Every person on Earth should have access to reliable water supplies. Water is essential for sanitation, hygiene, and daily survival, but in some places, conflict over water is becoming more commonplace.
To recognize the importance of water for everything we do, we compiled seven graphics that explain the state of the world’s vital water resources.
Human Activity is Changing Water Distribution
Half of the surface water in some countries has been depleted between 1984 and 2015, according to an analysis of satellite imagery from the European Commission Joint Research Centre. However, about twice as much new surface water has been added during the same time period from dams and man-made reservoirs.
Most of the surface water loss happened in Central Asia and the Middle East. China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake, is shrinking at a fast rate from upstream diversions of the Yangtze river. Some parts of it are now completely dry. Landsat images from 2000 and 2016 show how the lake has diminished in size.
Poyang Lake in September 2016, from USGS LandsatLook.
Resource Watch hosts data from this European Commission Joint Research Centre analysis of surface water changes from 1984 to 2015. Changes to the Aral Sea, which straddles Kazakhstan and Northern Uzbekistan, are shown on Resource Watch below.
Agriculture is the Thirstiest Sector
Irrigating crops and raising livestock require a lot of water. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture uses about 70 percent of water withdrawals on average. In some developing countries, that figure can be as high as 95 percent.
The World Health Organization estimates that a person needs at least 50 to 100 liters of water per day for consumption and basic hygiene. FAO estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 liters of water are needed to produce a person’s daily food. The graphic below shows FAO data on water withdrawals by sector
Agriculture is also a major source of water pollution from fertilizers, chemical pesticides and other contaminants.
36 Countries Are Extremely Water-Stressed
World Resources Institute (WRI) has evaluated and mapped water risks around the world through the Aqueduct tool. One of Aqueduct’s most-used indicators, baseline water stress, measures how much water is withdrawn versus supplied every year. High stress indicates more competition over water resources.
Mapping water stress across the world, the research found that 36 countries are experiencing “extremely high” water stress, where more than 80 percent of their available water is being used annually. Singapore, Jamaica, Malta, Qatar, Cyprus and Barbados are some of the many countries that top the list of most water-stressed countries.
Water Scarcity Threatens Power Plants
Water-dependent thermal power plants generate about 81 percent of the world’s electricity. These plants use fuels such as coal, gas or nuclear sources to make heat, which is then converted into electrical energy.
The map below shows water stress and coal power plant locations. For most thermal plants, large volumes of water are a crucial part of the process, cooling high temperatures and powering turbines with steam. Using the Global Power Plant Database on Resource Watch, WRI research found that 47 percent of the world’s thermal power plant capacity and 11 percent of hydroelectric capacity are located in highly water-stressed areas. High water stress occurs in areas where 40 percent or more of available water is withdrawn every year.
An earlier WRI analysis found that 40 percent of India’s thermal power plant facilities are located in areas of high water stress. Water scarcity is already costing power utilities: Between 2013-2016, 14 of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortages, costing the companies $1.4 billion.
A Growing Source of Conflict
Water is a growing source of global conflict. In 2017, water was a major factor in conflict in at least 45 countries. The Pacific Institute developed a database of conflicts involving water from 3000 BC to present, which is hosted on Resource Watch and updated annually.
The Water, Peace and Security partnership uses this database to trace the role of water in security and identify strategies to reduce the risk it poses to peace.
Millions of People Don’t Have Access to Clean Water
As of 2015, more than 800 million people lack even a basic drinking water source within 15 minutes of their home, and only 40 percent of the world population uses managed sanitation services, creating the conditions for diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid to spread.
Data from the World Bank in the chart below shows the proportion of people in different countries with access to clean water. Only 40 percent of people in Papua New Guinea have access to an improved water source, defined as water sources protected from contamination from pollution and fecal matter. In Angola, Mozambique and Chad, only about half the population have access to clean water.
Water is the Most Valuable Resource
The world runs on water, and we should start treating its management as a top priority. Measuring how much water is available and how much is being used, as WRI’s Aqueduct project has done, is just the first step. Building more efficient water systems, such as drip irrigation and water-friendly energy sources, are critical to alleviating increasing demands. We should also invest in green infrastructure improvements so that growing cities can better manage water, while saving money in the long run.
Find out how water-stressed your river basin is by using open source datasets on Resource Watch.