Just How Stressed Out Is Your Drinking Water?

The Water Stress Index ranks those nations most at risk of running out of our planet’s most valued resource.

A farmer carrying a hoe walks past a dried-up pond in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, China, on February 28, 2013. In the coming decades, China and its booming popupation is expected to be hit particularly hard by the global water crisis. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)


Apr 29, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

If you're truly into scary things—and I'm not talking about the latest schlocky Hollywood horror film, but true fright, at least from a global resources perspective—scroll through data culled by high-end risk management consultants.

Take Maplecroft, for example. Their Global Risk Portfolio emphasizes political upheaval, human right "dilemmas," and ranks nations most at-risk due to the changing climate and water shortages.

And then there's the the Food and Agriculture Organization, run by the United Nation, which offers a more "for the people, by the people" approach to the world's many problems, be they famine, war, or the global water crisis.

"Water security" is the most common phrase, defined as the ability of a country to provide an adequate quantity of clean water for its people to support "a climate of peace and political stability."

Several recent reports have focused on what they call "water stress" levels.

Specifically, which countries around the globe are most at risk due to an existing lack of fresh water or one anticipated in the near future. As populations grow, increasing water use per capita and depleting reserves of groundwater, there's no doubt that blue gold is becoming one of the world's most precious commodities.

Political unrest in the driest parts of the world has only heightened the focus on who's got water, and who does not.

Not too surprisingly, a recent study by Maplecroft—its Water Stress Index—ranks 186 countries by low, medium, high or extreme risk.

Using sophisticated mapping software that measures four square-mile sections of ocean around the planet, the index calculates the ratio of domestic, industrial, and agricultural water consumption against renewable supplies of water from precipitation, rivers and ground water.

According to the Water Stress Index, the top ten nations soon to be out of water are all in the Mideast.

1) Bahrain

2) Qatar

3) Kuwait

4) Saudi Arabia

5) Libya

6) Western Sahara

7) Yemen

8) Israel

9) Djibouti

10) Jordan

But it's not just the Mideast that is at risk. Australia, South Africa, Spain, Cuba and Hong Kong are all considered to have a "high" level of water stress, which means having water demand above 40 percent of the maximum renewable resource.

India is ranked 30, China 56. The U.S. is 65. Its most at-risk region are the four corners of the Southwest: New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

Of course it shouldn't require access to a satellite to predict that the driest, desert-covered spots on the face of planet Earth are at risk of running out of water. It's what's between the lines that make these studies most valuable. And also how new technology can help, specifically by improving so-called "water productivity," or using water smarter when it comes to growing food.

Maplecroft analyst Tom Styles, for example, points out that though India, South Korea and China are headed for dry futures as human populations and demand grow, all three nations are thirstily buying up water-rich farmland in other countries.

Styles dubs them "land grabs" and reports they are taking place on a massive scale across Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, China has contracted to grow more than five million acres of palm oil. In war-torn Sudan, companies from South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have bought millions of acres of farmland.

More aggressively, Qatar paid to construct a deep-water port in Kenya in exchange for nearly a million acres of prime agricultural land.

The downside to these deals is that homelands and big business are often profiting at the cost of putting their own countrymen at risk by depleting national water supplies. Kenya, nor Sudan, has that much fresh water to share.

The biggest gamble in any of these assessments is a future impacted by a changing climate, which may render many of these new "investments" moot in the next few decades.

Countries that rate "low risk" for water stress today may not be so stress-free tomorrow as the planet continues to heat up.