As water use increases, it becomes more difficult to access the resource sustainably. Water users need to handle conflict or cooperation, as well as avoiding breaching ‘planetary boundaries’, and eating into ‘environmental flow requirements’. There is pressure on the water resource - we say that it is “stressed”.
A simple way of assessing water stress is to calculate what percentage of available water is being used (‘use-to-availability ratio’). Specifically, blue water stress is the percentage of water used from rivers, lakes and aquifers.
Globally, water stress has been increasing over time, mainly because of increasing water consumption, especially for water-dependent products such as food. Irrigation is the largest water user globally, and in most regions.
Water stress can be thought of as demand-driven scarcity, while water shortage is population-driven. Stress can occur even with a small population if water use is sufficiently high and water availability sufficiently low.
If water use is high, stress can be relieved by reducing water use. Increasing water productivity means that the same products or services can be provided with lower water use. Alternatively, lower water use products and services could be produced. Exports of water-intensive products (‘virtual water exports’) could be reduced, and imported instead from water-rich regions (‘virtual water imports’).
If water use cannot be reduced, then stress can be relieved by increasing water availability. Possible water sources include desalination, interbasin water transfers, and capturing non-productive evaporation. Increasing water storage may help if there are times with surplus water.
The interpretation of the indicator changes depending on how water availability and use are calculated. Other results can be viewed in the exploration tool. For the results shown:
Explore this data in a full interactive visualisation - change assumptions, and zoom in to specific regions and water sectors
Water stress refers to the impact of high water use relative to water availability.
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