Water Use and Stress

First published in 2015; most recent substantial revision in July 2018.

This article previously covered aspects of clean water and sanitation access; you now find this material in our entries on Clean Water Access and Sanitation Access.

Freshwater use

How much freshwater does the world use?

A growing global population and economic shift towards more resource-intensive consumption patterns means global freshwater use — that is, freshwater withdrawals for agriculture, industry and municipal uses — has increased nearly six-fold since 1900. This is shown in the chart below.  Rates of global freshwater use increased sharply from the 1950s onwards, but since 2000 appears to be plateauing, or at least slowing.  

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Freshwater use by region

Global freshwater use since 1900 is disaggregated by broad regional groupings — OECD nations; BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); and Rest of the World (ROW) in the chart below. Although absolute freshwater use has growth over this period, the distribution of uses between these regional groupings have not changed significantly over the last century; OECD nations use approximately 20-25 percent; BRICS countries use the largest share at approximately 45 percent; and ROW at 30-33 percent.  

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Freshwater withdrawals by country

This breakdown of total freshwater withdrawals is shown by country in the chart below over the period from 1967. In 2014, India had the largest freshwater withdrawals at over 760 billion cubic metres per year. This was followed by China at just over 600 billion mand the United States at around 480-90 billion m3

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Water withdrawals per capita

Levels of water use vary significantly across the world. The visualisation below shows the average level of water withdrawal per capita per year. As described in detail in our Data Quality & Definitions section, water withdrawal is defined as the quantity of freshwater taken from groundwater or surface water sources (such as lakes or rivers) for use in agricultural, industrial or domestic purposes.

As seen below, there is large variance in levels of water withdrawal across the world – this can depend on a range of factors, including latitude, climate, and the importance of a country’s agricultural or industrial sector, as explored in the sections below.

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Renewable freshwater resources

Renewable water withdrawals per capita

To maintain sustainable levels of water resources, rates of water withdrawals must be below rates of freshwater replenishment. ‘Renewable internal freshwater flows’ refer to to internal renewable resources (internal river flows and groundwater from rainfall) in the country.

Renewable internal flows are therefore an important indicator of water security or scarcity. If rates of freshwater withdrawal begin to exceed the renewable flows, resources begin to decline. The chart below shows the level of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita.

Per capita renewable resources depend on two factors: the total quantity of renewable flows, and the size of the population. If renewable resources decline — as can happen frequently in countries with large annual variability in rainfall, such as monsoon seasons — then per capita renewable withdrawals will also fall. Similarly, if total renewable sources remain constant, per capita levels can fall if a country’s population is growing.

As we see below, per capita renewable resources are declining in many countries as a result of population increases. 

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Per capita renewable water resources by region

The chart below shows the average per capita renewable freshwater resources, measured in cubic metres per person per year.

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Agricultural water withdrawals

How much freshwater do we use for agriculture?

Water is an essential input to global agriculture, whether in the form of rainfed sources or pumped irrigation. The visualisation below shows the total quantity of freshwater withdrawals which are used in agriculture, whether in the form of food crop, livestock, biofuels, or other non-food crop production. Data on agricultural water consumption is typically not reported on an annual basis, and often gathered over several year increments.

In 2010 India was the world’s largest agricultural water consumer at nearly 700 billion m3 per year. India’s agricultural water consumption has been growing rapidly  — almost doubling between 1975 and 2010 — as its population and total food demand continues to increase. China is the world’s second largest user, at approximately 385 billion min 2015, although its agricultural freshwater use has approximately plateaued in the recent past.

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What share of total freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture?

How do agricultural freshwater withdrawals compare to industrial and domestic sources? Globally we use approximately 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals for agriculture.1

However, this share varies significantly by country – as shown in the chart below which measures the percentage of total freshwater withdrawals used for agriculture. Here we see large variations geographically and by income level. The average agricultural water use for low-income countries is 90 percent; 79 percent for middle income and only 41 percent at high incomes.

There are a number of countries across South Asia, Africa and Latin America which use more than 90 percent of water withdrawals for agriculture. The highest is Sudan at 96 percent. Countries in the global north tend to use a much lower share of water for agriculture; Germany and the Netherlands use less than one percent. 

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Irrigation

What share of agricultural land is irrigated?

Irrigation — the deliberate provision or controlled flooding of agricultural land with water — has been an important input factor in the observed increase of crop yields across many countries in recent decades. It has also been a strong driver in the quantity of water used for agriculture.

The share of total agricultural area (which is the combination of arable and grazing land) which is irrigated is shown in the chart below. As we see, irrigation is particularly prevalent across South & East Asia and the Middle East;  Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Korea all irrigate more than half of their agricultural area. India irrigates 35 percent of its agricultural area.

Levels of irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa have increased, and continue to have, lower levels  of irrigation relative to South Asia and the Middle East & North Africa. Poorer progress in increasing crop yields in recent decades in Sub-Saharan Africa has been partly attributed (among other factors including fertilizer application rates and crop varieties) to lower uptake of irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa.2

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Industrial water withdrawals

How much freshwater do we use for industry?

Water is used for a range of industrial applications, including dilution, steam generation, washing, and cooling of manufacturing equipment. Industrial water is also used as cooling water for energy generation in fossil fuel and nuclear power plants (hydropower generation is not included in this category), or as wastewater from certain industrial processes.

The visualisation below shows the total annual water withdrawals which are used for industrial purposes. Globally, the United States is the largest user of industrial water, withdrawing over 300 billion m³ per year. This is significantly greater than China, the second largest, at 140 billion m³.

Most countries across the Americas, Europe and East Asia & Pacific regions use more one billion m³ for industrial uses per year. Rates are typically much lower across Sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of South Asia where most use less than 500 million m³.

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What share of total freshwater withdrawals are used for industry?

Globally, approximately 20 percent of total water withdrawals are used for industrial purposes. The visualisation below provides an overview of industrial water withdrawals measured as the share of total water withdrawals (which is the sum of agricultural, industrial and domestic uses).

In contrast to the global distribution for agricultural water withdrawals, industrial water tends to dominate in high-income countries (with an average of 17 percent), and is small in low-income countries on average 2 percent).

Estonia uses the greater share of withdrawals for industrial applications at 96 percent. The share in Central and Eastern Europe tends to be around 70 percent; 80 percent in Canada; and approximately half in the United States. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, this tends to contribute less than 2 percent to total withdrawals.

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Household water withdrawals

How much freshwater do we use for households and public services?

Municipal water is defined as the water we use for domestic, household purposes or public services. This is typically the most ‘visible’ form of water: the water we use for drinking, cleaning, washing, and cooking.

Municipal water withdrawals are shown in the chart below. With the largest population, China’s domestic water demands are highest at over 70 billion m³ per year. India, the next largest populace is the third largest municipal water user. The United States, despite having a much lower population, is the second largest user as a result of higher per capita water demands.

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What share of freshwater withdrawals do we use for households and public services?

Despite being the most visible use of freshwater, domestic demands for most countries are small relative to agricultural and industrial applications. Globally around 14 percent of withdrawals are used for municipal purposes.

Municipal uses as a share of total water withdrawals across the world is shown in the chart below. The majority of countries use less than 30 percent of withdrawals for domestic purposes.

The share of municipal water in some countries across Sub-Saharan Africa can be high as a result of very low demands for agricultural and industrial withdrawals. Domestic uses of water withdrawals can also dominate in some countries across Europe with high rainfall, such as the United Kingdom and Ireland where agricultural production is often largely rainfed and industrial output is low.   

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Water stress and scarcity

As global population grows (increasing agricultural, industrial and domestic demands for water), and water demand increases, water stress and the risk of water scarcity is now a common concern. This is even more applicable for particular regions with lower water resources and/or larger population pressures.

Water stress is defined based on the ratio of freshwater withdrawals to renewable freshwater resources. Water stress does not insinuate that a country has water shortages, but does give an indication of how close it maybe be to exceeding a water basin’s renewable resources. If water withdrawals exceed available resources (i.e. greater than 100 percent) then a country is either extracting beyond the rate at which aquifers can be replenished, or has very high levels of desalinisation water generation (the conversion of seawater to freshwater using osmosis processes).

How much renewable freshwater resources do we have?

The chart below shows the total internal renewable freshwater resources by region.

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What share of freshwater resources do we currently use?

The visualisation below provides a measure of levels of water stress across the world. This is measured based on freshwater withdrawals as a share of internal (renewable) resources. The World Resources Institute categorise water stress in the following ways: if withdrawals are less than 10 percent of resources then a country has low water stress; 10-20 percent is low-to-medium stress; 20-40 percent medium-to-high; 40-80 percent high stress; and greater than 80 percent is extremely high stress.3

As shown, several countries across the Middle East, North Africa & South Asia have extremely high levels of water stress. Many, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Pakistan, Libya have withdrawal rates well in excess of 100 percent — this means they are either extracting unsustainably from existing aquifer sources, or produce a large share of water from desalinisation.

Most countries across South Asia are experiencing high water stress; medium-to-high across East Asia, the United States and much of Southern and Eastern Europe. Water stress in Northern Europe, Canada, much of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania is typically low or low-to-medium.

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What determines how much water we use?

Agricultural water withdrawals tend to be higher at low incomes

In the chart below we see agricultural water withdrawals as a share of total water withdrawals versus gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Overall, we see a negative correlation: agriculture’s share of total water withdrawals tend to decrease at higher incomes. This links strongly to the structure of economies; at lower incomes, agriculture forms a higher share of total GDP and a larger share of agricultural employment.

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Water footprint of food products

Globally, 70 percent of water withdrawals are used for agriculture. However, water requirements vary significantly depending on food type. The charts below show the global average water footprint/requirement for the production of one tonne of product (in cubic metres); per kilocalorie (per litre); and per gram of protein (per litre).

This water footprint is the sum of water requirement across the full value chain (for example, the requirement of meat production includes the water requirement of the animal as well as the demand of the crops grown for animal feed). This value also includes the quantity of wastewater or water which is polluted as a result of agricultural production.

Water requirements per tonne of product

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Water requirements per kilocalorie

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Water requirements per gram of protein

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Definitions

Water withdrawals

Water withdrawal: Water withdrawals, ( also sometimes known as ‘water abstractions’), are defined as freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources (such as rivers or lakes), either permanently or temporarily, and used for agricultural, industrial or municipal (domestic) uses.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) AQUASTAT Database defines total water withdrawal as: “Annual quantity of water withdrawn for agricultural, industrial and municipal purposes. It can include water from primary renewable and secondary freshwater resources, as well as water from over-abstraction of renewable groundwater or withdrawal from fossil groundwater, direct use of agricultural drainage water, direct use of (treated) wastewater, and desalinated water. It does not include in-stream uses, which are characterized by a very low net consumption rate, such as recreation, navigation, hydropower, inland capture fisheries, etc.”

Total withdrawal is equal to: [withdrawals for agriculture] + [withdrawals for industry] + [withdrawals for municipal/domestic uses].

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) AQUASTAT Database gives the following definitions for agricultural, industrial and municipal withdrawals:

Agricultural water withdrawal: “Annual quantity of self-supplied water withdrawn for irrigation, livestock and aquaculture purposes. It can include water from primary renewable and secondary freshwater resources, as well as water from over-abstraction of renewable groundwater or withdrawal from fossil groundwater, direct use of agricultural drainage water, direct use of (treated) wastewater, and desalinated water. Water for the dairy and meat industries and industrial processing of harvested agricultural products is included under industrial water withdrawal.”

Industrial water withdrawal: “Annual quantity of self-supplied water withdrawn for industrial uses. It can include water from primary renewable and secondary freshwater resources, as well as water from over-abstraction of renewable groundwater or withdrawal from fossil groundwater, direct use of agricultural drainage water, direct use of (treated) wastewater, and desalinated water. This sector refers to self-supplied industries not connected to the public distribution network. The ratio between net consumption and withdrawal is estimated at less than 5%. It includes water for the cooling of thermoelectric and nuclear power plants, but it does not include hydropower. Water withdrawn by industries that are connected to the public supply network is generally included in municipal water withdrawal.”

Municipal water withdrawal: “Annual quantity of water withdrawn primarily for the direct use by the population. It can include water from primary renewable and secondary freshwater resources, as well as water from over-abstraction of renewable groundwater or withdrawal from fossil groundwater, direct use of agricultural drainage water, direct use of (treated) wastewater, and desalinated water. It is usually computed as the total water withdrawn by the public distribution network. It can include that part of the industries and urban agriculture, which is connected to the municipal network. The ratio between the net consumption and the water withdrawn can vary from 5 to 15% in urban areas and from 10 to 50% in rural areas.”

Water stress and scarcity

Renewable internal freshwater resources refers to the quantity of internal freshwater from inflowing river basins and recharging groundwater aquifers. Data on renewable resources should be treated with caution; since this data is gathered intermittently, it fails to capture seasonal and annual variance in water resources which can be significant in some nations. Data at a national level also fails to capture variability at more local levels, which can be important when analysing the sustainability of particular groundwater aquifers or surface water basins.

Water stress is defined in its simplest terms as occurring when water demand or withdrawal substantiates a large share of renewable water resources. The World Resources Institute (WRI) define baseline water stress based on the ratio of annual water withdrawals to renewable resources.4

It defines water stress categories based on this percentage (% of withdrawals to renewable resources) as follows:

  • <10% = low stress
  • 10-20% = low-to-medium stress
  • 20-40% = medium-to-high stress
  • 40-80% = high stress
  • >80% = extremely high stress

Water scarcity is more extreme than water stress, and occurs when water demand exceeds internal water resources.

Data Sources

World Development Indicators – World Bank
  • Data: Access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, open defecation, water consumption by sector and related health indicators
  • Geographical coverage:  Global – by country and world region
  • Time span: 1990 onwards
  • Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme ( JMP ) for Water Supply and Sanitation
  • Data:Water and sanitation sources access
  • Geographical coverage: Global – by country and world region
  • Time span: 2000 onwards
  • Available at: https://washdata.org/

UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) AQUASTAT