20 cities with water shortage
Despite covering about 70% of the Earth's surface, water — especially drinking water, is not as plentiful as one might think. A survey of the world's 500 largest cities estimates that a quarter of them are in a situation of "water stress".
As a consequence of climate change, poor management of water resources and rapid population growth, by 2030, global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40%.
Already hosting more than half of the world's population, cities are at the forefront of the problem. As population grows, it increases pressure on reserves, which are already stressed by too little rain and too much waste. The list of cities we present here is not exhaustive.
In many regions of the world, water shortages already fuel social issues, protests and even armed conflicts.
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1. Chennai, India (11 million people)
The southern Indian city of Chennai (formerly Madras) is in crisis after its four main water reservoirs ran completely dry.
Residents have had to stand in line for hours to get water from government tanks. As the reservoirs started to run dry, many hotels and restaurants shut down temporarily. The Chennai metro has turned off air conditioning in the stations, while offices have asked staff to work from home in a bid to conserve water.
The situation has also prompted clashes to break out between residents. Police arrested a man for stabbing his neighbour during a fight over water-sharing in the neighbourhood.
Officials are trying to find alternative sources of water, with the city's water department starting to identify and extract water from quarries. But the big concern is the dry reservoirs and low groundwater levels.
"The destruction has just begun," one government official said. "If the rain fails us this year too, we are totally destroyed."
People stand in line to get water from government trucks
2. Cape Town, South Africa (4 million people)
Water in the Cape Town region is supplied largely from 6 major dams, situated in the nearby mountainous areas. The dams are recharged by rain falling in the catchment areas, largely during the cooler winter months of May to August, and dam levels decline during the dry summer months of November to April — when water use increases and irrigation takes place in the agricultural areas.
The City of Cape Town's population has grown from 2.4 million residents in 1995 to an estimated 4.3 million by 2018, representing a 79% population increase in 23 years, whereas dam water storage only increased by 15% in the same period.
Research on long-term weather data found that 2015-2017 had been the driest 3-year period since 1933 — resulting in a severe water shortage in the region, most notably affecting the City of Cape Town.
In early 2018, the dam levels were predicted to decline to critically low levels by April. The City then announced plans for "Day Zero": when the municipal water supply would be largely shut off, if a particular lower limit of water storage was reached — potentially making Cape Town the first major city to run out of water.
The water restrictions were put in place then, limiting daily usage to just 13 gallons (50 liters) per person per day. Through these water saving measures and water supply augmentation the city reduced its daily water usage by more than half. By June 2018 dam levels had increased to 43% of capacity, which enabled the City of Cape Town to announce that "Day Zero" for 2018 was unlikely.
Specialists warn that even though "Day Zero" for 2018 was averted, the water crisis in the Cape Town region isn’t over — as reservoirs are still down to just one-fifth their regular capacity, and rising global temperatures make droughts in the region more likely.
Satellite images of Theewaterskloof Dam, South Africa. [GRAPHIC: PLANET LABS, INC.]
3. São Paulo, Brazil (22 million people)
The largest city in Brazil went through a major water crisis from 2014 to 2016 when about two thirds of São Paulo’s population experienced water shortages. At the end of 2014, the main reservoir sunk to its lowest levels (dropping below 4%).
At the height of the crisis, the city of over 21.7 million inhabitants had less than 20 days of water supply and police had to escort water trucks to stop looting. Since human supply is a priority under law, industries and farmers from across the state were heavily affected by cutbacks, which exacerbated the financial crisis that these sectors were already facing.
Multiple factors were at play, among them a lack of long-term planning, limited incentives for consumers and industries to reduce their water usage, degradation of forests and springs around São Paulo, and even increasing deforestation in the Amazon.
Most of the responses were short-term, such as a financial reward for households that reduced water use and improved water-saving infrastructure. The lack of long-term commitments means that the city will likely face another water supply crisis in the future.
4. Beijing, China (22 million people)
The World Bank classifies water scarcity as when people in a determined location receive less than 264,000 gallons (1,000 cubic meters) of fresh water per person a year. In 2014, each inhabitant of Beijing received only 38,000 gallons (145 cubic meters) — merely one-seventh of the norm.
China is home to almost 20% of the world's population, but has only 7% of the world's fresh water. A Columbia University study estimates that the country's reserves declined 13% between 2000 and 2009.
Official figures from 2015 showed that 40% of Beijing's surface water was polluted to the point of not being useful even for agriculture or industrial use.
Water pollution in China
5. Cairo, Egypt (20 million people)
Once crucial to the establishment of one of the world's greatest civilizations, the River Nile is struggling in modern times. It is the source of 97% of Egypt's water but also the destination of increasing amounts of untreated agricultural and residential waste.
World Health Organization figures show that Egypt ranks high among lower middle-income countries in terms of the number of deaths related to water pollution. The UN estimates critical shortages in the country by 2025.
6. Jakarta, Indonesia (30 million people)
Like many coastal cities, the Indonesian capital faces the threat of rising sea levels. But in Jakarta the problem has been made worse by direct human action. Because less than half of the city's residents have access to piped water, illegal digging of wells is rife. This practice is draining the underground aquifers, almost literally deflating them.
As a consequence, about 40% of Jakarta now lies below sea level, according to World Bank estimates. To make things worse, aquifers are not being replenished despite heavy rain because the prevalence of concrete and asphalt means that open fields cannot absorb rainfall.
Jakarta is predicted to reach 35.6 million people by 2030 to become the world's biggest megacity, which, undoubtedly, will put even more pressure on local water reserves.
7. Istanbul, Turkey (15 million people)
According to official Turkish government figures, the country is technically in a situation of water stress. Local experts have warned that the situation could worsen to water scarcity by 2030.
In recent years, heavily populated areas like Istanbul have begun to experience shortages in the drier months.
8. Mexico City, Mexico (21 million people)
Mexico City faces enormous challenges in terms of drinking water supply. Having over-pumped local supplies so much that land is sinking, the city is working to redesign its water system, which sources a third of its supplies from nearby river basins and valleys.
Currently, 20% of residents get only a few hours a week from their taps, and another 20% have running water for just part of the day. That is just not enough water to cover their basic needs — so people are forced to buy trucked-in water at great expense.
The city imports as much as 40% of its water from distant sources, but has no large-scale operation for recycling wastewater.
An elderly woman shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.
9. Miami, USA (6 million people)
The US state of Florida is among the five US states most hit by rain every year. However, there is a crisis brewing in its most famous city, Miami.
An early 20th Century project to drain nearby swamps had an unforeseen result: water from the Atlantic Ocean contaminated the Biscayne Aquifer, the city's main source of fresh water.
Although the problem was detected in the 1930s, seawater still leaks in, especially because this American city has experienced faster rates of sea level rise, with water breaching underground defense barriers installed in recent decades.
Neighboring cities are already struggling. Hallandale Beach, which is just a few miles north of Miami, had to close six of its eight wells due to saltwater intrusion.
10. Lima, Peru (12 million people)
Rain in the Peruvian capital is almost non-existent, with average annual precipitation of 0.3 inches (7 mm).
Water is expected to become scarcer still as rising temperatures thaw Andean glaciers, reducing water flows as the ice disappears.
11. Melbourne, Australia (5 million people)
The Australian city suffered the so-called 'Millennium drought' between 1997 and 2009. It was one of the worst dry spells on record, affecting other major cities such as Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.
Melbourne has since slashed per capita water use by half and introduced water recycling plants. The lack of pre-planning for drought meant that billions had to be spent to avert a water crisis.
12. Los Angeles, USA (12 million people)
California is the seventh-largest economy in the world and Los Angeles is its largest city. Since 2011, California has experienced a multi-year drought, followed by a record-breaking winter storm season and then its worst fire season ever.
During the height of the drought, Los Angeles imported 89% of its water from more than 190 miles (300 km) away — a very energy-intensive process. In the midst of water restrictions, some of the lowest levels of water use were just over 34 gallons (130 liters) per person per day.
After a year-long reprieve, southern California is again under severe water scarcity conditions following low annual rainfall last year.
A sign over a highway in California warns to save water in response to the state’s severe drought. [Picture: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images]
13. Karachi, Pakistan (17 million people)
One of world’s 20 megacities and the most populous in Pakistan, Karachi faces severe water risks with a growing gap between water supply and demand. This is partly because the city’s population growth has always outstripped projections and partly because of a delay in the execution of mega water supply projects.
To meet their needs, Karachi households and industries depend on limited water supplies from the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) as well as groundwater and tankers.
A "tanker mafia", which gets 25% of its water through the KWSB supply line, much of it illegally, dominates this water supply.
An additional problem is the contamination of freshwater sources. On daily basis, over 120 million gallons (450 million liters) of wastewater containing hazardous chemicals are discharged directly into the sea without proper treatment. This harms freshwater and marine ecosystems and contributes to Karachi’s daily shortfall of more than 100 million gallons (380 million liters).
14. Amman, Jordan (4 million people)
Amman, the capital city of Jordan, has no nearby source of water and regularly experiences drought, while its lower-lying parts are inundated when it rains heavily.
The city recycles the vast majority of its waste water and uses it for irrigation, but a refugee influx from neighbouring Syria has put additional pressure on reserves countrywide.
The government is moving ahead with new pipelines for groundwater and projects to desalinate water from the Red Sea.
15. Nairobi, Kenya (7 million people)
Kenya’s capital faces a daily water deficit of 53 million gallons (200 million liters) of water; with some saying that demand for water now surpasses supply by 600%. Due to a prolonged drought since 2014 and the degradation of critical catchment areas, most of the dams that supply water to the city are well below capacity.
The Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company has been forced to ration water to ensure that every domestic customer gets an equitable amount of water — especially in the informal settlements, to avoid the outbreak of water-borne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid. Many citizens, however, are forced to purchase water hauled in tankers — which, naturally, comes at great expense.
It is clear that Nairobi will continue to experience water shortages unless policies to secure key catchments and construct necessary infrastructure are developed to cope with the demands of the city’s ever increasing population.
Water vendor in Nairobi. [The Star]
16. Tel Aviv, Israel (4 million people)
Even if 2018 proves sufficiently rainy to avoid the declaration of a fifth straight drought year, Israel will remain in crisis mode. Water levels will not return to what they were a decade ago when Lake Kinneret, Israel’s biggest water source, and underground aquifers were full.
A few years ago, experts at Israel’s Water Authority believed desalination would meet the country’s water needs until 2025, but they now admit the water sector is in critical condition.
Underground aquifers, the other main freshwater source, are nearing levels that will turn them salty.
17. Havana, Cuba (2 million people)
Cuba, like many islands of the Caribbean, struggles to maintain water security in a rapidly changing climate.
In addition to the obvious challenges Cuba faces as an island nation, most of its rivers run north to south, thereby quickly carrying surface water from reservoirs in the center of the island to the sea — because of its long and narrow shape. Furthermore, managing drastic fluctuations in precipitation in the Caribbean requires sophisticated planning and adequate storage. Cuba’s most important aquifers, situated along the coast, are under threat of saltwater intrusion with rising sea levels, and there has been a significant decrease in yearly precipitation averages since 2010, according to national data. The year 2015 was the driest in history with the precipitation average at just 77% of the historical average.
There are numerous political, social, and economic causes and consequences of water scarcity that can be attributed to the particular system of water management throughout the island, to Cuba’s political climate, and to its economic fragility.
To cope with scarcity, the government employs a strategy of rationing water in urban areas, oftentimes forcing city dwellers to find ways to cope with infrequent water deliveries. Stark discrepancies can be observed in the distribution of water in Havana. In the worst of cases, households must wait several weeks for water to be available via the underground aqueduct, and many people struggle to devise mechanisms for storing enough of it.
18. Casablanca, Morocco (7 million people)
Despite the recent rainfalls, the World Resources Institute (WRI) declared that Morocco might still face a water shortage in the coming summer months and beyond.
The alarming report is mostly based on the water shrinkage at Al Massira Reservoir, on the Oum Er-rbia River in Settat Province, which has shrunk by 63% between 2015-2017, thus reaching its lowest level since the drought of 2005-2008, which affected more than 700,000 people and decreased grain production by 50%.
The report predicts that water levels at Al Massira would further deteriorate by the large water transfer project to Marrakech, which is expected to be fully operational in 2018. Climate change is also expected to further diminish water supply, resulting in water stress and competition over scarce resources.
19. Santiago, Chile (6 million people)
When it comes to water, Chile is failing its citizens. In Santiago, the nation’s capital, millions of people are regularly left without running water for days at a time and experts are warning of water scarcity to come across the country as temperatures rise and glaciers retreat.
A recent protest saw people take to the capital’s streets to demand the repeal of laws that privatized Chile’s water supply. At the heart of the protest and others like it in recent years lies frustration that the privatization of water has kept prices unnecessarily high, delivered poor service and done little to address concerns over insufficient supply in the future.
Protesters in Santiago, who called for an end to privatized water in Chile. [Photograph: Miguel Hechenleitner / Movimiento por la Recuperación del Agua y la Vida.]
20. Barcelona, Spain (5 million people)
In 2008, reservoirs dipped so low that this Mediterranean city was forced to import drinking water from France. The shortage came amid Spain’s driest year on record.
Summers in Spain, though, are becoming hotter and drier, while winters are growing less harsh. Precipitation in 2017 was notably light, plunging Spain into its worst drought since it turned to its neighbors for water shipments. The shift in climate threatens to leave Spain chronically parched.
To avoid another emergency, Barcelona will need to adapt. Much of Barcelona’s water system is old and dysfunctional. An analysis in 2008 noted that one part of the system lost a startling 210,000 gallons (800,000 liters) of water each day.
Based on information from:
World Resources Institute (WRI): Aquaduct – Measuring and mapping water risk.
World economic forum: Where will the 'water wars' of the future be fought?
Wikipedia: Cape Town water crisis.
The Jerusalem Post: Israel's water worries return after four years of drought.
The Guardian: The heavy price of Santiago's privatised water.