Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Troubled Waters: The World’s Thirsty Future

Via the Pacific Standard, a sobering look at the future of global water tensions where – amid population booms and more extreme weather – rising demand—not supply shortages—will be the main driver of water stress:

North America

  1. The Ogallala aquifer provides nearly one-third of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States. In 2013, researchers estimated that, at current rates, farming in places like Kansas is set to peak in the 2040s, declining thereafter from water stress.

South America

  1. The Amazon basin generates around one-fifth of global fresh water runoff annually, and it’s in jeopardy.
  2. Lakes in the Andes?—?crucial sources of fresh water for Ecuador, Colombia, and northern Peru?—?are warming faster than the global average, imperiling not only water access but also basic ecology.
  3. It takes 7.4 gallons of water to make one pound of copper in Chile. The effects of climate change and El Nin?o have drawn renewed attention to multinationals tapping Andes lakes for mining purposes?—?and a history of skirmishes that pit privatized water concerns and militaries against citizens who say water is a right.
  4. Brazil is planning the construction of several dozen major new hydroelectric plants by 2020, worrying forest advocates and native activists. Greenpeace has claimed the massive Sa?o Luiz do Tapajo?s Dam could push a portion of the 12,000 indigenous Munduruku off their ancestral land, as a consortium of energy companies led by the Brazilian utility Eletrobras partners with the government to expand grid capacity.
  5. The upheaval caused by last year’s droughts in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and other countries recalls troubling precedents: violent protests in 2012 over corporate control of lakes, and the riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1999 and 2000, which scuttled Bechtel’s plans to privatize water.


  1. Ethiopia is building hydroelectric dams on the Nile that threaten to cut the river’s flow downstream to Egypt, causing tension.
  2. Researchers with the British Geological Survey estimate Africa’s underground aquifers hold “more than 100 times … [the] annual renewable freshwater resources on Africa.” That’s not necessarily great news for Kenya; when it discovered new aquifers in 2013, U.S. security consultants said their proximity to international borders would raise “the possibility of cross-border conflicts over water rights in the future.”

The Middle East

  1. In the Middle East and North Africa, we find the world’s hub of desalination plants. There are roughly 1,500 around the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf, generating three-fifths of the world’s desalinated water. But with countries like Saudi Arabia kicking waste back into the sea, salt levels in the Gulf waters have increased 60 percent, leading to diminishing fishery returns and threatening marine life.
  2. One of the Gulf’s most water-insecure nations is Yemen, where the average citizen lives on less than 200 cubic meters of water annually, far below the cutoff for water scarcity (1,000 cubic meters per person per year).
  3. The United Arab Emirates has built the world’s largest underground reservoir?—?26,000,000 cubic meters of desalinated water. When full, it holds enough to last 90 days.


  1. In Central Asia, we’re seeing intense political conflict over water sharing on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. Together, these two rivers comprise 90 percent of Central Asian river water and 75 percent of the water needed for irrigated agriculture. Upstream, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan control the rivers and capture water behind dams. Tajikistan’s dams have been a major source of tension with Uzbekistan.
  2. As recently as the 1990s, the Chinese government estimated its country had around 50,000 rivers that drained areas of 100 square kilometers or more. But according to a recent survey, more than half of those rivers?—?27,000 of them?—?are now gone.
  3. China’s South-North Water Transfer project seeks to move tens of billions of cubic meters of water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River Basin in the thirsty, industrial north. This project, though, poses a number of major ecological hazards to both rivers.
  4. Some parts of northern China live on less than 400 cubic meters of water per capita annually.
  5. India is home to over 16 percent of the Earth’s population, but has access to just four percent of its fresh water. Significant portions of India’s fresh water in rural areas?—?where 70 percent of the population lives?—?is tainted. Some 600,000 children under the age of five die each year of waterborne diseases and inadequate water supply.
  6. The underground aquifers of the Upper Ganges irrigates arable land in India and Pakistan. A study in 2012 reported that the reservoir would need to be replenished by rain at over 50 times the current rate to sustain agriculture in both countries.

When it comes to water, there is often too little or too much. Climate change and growing demand will likely magnify those extremes.

While there is no way to predict exactly what the world’s water resources will look like in the future, the World Resources Institute has mapped future water-risk scenarios based on the International Panel on Climate Change’s projections for climate change and socioeconomic development. This glimpse of the future is designed to help governments, businesses, financial institutions, and other international organizations take steps to mitigate risk.

Water stress?—?the measure of demand relative to supply in a given place?—?will likely increase rapidly across the globe in the next few decades, as more people compete for ever more limited surface-water supplies.

When people think about water stress, they often think of major changes in supplies?—?years-long droughts, or dry monsoon seasons. Such events will play a significant part, and their consequences will be severe. What we’ve found, though, is that rapidly growing demand for water actually drives the greatest increases in water stress.

Demand and Supply

Major climate-driven shortages in water supply, where they do occur, will be concentrated around mid-latitude regions. These lie between the equator and the 30-degree north and south latitude lines, and extend to North Africa, southern Texas, and China in the Northern Hemisphere, and northern Chile, Argentina, and South Africa in the Southern Hemisphere.

Many variables affect precipitation patterns, and decision-makers must plan for a wide range of possible outcomes. Both a 30 percent increase and a 30 percent decrease in surface-water supply within the next three decades, for example, are in the realm of possibility in areas including Southern California, according to climate models. The only sure thing is more extremes, and more unpredictability.

If rainfall does decline over the coming decades in these areas, critical irrigation sources could dry up, leaving subsistence farmers hungry and governments facing millions of citizens dependent on emergency aid to survive. South Africa, Angola, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe were among the African nations facing emergency situations after an extended El Nin?o- influenced drought in late 2015 and early 2016. Energy and municipal water supply sectors face critical risks as well. Hydropower plants in places like Brazil could be forced into production cuts because their reservoirs are too low, destabilizing the electrical supply for millions?—?a risk Sa?o Paulo faced during its historic drought in 2014 and 2015.


The regions at highest risk for future water stress are clustered around these areas: the Mediterranean, the Middle East, western North America, eastern Australia, western Asia, northern China, and Chile. The emerging middle class in developing countries is expected to double by 2025, with an associated lifestyle that demands far more water. Water withdrawals for energy production are expected to increase by about 20 percent between 2010 and 2035, but consumption will rise by a more dramatic 85 percent.

Population growth will be staggering in some regions. A 69 percent increase in food is needed to close an anticipated gap between current calories available and future calories needed. Agriculture already accounts for 70 percent of water withdrawals globally. And in many places where large- scale irrigated agriculture takes place, demand is already outstripping supply.

Looking Ahead

If leaders are to take steps before a crisis hits, they will need better and more sophisticated water data. Improved data would also allow stakeholders to hold governments and businesses accountable for their water management. Continuing technological innovation, such as new membrane technology to reduce the cost of treating saline water, is also essential.

Demand-driven future water stress, in particular, can be managed. Australia, which suffered a severe 15-year “Millennium Drought” starting in the 1990s, for example, rapidly implemented demand-reduction measures that more than halved per-capita residential water use. A new water-trading program increased the efficiency of agricultural production in the Murray-Darling River basin, the country’s agricultural lifeline.

Population growth and climate change are creating a new, more challenging world. Let’s be ready.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 25th, 2016 at 2:49 am and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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