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Facts and figures about

Precipitation and renewable freshwater resources Water withdrawal and pressure on water resources Irrigation areas, irrigated crops, environment

For a quick overview, click on the "Water withdrawal" and "Water stress" infographics below.


Go to the Visualizations and infographics page for more visual presentations.

Water withdrawal and pressure on water resources

Water withdrawal

Water withdrawal refers to water that has been removed from its source for a specific use. The major sectors that withdraw water are irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities.

Large differences in water withdrawal, both geographically and between the different sectors, exist:

  • Global water withdrawal increased from less than 600 km3/year in 1900 to almost 4 000 km3/year in 2010.

  • Globally, water withdrawal has increased 1.7 times faster than population over the last century.

  • Agriculture—including irrigation, livestock watering and cleaning, and aquaculture—is with 69 percent of the world's water withdrawal the largest water user.

  • The importance of agricultural water withdrawal is highly dependent on both climate and the place of agriculture in the economy; it ranges from 21 percent of the total water withdrawal in Europe to 82 percent in Africa.

  • 27 countries dedicate more than 90 percent of their water withdrawal to agriculture, and 8 countries even more than 95 percent. On the other hand, 36 countries dedicate less than 10 percent of their water withdrawal to agriculture, and 24 countries less than 5 percent, most of them located in the non-Mediterranean countries of Europe, where both the climate is moderate and the place of agriculture in the economy is lower.

  • The total annual irrigation water requirement accounts for 1 500 km3 globally. To meet this requirement, around 2 700 km3 is withdrawn, from renewable, non-renewable and non-conventional sources of water, such as direct use of wastewater and agricultural drainage water and—due to its costs—in a very few cases desalinated water.

  • Municipal water withdrawal, accounting for 12 percent of the world's water withdrawal, ranges from 9 percent of the total water withdrawal in Asia to 22 percent in Europe and 26 percent in Oceania.

  • Industrial water withdrawal accounts for 19 percent of all withdrawal with wide geographic variations. While only 5 percent of the water withdrawal is aimed to industries in Sub-Saharan Africa, it represents 50 percent of the total water withdrawal in Northern America and Northern Europe, and up to 65 percent in Western, Central and Eastern Europe.

  • In the United States of America, 90 percent of the water withdrawal for industries is for cooling of thermoelectric plants.

  • About 64 percent of the world's water withdrawal is withdrawn by the Asian continent, and more than half of the water withdrawal is withdrawn in the Southern and Eastern Asia region. At the same time the Southern and Eastern Asia region also hosts more than half of the world's population and almost 60 percent of world's area equipped for irrigation.
Pressure on renewable water resources
  • A very simple indicator for national water scarcity is the renewable freshwater resources per person. Water stress starts when the water available in a country drops below 1 700 m3/year or 4 600 litres/day per person. When the 1 000 m3/year or about 2 700 litres/day per person threshold is crossed, water scarcity is experienced. Absolute water scarcity is considered for countries with less 500 m3/year or roughly 1 400 litres/day per person. By this definition, 49 countries are water stressed, 9 of which experience water scarcity and 21 absolute water scarcity.

  • Depending on diet and lifestyle, about 2 000 to 5 000 litres of water is said to be used to produce a person's daily food and meet the daily drinking water and sanitation requirements.

  • The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) water indicator shows freshwater withdrawal as percentage of renewable water resources and is also an indicator of pressure on the renewable water resources.

  • Countries could be defined as water-stressed if they withdraw more than 25 percent of their renewable freshwater resources, as approaching physical water scarcity when more than 60 percent is withdrawn, and as facing severe physical water scarcity when more than 75 percent is withdrawn. Using these thresholds, water stress is progressing with 36 countries experiencing it in 1998 and 41 countries in 2011. Out of the 41 countries withdrawing more than 25 percent, 21 withdraw more than 60 percent and of these 15 withdraw more than 75 percent. Ten countries withdraw more than 100 percent of renewable freshwater resources, of which 7 in the Arabian Peninsula, 1 in Northern Africa and 2 in Central Asia.

  • When countries withdraw more than 100 percent of their renewable freshwater resources, this means that they either deplete their renewable groundwater resources, or use fossil non-renewable groundwater or use non-conventional sources of water such as desalinated water or wastewater.

  • Worldwide only 9 percent of the renewable freshwater resources are withdrawn and at continental level it is less than 5 percent for each of them except Asia, where it is 20 percent. However, these continental figures hide large differences between regions as well as within large countries, such as China and India.

  • While Asia as a continent withdraws 20 percent of its renewable freshwater resources, it goes from less than 10 percent in Southeast Asia to 20 percent in East Asia, 46 percent in South Asia and more than 50 percent in the Western and Central Asia.

  • China is facing severe water shortage in the dry north, while the humid south still has abundant water resources.

  • Overexploitation of total freshwater resources is clearly evidenced in the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa regions, withdrawing respectively more than 500 percent and 175 percent of their renewable resources.

  • Also some European countries are included in the 45 water stressed countries, where withdrawal exceeds 20 percent of their renewable freshwater resources.

  • Paradoxically only in Oceania, the driest continent, there are no water stressed countries, thanks to the low population density. However, national level data hide large disparities within a country, which especially can be the case for large countries. For example, at sub-national level parts of Australia face water-stress due to high population density or significant irrigated agriculture. While at country-level only less than 2 percent of the renewable water resources is withdrawn, there are huge within country differences.

  • In the Caribbean region, even though being amongst the most humid regions, some small islands are water-stressed, mainly due to high population density, such as for example Barbados.

  • Overexploitation of groundwater occurs locally in several countries of the Near East, Northern Africa, South and East Asia, and Central America.

[Date of preparation: December 2014]

For maps, go to:
arrow Proportion of renewable water resources withdrawn: MDG Water Indicator
arrow Proportion of renewable water resources withdrawn for agriculture
arrow Water withdrawal per inhabitant
arrow Proportion of total water withdrawal withdrawn for agriculture

For regional-level data, go to:
arrow Water withdrawal by sector

For country-level data, go to:
arrow Main AQUASTAT country database

1 km3 = 1 000 000 000 m3 = 400 000 Olympic-sized swimming pools (50x25x2m)
1 m3 = 1 000 litres = 35.3 cubic feet = 264.17 US gallons
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