According to our Water Scarcity Clock, water scarcity affects over 2.3 billion people in the world. Over the next decade, climate change is expected to make matters worse. Events such as the melting of tropical glaciers, desertification, and long periods of drought are expected to intensify, compromising water supply in areas with low rainfall.
How we measure water scarcity
The Water Scarcity Clock compares the population of each area with the overall water availability, creating an estimate of the amount of people suffering from water scarcity. Water stress starts when each person in any given area has on average less than 1,500m3 of water per year. When that figure goes below 1,000m3, we call it water scarcity. Areas with less than 500m3 suffer from absolute water scarcity.
Water scarcity can be caused by a physical shortage, for instance a period of drought, or it could be caused by inadequate infrastructure.
More extreme droughts are expected
Modern water infrastructure and adequate planning are vital in water scarce areas. The world is urbanizing as more and more people move into cities. Therefore, more water needs to be made available to cover the needs of city dwellers. Climate change is also expected to have a big impact. As temperatures rise, evaporation increases and soils dry out. Extreme weather events are expected to be more frequent. For example, a one-in-500-hundred-year flood can happen again just after a few years and unusually harsh droughts are becoming the new normal. To mitigate the effects of extreme weather events on water, adequate infrastructure and investment in water technologies is essential. In some areas, the only way to prevent water shortages is to manage resources as efficiently as possible.
The most threatened countries by water scarcity are in the Middle East
Israel exemplifies the fight against chronic water shortages. 93% of Israelis live in water scarce areas and they have adapted to be able to live under extreme conditions. Israeli companies have developed water efficient technologies from massive desalination plants to water efficient crops and irrigation techniques. Desalination plants provide 55% of Israel’s domestic water supply and the country has the most efficient recapture system in the world, recycling 86% of used domestic water. And still, these efforts may not be enough to guarantee a long-term water supply.
In Bahrain, with no rivers, dams, or lakes in their small territory, 100% of their population are affected by absolute water scarcity. Currently, the country obtains half their water from groundwater, however, degradation of aquifers as a result of over-extraction and saltwater intrusion could compromise the future water supply. There are many other examples of water scarcity in the region: more than half of the populations of the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt live in water scarce areas.
Latin America: Water scarcity in Chile, Peru, and Mexico
The Atacama Desert is the world’s driest desert. Situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range, its salt lakes and stony terrain is reminiscent of Martian landscapes. Most of the Atacama Desert is situated north of Chile, a country where more than half the population experiences water scarcity. The Atacama Desert is rich in minerals such as copper and lithium and is a top tourist destination as well. Therefore, allocation of water is a controversial topic. In the lithium-rich Salar de Atacama, mining companies need water to extract minerals and despite the extreme water scarcity in the region, there is not enough control over its use.
South of Atacama, drought is a persistent problem. Currently, the regions of Coquimbo and La Araucania are experiencing their longest drought since records began. Locals call it a mega drought. Since the 1950s, Chile has been experimenting with unconventional sources of water such as fog catchers, which collects water from the thick fog coming from the Pacific against the Andes. These devices can capture up to 10 liters of water per day and almost 3,000 of them can be installed per hectare, making the region less dependent on rainfall.
In Peru, more than half the population is located on the coast where the climate is arid and 57% live in water scarcity. Peru’s water infrastructure remains underdeveloped. Around 10% of the population have no access to safe water, half of them in Lima. Peru’s capital is the second biggest desert city in the word, after Cairo, and receives most of its water supply from the Andes. The Cordillera Blanca tropical glaciers, which feed rivers year-round, are decreasing at a dramatic pace due to climate change, which according to experts could compromise the water supply in some parts of Peru during the dry season.
In Mexico, 52% are affected by water scarcity. Mexico City, with its 27 million inhabitants, shows the need of adequate infrastructure to deal with floods and droughts. During the wet season, the city is hit by heavy rainfall and large areas of the city flood. However, during the dry season many inhabitants suffer cuts of the water supply; it is estimated that 40% of water is lost due to crumbling infrastructure.