Water access is going to be one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. As climate change dries out the already dry areas and makes the wet ones wetter, we're poised to see some radical civilizational shifts. For one, a number of densely populated areas will come under serious water stress—which analysts fear will lead to strife, thirst, and even violent conflict. With that in mind, the World Resource Institute has assembled a new report projecting which nations are most likely to be hardest hit by water stress in coming decades.
The nations most likely to be hit by severe and continuous water shortages by 2040 include Bahrain (which will be the single most water-stressed), Israel, Palestine, Spain, and Chile.
"Fourteen of the 33 likely most water stressed countries in 2040 are in the Middle East," according to WRI's analysis, "including nine considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0: Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon."
WRI says that the region is probably the "least water-secure in the world" and currently relies largely on groundwater withdrawals and desalinated seawater to quench its population's thirst. The Institute says the Middle East faces "exceptional water-related challenges for the foreseeable future." Saudi Arabia, for instance, is currently planning on surviving nearly entirely on imported water by just next year.
But there are countries around the world facing water shortages too. Spain will be hard hit in Europe, and Chile will be parched in South America. A 2012 UN analysis found that by 2030, half of the world's population will be facing water shortages in one form or another
Water stress is determined by a simple ratio, WRI's Charles Iceland tells me: "Water demand to available water. Two things can make stress go up," he says. "Demand goes up, from population growth or economic growth, or supply goes down, because of climate change. In some parts of the world climate change will lead to decreased rainfall." He cites the American Southwest, Australia, and parts of Europe and the Middle East as examples.
"The more powerful driver is on the demand side," however, he says, as more people are migrating to cities and population centers, often to escape conditions exacerbated by climate change. Then, the strain on the available water infrastructure deepens. Secondly, as populations become more prosperous, they tend to use more water, "so as we see GDP levels go up we're going to be demanding more water per capita," Iceland says.
Now, two things can happen when concentrated populations place serious enough water stress on a city or region: "You become more efficient, or you move away to a place that has more water. Hopefully, to minimize the water refugee problem, you get more efficient."
Efficiency was the route taken by Melbourne, Australia, which thrived during its megadrought in the 00s, and is currently being undertaken in California. "You use drip irrigation systems," Iceland says, and regulate farming practices. "In most countries 70-90 percent of water demand is for irrigation," he says. Otherwise, we're going to see what he terms "water refugees"—people abandoning arid lands en masse, in hopes of finding places with more water.
He cites one recent example when such a migration ended in catastrophe: "In the 2000s, Syria had its worst drought in recorded history," he says. 1.5 million farmers, herders, and rural dwellers were uprooted during the drought that presaged the civil war. "Farmers couldn't make a living anymore," he said, so they moved into the cities, "and they put a stress on social services, and obviously the Syrian government wasn't big on social services, so there was a lot of disaffection." Water shortage, he says was one of many driving factors behind the unrest that led to continuing disaster in the country.
"Water wasn't behind all the atrocities in Syria, but it was a contributing factor," he said.
Here's the full list of the nations slated to be hit worst:
Top 33 Water Stressed Countries: 2040
1. San Marino
1. United Arab Emirates
9. Saudi Arabia