FAO Report Analyzes Global Trends in Water Stress
Peter Luethi, Biovision Foundation
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The report finds that more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, with Western and Central Asia, and Northern Africa being the most affected regions.

The report describes agriculture as the largest water user, accounting for nearly 70% of all water withdrawals globally, but notes that its share is decreasing in the overall sectoral distribution.

Relying on pilot results from Peru, the report concludes that interpretation of indicator 6.4.2 could be further enhanced by conducting a deeper analysis at the basin and regional level.

26 August 2018: A report titled, ‘Progress on Level of Water Stress 2018: Global Baseline for SDG Indicator 6.4.2,’ is one of seven indicator reports launched as a package at the 2018 World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden. Co-published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and its partners as part of the UN-Water Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6, the report analyzes data on the levels of freshwater withdrawals as a proportion of available freshwater resources.

SDG target 6.4 aims to “substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.” The second of two indicator reports highlighting progress under this target, the publication describes the methodological approach used to test indicator 6.4.2 (water stress) in the five pilot countries of Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, Senegal and Uganda, and presents the global baseline data for the indicator for the 2015-2018 period.

Noting that water stress affects every continent, the report finds that more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, with Western and Central Asia, and Northern Africa being the most affected regions. A high level of water stress is linked to negative effects of social and economic development, increasing competition and potential conflict among users. Based on an analysis of the period between 1996 and 2016, the report concludes that water stress has increased for most countries in the world and has more than doubled in 26 countries, 15 of which are in Africa. Among likely reasons for these trends, the report highlights increased economic activities, growing populations and improved ways to measure water usage, along with effects of climatic changes.

Even minimal savings could significantly alleviate water stress in arid countries where agriculture accounts for 90% of freshwater withdrawals.

While the majority of countries scored “well below the 25% threshold of initial water stress,” around 23 countries are reported as experiencing water stress above 70%, and 15 countries “withdraw more than 100% of their renewable freshwater resources.” These results are contrasted against declining water stress in 44 countries, half of which are in Europe, due to, inter alia, improved water-use efficiency and shifting economic activities to less water intensive sectors.

The report describes agriculture as the largest water user, accounting for nearly 70% of all water withdrawals globally, but notes that its share is decreasing in the overall sectoral distribution. For developing countries, however, the report suggests that agriculture offers the greatest opportunities for reducing withdrawals and saving water, noting that “even minimal savings” could significantly alleviate water stress in other sectors, particularly in arid countries “where agriculture accounts for 90% of freshwater withdrawals.”

Specific solutions to reduce the abstraction of water recommended in the report include the increased use of non-conventional water resources, such as reuse of wastewater, desalinated water and direct use of agricultural drainage water. Safe wastewater reuse and recycling are highlighted as being “a significantly untapped resource for industry and agriculture,” although the report notes the need to first overcome “political and cultural barriers.”

Discussing how to apply the findings at the national level, the report notes that high water stress indicates substantial use of water resources, with greater impacts on resource sustainability and the potential for conflict among users. Relying on pilot results from Peru, the report concludes that interpretation of indicator 6.4.2 could be further enhanced by conducting a deeper analysis at the basin and regional level as this would provide a better picture of water stress distribution within a country, and therefore help to assess where to target more efforts.

The SDG 6.4.2 tracking report was published as part of the Integrated Monitoring of Water and Sanitation-Related SDG Targets (GEMI) initiative, which falls under the UN-Water Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6. GEMI was established in 2014 to harmonize and expand existing monitoring efforts focused on water, wastewater and ecosystem resources (SDG targets 6.3 to 6.6). [Publication: Progress on Level of Water Stress: Global baseline for SDG indicator 6.4.2, 2018] [UN-Water press release on launch of SDG 6 indicator reports] [SDG Knowledge Hub story on launch of SDG 6.4.1 baseline report] [All coverage of World Water Week 2018, including series of monitoring reports]


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