New research from the World Resources Institute scores water-related risks facing 180 countries and 100 river basins. This is the first national-level data of its kind, evaluating competition for available water supplies, annual and seasonal supply variability, flood occurrence, and drought severity.
The data paints a country-level picture of water risks, information that is clearly relevant for national policymakers. But this research also holds huge implications for the private sector—particularly for shareholders and investors, corporate operations, and corporate supply chains. Multinational businesses should take notice—and take action.
WRI’s Aqueduct project recently evaluated, mapped, and scored water risks like these in 100 river basins, ranked by area and population, and 180 nations—the first such country-level water assessment of its kind. We found that 36 countries face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress (see list at bottom). This means that more than 80 percent of the water available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn annually—leaving businesses, farms, and communities vulnerable to scarcity.
Energy and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, supported by data and analysis from WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, surveyed water risks among the world’s top energy-producing regions. They found that three energy sectors face particularly high water risks: shale gas in the United States, coal production and coal-fired power in China, and crude oil in the Middle East.
This analysis highlights the tension between water availability and agricultural production. Finding a balance between these two critical resources will be essential—especially as the global population expands.
Record-setting levels of smog this week shut down Harbin, a city of 11 million people in northeast China. Officials blamed increased coal consumption during the first days of winter heating, underscoring the urgency of the China State Council’s recently announced initiative to address persistent smog in major cities.
But while the Air Pollution Control Action Plan has ambitious goals—cutting air particulates and coal consumption—it may create unintended problems for the country’s water supply.
Water is never far from the news these days. This summer, northern India experienced one of its heaviest monsoon seasons in 80 years, leaving more than 800 people dead and forcing another 100,000 from their homes. Meanwhile, Central Europe faced its worst flooding in decades after heavy rains swelled major rivers like the Elbe and the Danube. In the United States, nearly half the country continues to suffer from drought, while heavy rainfall has broken records in the Northeast, devastated crops in the South, and now is inundating Colorado.
Businesses are starting to wake up to the mounting risks that water – whether in overabundance or scarcity – can pose to their operations and bottom line. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, experts named water risk as one of the top four risks facing business in the twenty-first century. Similarly, 53% of companies surveyed by the Carbon Disclosure Project reported that water risks are already taking a toll, owing to property damage, higher prices, poor water quality, business interruptions, and supply-chain disruptions.
The costs are mounting. Deutsche Bank Securities estimates that the recent US drought, which affected nearly two-thirds of the country’s lower 48 states, will reduce GDP growth by approximately one percentage point. Climate change, population growth, and other factors are driving up the risks. Twenty percent of global GDP already is produced in water-scarce areas. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in the absence of more sustainable water management, the share could rise to 45% by 2050, placing a significant portion of global economic output at risk.
To maintain its economic growth and provide for its massive population, China must reconcile two powerful, converging trends: energy demand and resource scarcity. One prime example of this tension is the country’s coal use and water supply.
A new study from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reveals troubling news: The aquifers that millions of Americans rely on for freshwater are being depleted at an accelerating rate. In fact, aquifer depletion in the years between 2004 and 2008 was nearly triple the historical average.
Population growth and increasing demand—in particular for irrigating crops—are straining these underground freshwater sources. In many cases, aquifers have accumulated over the course of millions of years.
There are two lessons we take away from this USGS study:
Growing demand is increasingly coming into conflict with our finite global water supply. Even in places that are historically water-abundant, growth in water demand is outstripping available supply. (That’s why WRI’s Aqueduct project focuses on water stress – the ratio of water supply and demand – more than measures of water quantity.)