Water scarcity affects four billion people worldwide.

February 16, 2016

Illustrated by Mekonnen and Hoekstra

New research says water scarcity is a much bigger problem than we thought. While previous studies estimated that between 1.7 and 3.1 billion people experience severe water shortages (when the amount of water consumed is double the amount available) during at least part of the year, a paper published last week in Science Advances puts that figure at a staggering four billion. That’s two-thirds of the global population.

Nearly half of those affected live in India or China, but the United States (lookin’ at you, California), Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Mexico are also hot spots of dry times. Population growth, improved living standards, changing consumption patterns, and agriculture are all driving the upswell in water shortages, which can affect everything from businesses to crop yields, human welfare, and biodiversity.

And climate change may only make it worse. That’s why “meeting humanity’s increasing demand for freshwater and protecting ecosystems at the same time,” the authors write, “will be one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century.” 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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