Water as a Stress Factor

The recent droughts in California – where water has long fueled tensions and political battles – have been severe enough to make “water stealing” a frequent crime. Elsewhere around the world, there are also mighty struggles with drought, including in Sao Paulo. We wonder: Which of the following pairs of countries faces the highest stresses to their water resources?

A. Saudi Arabia and Iran
B. India and Turkey
C. United States and China
D. France and Brazil

A. Saudi Arabia and Iran is correct.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the 36 countries grappling with “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, according to the World Resources Institute.

Baseline water stress is a comparison of the amount of water being used in a country for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes against the volume of water available from rivers, streams and shallow aquifers. If more than 80% of these renewable water resources are being used annually, a country is considered to have extremely high water stress.

In such situations, industry, farms and the general population are likely to face serious risk of shortages, if there is even a small drop in how much water is being replenished annually. Even a minor decline in rainfall can produce crop failures, production slowdowns and other economic damage.

As the populations and economies of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia grow, these water resource stresses are likely to worsen unless very strong water management and conservation practices are implemented soon.

Most of the 36 countries that have to cope with extremely high water stress are small island nations or desert/arid countries in the tropics or subtropics. The Caribbean, Middle East, Central Asia and Sahel/Sahara regions encompass nearly all of them.

Over one billion people around the world currently live in water-scarce regions. By 2025, as many as 3.5 billion people could regularly experience water scarcity, according to the World Bank.

B. India and Turkey is not correct.

India and Turkey are among the countries that now face “high” stress on baseline water resources each year – meaning that 40-80% of renewable water resources are being used each year.

India’s rapidly growing population is vying for the same water sources as its populous neighbors – Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. That fact, combined with declining snowpacks and glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet, has already put India’s water supply under tremendous strain.

Agricultural inefficiency and a growing industrial sector also play a role in water demands threatening to outpace India’s water resources on a regular basis.

In Turkey, major cities, including Ankara, its capital city, and Istanbul, have faced droughts in recent years.

As is the case with India, Turkey faces geopolitical obstacles to capturing additional water. Its efforts to continue building more dams on its major rivers – such as the Tigris and Euphrates – would worsen water supply problems for Syria and Iraq.

C. United States and China is not correct.

The United States and China currently face “medium to high” water resource stress at the national level, according to the World Resources Institute. That means 20-40% of renewable water resources are being used each year.

Ironically, in countries as large as the United States and China, it is possible for some areas to experience droughts (such as southern California or Beijing) while others experience severe flooding. Thus, moving water from where it is abundant to where it is scarce is a national priority for both nations.

The United States has already invested significant resources over many decades to divert water to businesses and residents in the arid Western states. These diversions have caused tension with farmers and ranchers who need that water to keep their land green, too.

In recent years, China has also turned its industrial and engineering skill toward similar water diversion projects that will control floods and keep the booming population and economy well supplied. Some of these projects have their origins in efforts launched hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

D. France and Brazil is not correct.

France has “low to medium” water stress, while Brazil has “low” water stress. These two categories are defined, respectively, as 10-20% or less than 10% of renewable water resources being used each year.

As with China and the United States, high overall availability of water does not necessarily mean the water is where the people are. And increasingly, people live in cities — 79% of France’s population and 85% of Brazil’s population, according to the World Bank in 2013. According to Brazil’s national water agency, half of Brazil’s cities are expected to face water shortages in the near future.

Delivering adequate water to meet the consumer and industrial needs of densely populated cities — in addition to continuing to meet agricultural demands — will pose challenges in coming decades.

Adopting sensible water management policies now would allow countries such as Brazil and France to limit serious water crises.

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