average, along with overall drying and increased rainfall variability. On the water demand side, according to Aqueduct projections, a 40 to 70 percent—or greater—increase is expected, further exacerbating the region’s concerns.
  • Whatever the drivers, extremely high water stress creates an environment in which companies, farms and residents are highly dependent on limited amounts of water and vulnerable to the slightest change in supply. Such situations severely threaten national water security and economic growth.

– wri.org


  • By 2030, water demand is expected to exceed current supply by 40 percent, according to the Water Resources Group, an arm of the World Bank.
  • “In many parts of the world, water scarcity is increasing and rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an address to mark World Water Day last month.
  • “At the same time, climate change is exacerbating risk and unpredictability for farmers, especially for poor farmers in low-income countries…These interlinked challenges are increasing competition between communities and countries for scarce water resources, aggravating old security dilemmas, creating new ones and hampering the achievement of the fundamental human rights to food, water and sanitation.”
  • Experts say water shortages aren’t solely about a planetary climate that is becoming warmer and drier. Much of the blame can also be laid on the mismanagement of existing water resources.
  • Many industrial processes use a staggering amount of water from start to finish. It takes about 270 gallons of water to produce $1 worth of sugar; 200 gallons of water to make $1 worth of pet food; and 140 gallons of water to make $1 worth of milk.

– news.thomasnet.com, and pubs.acs.org


Effects Of Water Stress

Overall, higher water stress means freshwater reserves are being depleted, and the closer you get to very high water stress, the closer you get to a water shortage.

Water restrictions means there is less water for all activities in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

Water shortages means extreme restrictions on water, and in some cases no water is available either temporarily or permanently for a certain period of time.

There are negative social, economic, health and environmental effects because of this.

Agriculture, as a big user of water, has less water to grow food for the population. Other businesses also have less water for products and raw materials manufacture.

There may also be less drinking water, water for sanitation, and water for cleaning for households – all of which can effect health and hygiene.


Other effects can be:

  • Businesses, farms, and communities in countries affected by water stress in particular may be more vulnerable to water scarcity
  • Civil wars can break out in extreme circumstances
  • Dwindling water resources and chronic mismanagement forced 1.5 million people, primarily farmers and herders, to lose their livelihoods and leave their land, move to urban areas, and magnify Syria’s general destabilization.

– wri.org


How Much Of The World Is Affected By Water Stress

  • More than one in every six people in the world is water stressed, meaning that they do not have sufficient access to potable 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.

– Wikipedia.org


Countries That Are Water Stressed

  • 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.

– Wikipedia.org


Forecasts & Trends For Water Stress Now & In The Future

Estimates have been done for 167 countries by 2040

WRI scored and ranked future water stress—a measure of competition and depletion of surface water—in 167 countries by 2020, 2030, and 2040. They found that 33 countries face extremely high water stress in 2040

It was found that Chile, Estonia, Namibia, and Botswana could face an especially significant increase in water stress by 2040. This means that businesses, farms, and communities in these countries in particular may be more vulnerable to scarcity than they are today.

– WRI.org

You can check out WRI.org for the forecast of water stressed countries by 2040, and a handy map which shows the forecasted water stress level of these countries.


Solutions To Water Stress

  • National and local governments must bring forward strong national climate action plans and support a strong international climate agreement
  • Governments must also respond with management and conservation practices that will help protect essential sustainable water resources for years to come.

– WRI.org


  • In Australia, water consumption declined by 40% between 2001 and 2009 while the economy grew by more than 30%. The International Resource Panel of the UN states that governments have tended to invest heavily in largely inefficient solutions: mega-projects like dams, canals, aqueducts, pipelines and water reservoirs, which are generally neither environmentally sustainable nor economically viable. The most cost-effective way of decoupling water use from economic growth, according to the scientific panel, is for governments to create holistic water management plans that take into account the entire water cycle: from source to distribution, economic use, treatment, recycling, reuse and return to the environment.

– Wikipedia.org


  • Water reuse however poses some unique challenges. Strict water regulations, while providing necessary legislation around delivery of potable water to our homes, can create unnecessary barriers in use of wastewater for industry. Effluent water, known as ‘greywater’, is generated through wastewater municipal treatment plants, treated and discharged. Yet over 95% of grey water is simply discharged into surface ponds.
  • However greywater can provide a valuable opportunity for water reuse in non-potable applications within industry. Addressing regulatory standards would not only allow for efficient reuse of this greywater but reduce the burden on freshwater supplies. This policy has already shown great success in Singapore. Their Bedok NEWater reuse plant provides wastewater for industry, using GE’s ZeeWeed membrane technology to reliably remove suspended solids from water. Initiatives like this are why Singapore now boasts production of more than 100 million gallons a day of recycled water for industrial, commercial and domestic use.
  • Water reuse is not limited to a national scale. At Frito Lay’s Casa Grande facility, Arizona, they utilise a ZeeWeed membrane bioreactor and reverse osmosis system from GE that treats and recycles 648,000 gallons per day. This solution helped achieve ambitious renewable targets, including a 90% reduction in water and electricity usage. The plant has the distinction of being the first existing food manufacturing site in the United States to achieve LEED EB environmental Gold Certification.
  • Water reuse has also shown impressive benefits within the oil and gas industry. In 2015 the Carigali-PTTEPI Operating Company was honoured with an ecomagination award by General Electric, recognising its positive environmental impact for its success in water reuse on a natural gas platform in the Gulf of Thailand. By installing advanced GE cooling and chemical treatment technology the company were able to save 132,000 gallons of water and $52 million a year by reducing platform downtime.

– ge.com



1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_scarcity

2. http://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/water-stress-country .

3. http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world%E2%80%99s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040

4. 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]

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

6. https://news.thomasnet.com/imt/2012/04/10/down-the-drain-industry-water-use

7. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es903147k?tokenDomain=presspac&tokenAccess=presspac&forwardService=showFullText&journalCode=esthag

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