A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises
This article examines the looming global water crisis on the horizon. With climate change affecting rainfall patterns many countries have depleted their groundwater supply. With extended droughts and less water supply more than 17 countries around the world are living under high water stress conditions. This will have negative effects on public health and foment more social unrest.
By Somini Sengupta and
BANGALORE, India — Countries that are home to one-fourth of Earth’s population face an increasingly urgent risk: The prospect of running out of water.
From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have, according to new World Resources Institute data published Tuesday.
Many are arid countries to begin with; some are squandering what water they have. Several are relying too heavily on groundwater, which instead they should be replenishing and saving for times of drought.
In those countries are several big, thirsty cities that have faced acute shortages recently, including São Paulo, Brazil; Chennai, India; and Cape Town, which in 2018 narrowly beat what it called Day Zero — the day when all its dams would be dry.
Climate change heightens the risk. As rainfall becomes more erratic, the water supply becomes less reliable. At the same time, as the days grow hotter, more water evaporates from reservoirs just as demand for water increases.
Water-stressed places are sometimes cursed by two extremes. São Paulo was ravaged by floods a year after its taps nearly ran dry. Chennai suffered fatal floods four years ago, and now its reservoirs are almost empty.
Today, among cities with more than 3 million people, World Resources Institute researchers concluded that 33 of them, with a combined population of over 255 million, face extremely high water stress, with repercussions for public health and social unrest.
By 2030, the number of cities in the extremely high stress category is expected to rise to 45 and include nearly 470 million people.
After a three-year drought, Cape Town in 2018 was forced to take extraordinary measures to ration what little it had left in its reservoirs. That acute crisis only magnified a chronic challenge. Cape Town’s 4 million residents are competing with farmers for limited water resources.
Likewise, Los Angeles. Its most recent drought ended this year. But its water supply isn’t keeping pace with its galloping demand and its penchant for private backyard swimming pools doesn’t help.
A lot can be done to improve water management, though.
First, city officials can plug leaks in the water distribution system. Wastewater can be recycled. Rain can be harvested and saved for lean times: lakes and wetlands can be cleaned up and old wells can be restored. And, farmers can switch from water-intensive crops, like rice, and instead grow less-thirsty crops like millet.
“Water is a local problem and it needs local solutions,” said Priyanka Jamwal, a fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore.