What the world can learn from Singapore about dealing with “water stress”

Nearly 40% of the world’s countries suffer from high or extreme levels of “water stress,” according to a first of-its-kind study that evaluated water-related risks in 181 countries and 100 river basins. As climate change and growing populations lead to an increasingly dry world, these countries could learn something from Singapore.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), the nonprofit research organization that conducted the study, classifies “highly” water-stressed countries as those that withdraw between 40% and 80% of their available water each year, while “extremely highly” stressed nations draw down more than 80%. There are 37 countries in the “extreme” category; Singapore is one of them, with an average water stress score of 5.0, the highest possible in WRI’s ranking, putting it on a par with arid nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.


Singapore’s high score is due to the fact that, while it may seem tropical and humid, it lacks freshwater lakes and aquifers. But a mix of technology, conservation and imports have kept the faucets flowing there, according to the WRI. For instance, Singapore captures 20% of its water supply from rainwater and gets another 30% by recycling water. Another 10% comes from desalination. The rest is imported from Malaysia.

WRI’s interactive map shows that highly water-stressed countries are not always those you’d expect: Besides the obvious candidates in desert regions and small islands without freshwater supplies, they include Spain, Portugal, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, and even Belgium. Singapore’s strategy could be particularly useful for European countries like Spain, which historically has not faced water shortages but now ranks as the 40th most water-stressed nation due to rising demand and a lack of new supplies.

The world’s two biggest economies could learn something too. On the face of it, the US and China aren’t in the danger zone: The US uses 20% to 40% of its available freshwater while China is tapping only 10% to 20%. But both countries contain areas with extremely high water stress. Of the world’s most populous river basins, China’s Yongding He, which supplies Beijing, is the second most water-stressed, while in the US, the Colorado River, which supplies 30 million people, is the 14th most stressed. And as we’ve written before, 85% of China’s coal-fired power plants, which supply 80% of the country’s electricity, operate in regions facing severe water shortages.

The most water-stressed country? The Caribbean two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. The least? Remarkably enough, South Sudan. The level of stress “is not driven as much by the climatic conditions (arid vs. water-abundant countries), as it is by where water users are located and the amount of water available at that location,” Paul Reig, an associate at WRI, told Quartz in an email.

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