Shale Resources and Water Risks

Explore water availability across shale gas and tight oil resources

Shale Resources and Water Risks

Baseline water stress

Shale resources


Dozens of countries around the world are deciding whether or not to develop their shale gas and tight oil resources. However, extracting these energy sources poses environmental risks, especially to water.

Drilling and hydraulic fracturing requires up to 25 million liters of water per well, meaning shale resources can be hard to develop where freshwater is hard to find.

The risks and impacts specific to surface and groundwater availability have been thinly documented to date. This tool and the associated report:

  • Identify priority locations worldwide where freshwater management will be most critical if shale is developed.
  • Reveal potential business risks associated with freshwater availability to companies and build the case for corporate water stewardship and early source-water assessment.


This tool shares information that can create dialog among water users from industry, government, and civil society in river basins worldwide. It does not attempt to identify risks to water quality from shale resource development, nor does it assess the oil and gas industry’s water management practices.


  • Baseline water stress: The ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable supply in an area. In high-stress areas, 40 percent or more of the available supply is withdrawn every year. In extremely high-stress areas, that number goes up to 80 percent or higher. A higher percentage means more water users are competing for limited supplies. See the high and extremely high-stress areas highlighted in red and dark red on the maps. For more detailed information, please see Aqueduct’s Global Maps 2.0 metadata document.
  • Hydraulic fracturing: A method of extraction for shale gas and tight oil resources. Fluid is pumped at high pressure down a well to create cracks in low-permeability geological formations. Natural gas and oil then flows from the cracks back into the well.
  • Shale play: Part of a shale basin that can be commercially extracted.
  • Shale gas: Natural gas deposit found in shale reservoirs, which are between ten and many thousands of times less permeable than conventional natural gas reservoirs.
  • Tight oil: Oil trapped in fine-grained sedimentary rocks with extremely low permeability, such as shale, sandstone, or carbonate
  • Technically recoverable resource: Shale oil or gas deposit that can be extracted with current technology, but does not consider economic viability.

Report Highlights

Read: Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability and Business Risks

Global Shale Gas Development analyzes water availability across all potentially commercial shale resources worldwide, and finds that limited freshwater supplies could pose challenges to shale resource development on every continent.

  • 38 percent of the world's shale resources face high to extremely high water stress or arid conditions.
  • 386 million people live on land above shale plays - increased competition for water and public concern over hydraulic fracturing is more likely in densely populated areas.

WRI assessed water stress in the 20 countries with the largest shale resources. For shale gas, plays in 40% of those countries face high to extremely high water stress: China, Algeria, Mexico, South Africa, Libya, Pakistan, Egypt, and India.

WRI also analyzed water availability for each shale play in 11 countries already developing – or more likely to develop – shale resources: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

  • China is shale rich, but water stressed. It has the world's largest commercially viable shale reserves, but over 60 percent of them face high water stress or arid conditions.
  • Argentina is shale rich and less water stressed. It has the world's second-largest technically recoverable gas reserves, but 71% of resources face low to medium stress.
  • The United Kingdom, is Europe's third-largest natural gas producer, but is also densely populated, and 34% of resources face high water stress or arid conditions.

Included in the Report

Six indicators and associated business risks for shale development: Water stress, water-supply variation among months of the year, drought severity, groundwater depletion rates, largest water user, population density, and depth of shale reserve.

Data Sources


Governments, companies, and civil society can help protect water security while minimizing business risks by:

  • Conducting water risk assessments to understand local water availability and reduce business risk
  • Increasing transparency and engaging with local regulators, communities, and industry to minimize uncertainty
  • Ensuring adequate water governance to guarantee water security and reduce regulatory and reputational risks
  • •Minimizing freshwater use and engaging in corporate water stewardship to reduce impacts on water availability

Read the full report.


Eight of the top 20 countries with the largest shale gas technically recoverable resources (TRR) face arid conditions or an average of high to extremely high baseline water stress where the shale is located. China, Mexico, and South Africa stand out, ranking very highly based on the size of their resources and exposure to baseline water stress.

Country Estimated resources (trillion cubic feet) Average water stress over shale play area
1 China 1,115 High
2 Argentina 802 Low to Medium
3 Algeria 707 Arid & Low Water Use
4 Canada 573 Low to Medium
5 United States 567 Medium to High
6 Mexico 545 High
7 Australia 437 Low
8 South Africa 390 High
9 Russian Federation 287 Low
10 Brazil 245 Low
11 Venezuela 167 Low
12 Poland 148 Low to Medium
13 France 137 Low to Medium
14 Ukraine 128 Low to Medium
15 Libya 122 Arid & Low Water Use
16 Pakistan 105 Extremely High
17 Egypt, Arab Rep. 100 Arid & Low Water Use
18 India 96 High
19 Paraguay 75 Medium to High
20 Colombia 55 Low



Download the Global Shale Resources Geodatabase from West Virginia University.


Download Aqueduct Global Water Risk Atlas.



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