Middle East and North Africa most at risk
The major industrial economies of Australia, India, China and USA have been rated as ‘high risk' in a new study evaluating the vulnerability of 159 countries to water stress, whilst the regions of the Middle East and North Africa are highest overall risk.
The Water Stress Index is developed by global risks advisory firm Maplecroft to identify the risks to governments, populations and business. The index is calculated by evaluating the ratio of a country's total water use, from domestic, industrial and agricultural use, to the renewable supply of water from precipitation, streams, rivers and groundwater. The index is accompanied by a sub-national map, which utilises GIS (Geographic Information System) technology to pinpoint global water stress down to 50km² worldwide.
At a national level, the Water Stress Index identifies the Middle East and North African countries of Egypt (1), Kuwait (2), UAE (3), Libya (4) and Saudi Arabia (5) as exposed to the most overall risk. Water stress in this region is not surprising as it only receives 1% of the world's precipitation, of which 85% is lost, for example through evaporation. However, the key economies of Australia (19), India (29), China (40) and USA (51) have all been rated as ‘high risk' due to massive ‘extreme risk' areas of water stress, where demand is exceeding 80% of total renewable water resources.
According to Maplecroft, expanding populations, such as India's, which grew 1.3% in 2009, together with rising global temperatures, indicate that water stress will continue to be a challenge for governments, business and society. Access to water is crucial to all livelihoods, but shortages are often felt most quickly by the poor due to their heavy dependence on agriculture. Business, on the other hand, depends more directly on water for processing, energy, cooling and cleaning, and these needs can directly compete with those of local communities. Both governments and business therefore have a responsibility to explore and develop new efficiencies to save water, prevent diversion away from local populations and their livelihoods and to ensure that prices do not rise.
Maplecroft's water stress map identifies vast swathes of Australia as ‘extreme risk.' The issue has particular resonance in the south, as it is subject to increasing climate variability characterised by declining rainfall. South Australia has nearly 1million km² at ‘extreme risk' of water stress, which represents 12.8% of the total land area. Poor water governance in the past compounded the situation by over-allocating surface and ground water, which has negatively impacted many rivers and watersheds. Subsequently, there is competing user demand from the agricultural, domestic, industrial and mining sectors.
In India and China, high demand for water is driven by climbing populations and rising industrial and agricultural use. The latest available figures from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation estimate the annual growth in industrial water withdrawal in India at 8.91%, whilst municipal water withdrawal in China is rising at 10.38%. In north and eastern China, which are home to the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, water supplies are being used at a higher rate than available supply. This has prompted the planning of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, a scheme to transfer water from the wet south to the dry north. The water stress issue in both India and China is especially important to business as many companies have crucial facets of their supply chains based there.
Across the USA there is a wide range of water stress diversity with the Great Plains and the southwest areas of the country suffering severely due to intensive farming and low precipitation, whilst the northwest and northeast states have high precipitation rates and low levels of water stress. In Texas 690,438 km² are subject to extreme water stress, equal to 7.27% of the state's land mass. In western parts of the United States groundwater is being consumed faster than it is being replenished, and groundwater tables are steadily falling. The Colorado River in the western United States often runs dry before reaching the sea. The river now serves 30 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, with 70 percent or more of its water siphoned off for irrigation.
"Water stress has implications for where and how companies should operate, as well as the sustainability of their activities," said Principal Environmental Analyst at Maplecroft, Dr Matthew Bunce.
Alyson Warhurst, CEO of Maplecroft adds "Business requirements will increasingly compete with and have negative impacts upon local communities and their environments unless business takes the initiative to introduce integrated water management programmes and ensure the conservation of water for all. Some companies are doing this through a combination of education and technical initiatives such as well drilling and irrigation projects; and, we should learn from their examples. Governments, companies and investors need to be part of the solution as they face pressures from different stakeholders to ensure these are addressed, not least through the responsible management of supply chains that depend on significant water inputs."