Note: I originally published this post for the Global Water Alliance. I’m not sure if the organization still exists. I’ve tweaked the post a little bit to fit this website. The original post can be found here. Also, I’ve removed some images due to copyright concerns, so you may find an odd gap.

Not all are created equal when it comes to water resources. The global distribution of freshwater is appallingly uneven, even within individual countries. This week, I would like to highlight the sheer scale of regional water deficits in the world in order to raise awareness of the potential consequences of the crisis we all share. We will focus on India and China as a comparison to the United States.

No doubt you have heard the news: the southwestern United States is experiencing a water shortage. Since Californian Governor Jerry Brown announced water restrictions in April of this year, coverage of the drought has been reverberating in the news—and perhaps rightly so. NASA estimates that, as of 2014, California alone is short on 41.6 billion cubic meters of water. One study from 2014 shows that the entire Colorado basin has lost 64.8 billion cubic meters of water since 2004. Another report claims that Texas has lost 93 billion cubic meters. Considering that the US used 490.5 billion cubic meters of water in 2010, with California accounting for 52.5 billion cubic meters, this number is staggering.

If America’s water problem in the Southwest is staggering, then there are no words for China and India’s shortages. In northeastern China, the deficit is almost three times larger than what we know America’s to be (the author currently does not have access to 2003’s data). Just counting from 2002 until 2013, six of China’s administrative divisions have racked up over 438.2 billion cubic meters of water deficit. Population stress only compounds the issue further. The Hebei-Tianjin-Beijing region—China’s most severely water-stressed contiguous area—was home to 105 million people in 2010.[1] Compare this to the 56.5 million residents of the seven Colorado basin states in 2010,[2] but fit into roughly half the area of California.

In total, there are eleven administrative divisions (including Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai) in northern and northeastern China that are regularly using more than 50% of their renewable freshwater resources—six of which are using over 100%.[3] This means that these regions must tap groundwater in order to meet demand, especially during drought (which, in 2014, northern China faced its worst of in 60 years). Once these underground water reserves are gone, they are gone for good in terms of a human lifespan.

The situation is not much better in India. Just underneath the southern rim of the Himalayas is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. It is no surprise, then, that this area is also facing extreme water scarcity.

While the Indian government has only reported water resource and use estimates for 2004 and 2009, it is still clear that India is facing a similar water scarcity crisis. India has three states using more than 100% of their annually renewable water, and a total of eight using more than 50%. The deficit of the three states in those two years totaled 33.82 billion cubic meters.[4] If we assume this to be constant for the same period of 9 years we examined for China, India would have lost 152.19 billion cubic meters of water in its parched regions. Even more shocking, the whole of India is using 58% of its renewable water supply, compared to roughly 20% in both China and the US.[5]

As India is even denser than China, population is an even greater problem when it comes to water shortage. India’s rough equivalent of America’s Colorado basin and China’s Hebei-Beijing-Tianjin region is the conglomerate of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana, or the most-parched contiguous area. As of 2011, this area was home to 121.6 million people (it should be noted that Uttar Pradesh, just next to this region, had 200 million people).[6]

But it is not only large countries that face a shortage. The World Bank reports that many smaller countries are currently experiencing a water deficit—19 to be exact. Not surprisingly, most of these are in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Central Asia.

The core of this global problem cannot be summed up more succinctly than by this image generated using NASA’s GRACE mission, which uses two satellites in order to determine the changes in mass distribution on the Earth’s surface.

What you are looking at is a map of groundwater loss over time, with red areas losing water and blue areas gaining water (although Greenland, the southern tip of South America, and Alaska are likely red due to ice loss). Notice northeastern China, the south and southwestern United States, and northern India in particular.

It is critical to acknowledge global groundwater loss, and the loss in these regions in particular, for a very simple reason: food. We need water to grow food, and China, the US, and India grow the most food. However, groundwater is not a sustainable source of water. Once depleted, it’s gone for good. Essentially, our current level of crop production is the result of borrowed time in the form of underground aquifers.

Many of the 19 countries in a water deficit have already been importing more than 40%, and in some cases over 80% or 90% of their grain requirements as of 2002. Today, those numbers are likely to be much higher as the population has grown and water has depleted. If China, India, or the US were to follow in this pattern, the results would be catastrophic.

This is not even considering the numerous other consequences of water scarcity. We need a constant supply of water for just about everything—from growing corn, to washing clothes, to cooling power plants. Food production and domestic use are the most obvious worries when it comes to water shortage.

But, we should also consider the tremendous amount of water used for energy production, which means that everything we produce using electricity depends on our water supply. In the US, for instance, a whopping 45 percent of water withdrawn in 2010 was used for power plants (see this report for a detailed breakdown of water use in the US). In China, 23% was used for industry, which includes energy production. In total, 25 countries are using more than 50% of their water withdrawals on industry and power production, and the globe is using 18% of its water on industry and energy.[7]

Think of it like this: water scarcity doesn’t just mean lower food production. It also impacts production of almost everything, including phones, cars, computers, shoes, textiles, paper—you name it. Of course, this also means water scarcity is a threat to all of the jobs in those industries, not to mention the negative consequences of being without the goods we all rely on.

In closing, I highlight water scarcity on a global scale in order to emphasize that it is critical to look past just California and the southwestern United States. While the recent water shortages are severe, they are only a small part of a much larger picture. If we are unwilling to see the full scale of the problem, then we cannot hope to find a solution.

As always, please feel free to leave comments or criticisms. Sources used but not hyperlinked can be found below.

[1] “China Statistical Yearbook, 2003-2014.” National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2003-2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[2] “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014.” U.S. Census Bureau, Dec. 2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[3] “China Statistical Yearbook, 2003-2014.” National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2003-2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[4] “Ground Water Year Book- India, 2010-014.” Central Ground Water Board, 2011-2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

[5] “World Development Indicators: Freshwater.” World Bank, 2015. Web. 15 July. 2015.

[6] “Primary Census Abstract Data Highlights- 2011 (India & States/UTs)” The Registrar General & Census Commissioner, 2011. Web. 17 July 2015.

[7] “World Development Indicators: Freshwater.” World Bank, 2015. Web. 15 July. 2015.