One in 4 people lives in places at high risk of running out of water

17 countries currently use more than 80 percent of their typical yearly water supply

New Delhi water line

PARCHED  People line up for water in New Delhi, one of several Indian cities that have faced water crises this year. A new analysis shows the country is one of 17 that typically uses more than 80 percent of its water supply.

Shashank Agarwal/Shutterstock

The world is facing a water scarcity crisis, with 17 countries including India, Israel and Eritrea using more than 80 percent of their available water supplies each year, a new analysis finds. Those countries are home to a quarter of the world’s 7.7 billion people. Further population rise or dwindling water supplies could cause critical water shortages, the researchers warn.

“As soon as a drought hits or something unexpected happens, major cities can find themselves in very dire situations,” says Rutger Hofste, a data scientist at the Washington, D.C.–based World Resources Institute, which released the data on August 6. “That’s something that we expect to see more and more.”

To gauge countries’ risk — or “water stress,” WRI updated its online calculator with data from 1961 to 2014 on water use by households, industry and agriculture, as well as water supply data from surface sources and aquifers. Previously, the tool — called the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas — assessed water demand based a snapshot of 2010 data.

People “immediately link [water woes] to climate change,” says Hofste, who is based in Amsterdam. But economic and population growth “are the biggest drivers.” Water use has increased by 150 percent, from 1,888.7 cubic kilometers in 1961 to 4,720.8 cubic kilometers in 2014, the analysis found.

Twelve of the 17 countries facing extremely high risk are in the Middle East and North Africa. Also in this category are Pakistan and India, where aquifer levels are among the fastest falling in the world (SN: 7/25/15, p. 13).

The United States is considered to have relatively low risk; overall, it uses less than 20 percent of its available water. However, some western states including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska typically use 40 percent or more of current water supplies each year.

Carolyn Wilke is a freelance science journalist based in Chicago and former staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Northwestern University.

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