India, MENA region face severe water crisis

dry bed - main
India is at great risk of severe water shortages, which may be exacerbated by climate change. Copyright: Sherwin Crasto/American Center Mumbai, CC BY-ND 2.0. This image has been cropped.

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  • India and 16 other countries are severely water-stressed
  • MENA region is worst affected with declining water resources
  • Water scarcity already impacting economies and environments

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[NEW DELHI] India, a country of 1.3 billion people, is potentially at the greatest risk of severe water shortages, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI)’s updated global water risk atlas.

Some two billion people in 17 countries, or a quarter of the world’s population, are likely, over the next few years, to confront ‘Zero Day’ when taps run completely dry from excess water extraction, according to WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas — a tool to visualise and assess water stress and drought and flood risk covering 189 countries.

The Atlas predicts that Northern India will be hit by “severe groundwater depletion” as a result of excessive extraction. From 1990 to 2014, the disproportionate extraction caused an eight-centimeter-per-year decline, heavily exploiting surface water in the process.  

“Sustainable access to safe, affordable water should be on every government's list of top priorities for its citizens”

Siddhartha Roy, Virginia Tech

The 17 countries that face extremely high water-stress levels are vulnerable to frequent dry shocks tied to climate change. Twelve of the 17 fall in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, including Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Qatar.

Last year, the World Bank had warned that rapidly changing socioeconomic, political, and environmental conditions were making water security an unprecedented challenge in the MENA region.   

WRI map - cropped
A portion of Aqueduct’s Water Risk Atlas shows, in red, the areas of India and parts of the Middle East region to be at great risk of water stress.
Credit: Image from World Resources Institute

WRI’s president and CEO, Andrew Steer, says that the looming water crisis may result in conflict and migration, food insecurity and financial instability. “The newly updated Aqueduct tools allow users to better see and understand water risks and make smart decisions to manage them,” he said in a statement at the release of the Atlas this month (6 August).

The US think tank warned that in these 17 countries (which use 80 per cent of the available water in an average year) “when demand rivals supply, even small dry shocks, which are set to increase due to climate change, can produce dire consequences”. 

Although India ranks 13 in the list, but with a population of 1.3 billion, water stress in India may potentially affect three times the population of the other 16 countries combined, WRI says.

Chennai, the capital city of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and home to nine million people, experienced acute water shortage in June when taps and reservoirs ran dry and water had to be shipped in by freight train from other parts of the country. Other southern cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad also faced severe shortages this summer.

Siddhartha Roy, an environmental engineer and postdoctoral associate at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, US, who works on water quality, environmental justice and public health, says that the Atlas appears to be a robust tool that highlights regions of severe water stress. “Many of these areas are densely populated and are home to people who are acutely suffering because of water problems.”

Sustainable access to safe, affordable water should be on every government's list of top priorities for its citizens,” Roy tells SciDev.Net. “The data-driven approach of the Atlas is a welcome step towards evidence-based planning, sensible decision making and implementation of development projects that can make our villages, cities and nations more resilient to future crises.”

“Water scarcity already ranks as one of the cross-cutting risks to the health of economies and environments,” says Jeremy Schmidt, assistant professor at the geography department of Durham University, UK. “The WRI water atlas won’t tell us what to do in the face of chronic uncertainty, but it provides critical inputs for decision makers now weighing decisions regarding acute crises that businesses, governments, and societies face.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.