High and dry: the impending water crisis
Turn on the tap and clean water rushes out. As much as we want. Any time we want.
The quest for this has been one of the defining struggles throughout human history. Today, 7 in 10 people can count on having running water in their homes. At least, so they think.
A global crisis
Droughts in Somalia. Water rationing in Rome. Fast depleting groundwater supplies in India. It doesn’t take an expert to realise we’re facing a global water crisis. And it’s getting worse.
Climate change is warming the planet, meaning many regions around the globe are facing extended dry periods with more erratic water availability. The rain and snow we depend on to water crops and refill lakes and rivers is getting less reliable. By 2030, global demand for fresh water is predicted to exceed available supplies by 40 percent.
The flow on effects from this are enormous. Water shortages can reduce economic growth, spur migration, and spark conflict. A 2016 report by the World Bank estimates water scarcity could cost some regions as much as 6 percent of their gross domestic product in the coming years.
More people + more money = more demand
It’s a simple equation: as populations grow and incomes rise, so does water demand. This century water consumption has increased 7-fold. The world’s population currently expands at a rate of 83 million people per year. How will the planet satisfy our escalating thirst?
The problem is also exacerbated by rising incomes, because of the water-intensive products that richer populations demand. Things like meat and energy from fossil fuels have a larger impact on global water supply than many realise.
Nothing requires a greater amount of water to produce than meat. Growing 1 kilogram of alfalfa, a common ingredient in cattle feed, requires 510 litres of water. The average cow consumes 12 kilograms of feed a day, meaning a single hamburger takes around 1,650 litres of water to produce.
In most places in the world water is treated and priced like there will always be enough, so we end up using it in absurdly wasteful ways.
Arid Southern California is a primary producer of alfalfa. 2 trillion gallons of water are used every year to grow the crop, sourced from the Colorado River hundreds of kilometres away. The price farmers pay for the water doesn’t even cover its delivery, so the true cost of water doesn’t end up in the cost of the burger.
India and China both grow some of their most water-intensive crops in their driest regions. In the United States leaky pipes account for the loss of 6 billion gallons of treated water each day.
Valuing the invaluable
Water is unlike any other commodity on Earth. Each of us will die in just a few days without it. And the scarcer it gets, the more access to it becomes a competition – with winners and losers.
In 2010 the United Nations recognised access to safe drinking water as a universal human right. This presents the real challenge of the water crisis – how are you supposed to value an invaluable resource while ensuring everybody has it?
When the price of water is raised to fix pipes or encourage conservation it has the greatest impact on the poor. The solution may be that we don’t end up treating all water equally. To satisfy basic human rights, each individual requires 60 litres of water per day. The cost of water could be increased for usage beyond this amount. In 2015 Philadelphia started experimenting with tying water prices to income, which saw drastic reductions in its consumption.
It’s not too late
Valuing water as we should means we wouldn’t be growing water-intensive crops in really arid places, because the economics of it wouldn’t make sense. Efficient water use in the home and industries would be incentivised.
Amidst the doom and gloom, it’s not all bad news. Around the globe people are waking up to our water challenges and starting to act. Each year brings more solutions – like improvements in desalination, greater investment in infrastructure to ensure water security, and using wastewater for energy.
The challenge is realising how valuable water is before there isn’t enough of it. And remembering that our fates are tied to what runs out of our taps.