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Troubled Water: A Map of Tomorrow’s Thirsty Future

A survey of regional water crises: community stress and political standoffs.


(Stress Index: World Resources Institute)

North America

  1. The Ogallala aquifer provides nearly one-third of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States. In 2013, researchers estimated that, at current rates, farming in places like Kansas is set to peak in the 2040s, declining thereafter from water stress.

South America

  1. The Amazon basin generates around one-fifth of global fresh water runoff annually, and it’s in jeopardy.
  2. Lakes in the Andes — crucial sources of fresh water for Ecuador, Colombia, and northern Peru — are warming faster than the global average, imperiling not only water access but also basic ecology.
  3. It takes 7.4 gallons of water to make one pound of copper in Chile. The effects of climate change and El Niño have drawn renewed attention to multinationals tapping Andes lakes for mining purposes — and a history of skirmishes that pit privatized water concerns and militaries against citizens who say water is a right.
  4. Brazil is planning the construction of several dozen major new hydroelectric plants by 2020, worrying forest advocates and native activists. Greenpeace has claimed the massive São Luiz do Tapajós Dam could push a portion of the 12,000 indigenous Munduruku off their ancestral land, as a consortium of energy companies led by the Brazilian utility Eletrobras partners with the government to expand grid capacity.
  5. The upheaval caused by last year’s droughts in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and other countries recalls troubling precedents: violent protests in 2012 over corporate control of lakes, and the riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1999 and 2000, which scuttled Bechtel’s plans to privatize water.


  1. Ethiopia is building hydroelectric dams on the Nile that threaten to cut the river’s flow downstream to Egypt, causing tension.
  2. Researchers with the British Geological Survey estimate Africa’s underground aquifers hold “more than 100 times … [the] annual renewable freshwater resources on Africa.” That’s not necessarily great news for Kenya; when it discovered new aquifers in 2013, U.S. security consultants said their proximity to international borders would raise “the possibility of cross-border conflicts over water rights in the future.”

The Middle East

  1. In the Middle East and North Africa, we find the world’s hub of desalination plants. There are roughly 1,500 around the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf, generating three-fifths of the world’s desalinated water. But with countries like Saudi Arabia kicking waste back into the sea, salt levels in the Gulf waters have increased 60 percent, leading to diminishing fishery returns and threatening marine life.
  2. One of the Gulf’s most water-insecure nations is Yemen, where the average citizen lives on less than 200 cubic meters of water annually, far below the cutoff for water scarcity (1,000 cubic meters per person per year).
  3. The United Arab Emirates has built the world’s largest underground reservoir — 26,000,000 cubic meters of desalinated water. When full, it holds enough to last 90 days.


  1. In Central Asia, we’re seeing intense political conflict over water sharing on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. Together, these two rivers comprise 90 percent of Central Asian river water and 75 percent of the water needed for irrigated agriculture. Upstream, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan control the rivers and capture water behind dams. Tajikistan’s dams have been a major source of tension with Uzbekistan.
  2. As recently as the 1990s, the Chinese government estimated its country had around 50,000 rivers that drained areas of 100 square kilometers or more. But according to a recent survey, more than half of those rivers — 27,000 of them — are now gone.
  3. China’s South-North Water Transfer project seeks to move tens of billions of cubic meters of water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River Basin in the thirsty, industrial north. This project, though, poses a number of major ecological hazards to both rivers.
  4. Some parts of northern China live on less than 400 cubic meters of water per capita annually.
  5. India is home to over 16 percent of the Earth’s population, but has access to just four percent of its fresh water. Significant portions of India’s fresh water in rural areas — where 70 percent of the population lives — is tainted. Some 600,000 children under the age of five die each year of waterborne diseases and inadequate water supply.
  6. The underground aquifers of the Upper Ganges irrigates arable land in India and Pakistan. A study in 2012 reported that the reservoir would need to be replenished by rain at over 50 times the current rate to sustain agriculture in both countries.