What is it like to live under water-stress?

With water making up around 70% of the earth's surface, you might not think that water shortage would be a problem affecting us anytime soon. However, a worrying report from the World resources Institute (WRI) released last year revealed that around one-quarter of the global population face living in conditions of extremely high water stress.

So what exactly is water stress? The simple definition is when the demand for water starts to exceed available supply. It can also occur when poor water quality restricts its use. The 17 countries defined by the WRI as extremely water-stressed are those where 80% of the available water supply is currently being withdrawn each year.

The main factors contributing to global water stress include growth (in terms of both population and economic), inefficient use of water resources (including over-use and waste of supply) and climate change. These problems are increasing and it is predicted that as much as 52% of the global population may experience water stress by 2050.

Countries experiencing high water stress

South Africa

Cape Town became the first major global city to come close to a “day zero” in 2018 but water supply problems, caused by droughts and exacerbated by poor water infrastructure, extend to other major cities including Durban. Water scarcity has been predicted in the country as soon as 2025.


The most populous of the 17 countries listed as at risk of extreme water stress, India has a total population three times the size of the other 16 water-stressed countries combined. The situation has been particularly severe in Chennai, where reservoirs have been in danger of running dry, but problems have been identified in 9 regions. Climate change problems have been augmented by pollution and overuse due to agricultural irrigation.

Gulf Countries

Qatar was ranked by the WRI as the most water-stressed country in the world and a further four countries in the Gulf region (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain) were among the 17 listed. In fact, 12 of the 17 countries were from either the Middle East or North Africa. One of the hottest and driest regions on earth, growing demand due to economic growth and immigration has placed extra pressure on supplies. The World Bank has estimated that water scarcity in the Arab world will cost between 6-14% of GDP by 2050.


Although not among the extreme water-stressed group of countries, Belgium is one of the worst-ranked European countries. It sits at 23rd most water-stressed overall, categorised as at risk of high water stress. It is one of the most densely populated nations in Europe, so its reserves have to cope with additional pressures. Flanders is considered to be at particularly high risk.

Effects of water stress

The effects of water stress are first and foremost on the immediate water supply to the affected area. If a “day zero” scenario is reached, the central water supply is switched off at city level and resources are rationed. This means the likelihood of some people going without this essential resource if they don't have access to an alternative supply. Lack of access to a clean supply of water has obvious health implications, even in developed regions.

But beyond that, there are a number of knock-on effects including:

  • Economic effects, as water stress poses threats to businesses and livelihoods. In 2017, the World Bank produced a report that highlighted the impacts of water scarcity on both industry and agriculture which can have long-lasting repercussions on national economies.
  • International relations, as depleting water reserves increase the risk of water wars between countries that share waterways such as rivers, lakes and aquifers.
  • Environmental damage as wetlands disappear, causing disruption to the world's ecosystems.

Are there solutions?

Thankfully, there are affordable and timely solutions that can be employed to avert a global water crisis, some of which are being put into practice in water-stressed regions. These include:

  • reducing agricultural and industrial water use. Approximately 88% of global freshwater is used for agricultural and industrial production, but modern techniques such as sustainable farming and waterless clothes dyeing can save trillions of litres annually.
  • investing in recycling technologies such as rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse, which provides an alternative water source and reduces pressure on central water supplies.
  • desalination technologies which can convert saltwater and brackish water into usable water for drinking and irrigation, thereby providing access to the 97% of the earth's water supply that is seawater.

Water Experts can provide businesses and households with sustainable water technologies, including state-of-the-art recycling and desalination systems, in addition to offering tailored expert advice on how to become more water efficient. 

Technologies we use include the Q-Drop modular water purification system which can offer a sustainable decentralized water supply powered by renewable energy, enabling you to reduce both your water and carbon footprint.

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