Water Scarcity is an Artificial Problem

According to a 2013 U.N. report, about 1.2 billion people across every inhabited continent are without access to clean drinking water; an additional 2.8 billion endure at least one month in which their clean water needs are not met.

And the problem is likely to get worse: according to some predictions, by around 2050, half of humanity — which by then will number 9.7 billion from today’s 7.2 billion — will be living in “water stressed” areas, wherein people will have difficulty accessing clean water.

The following map from The Economist provides a rough picture of what that will look like, based on data from the World Resource Institute:


In total, 33 countries face “extremely high” water stress, with many more coming close behind. Much of the problem clearly stems from the aforementioned growth in population, coupled with an increase in average wealth, which naturally leads to greater water consumption. A large but poor family in the developing world can consume far less water altogether than a wealthy couple living in the U.S.

There is also the impact of climate change, which accelerates the hydrologic (water) cycle, which among other effects will lead to a decline in precipitation — and with its aquifer replenishment — in many already-dry places.

A color coded map doesn’t do justice to the horrors of this problem. A decline in food, hygiene, and sanitized water will cause tremendous health and social problems. Already there have been many instances of social unrest in water scarce regions, many of which are poor and unstable as it is, and even developed countries like the U.S. are failing to properly address the issue.

Moreover, this grim forecast is despite the fact that, technically, the world’s supply of water never actually declines, but rather circulates across the world in some form or another. As The Economist argues, the lack of water is due not to natural factors, but human ones:

[A] lot of the problem stems from lousy water management, and that is something the officials who meet in dusty Marrakesh this week for the next round of annual UN climate talks should ponder. A crucial part of adapting to a warmer world is to work out how to allocate water more efficiently (see article).

Each person needs to drink only a few litres a day, but it takes hundreds of litres to grow food—and thousands to put a joint of beef or pork on the table. Farming accounts for 70% of water withdrawals and industry accounts for most of the rest. Because farmers and factory bosses are politically powerful, they typically pay far too little for their water. Some pay for the operational costs of supplying it, but not the infrastructure that enabled it to flow from the tap. Many pay nothing to raid underground aquifers—India pumps two-thirds of its irrigation-water this way. When something is too cheap, people squander it. Chinese industry uses ten times more water per unit of production than the average in rich countries, for example. Farmers in parched places like California grow thirsty cash crops such as avocados, which could easily be imported from somewhere wetter.

In other words, there’s lots of fresh and accessible water to go around, but as with so many other shortages of natural resources, it is managed and allocated poorly. That means that with better technology and management, no country should be struggling to maintain a clean, sustainable water supply. The Economist offers a suggestion that draws from one of the world’s driest but adaptable countries:

The key to managing water better is to price it properly, giving consumers a reason not to waste it and investors an incentive to build infrastructure to supply it. Vast sums are needed: over $26trn between 2010 and 2030, by one estimate. Before water can be properly priced, however, it needs to be clear who owns it (or, more precisely, who has the right to extract how much from rivers, aquifers and so on). Australia has led the way in creating such a system of tradable water rights.

The aim is to ensure that water winds its way to those who can make the best use of it. Calculating how much is being used, and how much actually ought to be used, is essential. In Australia old rights (typically belonging to landowners) were replaced with shares in perpetuity that grant holders a proportion of any annual allocations. This means that the only way one person can have more of the liquid is if another person has less. Two markets have emerged: one in which seasonal allocations of available water can be traded, and another in which shares themselves can be.

For the system to work, extra care should be taken to ensure that tradable water rights are allocated in a fair and open way. The “blockchain”, a cryptographic technology that allows strangers to make fiddle-proof records of who owns what, could help.

Governments should also do more to preserve the global commons, ensuring that natural freshwater resources are publicly owned and managed, rather than privatized and exploited by companies. An alternative to this statist approach would be community organizations and  co-operative institutions.

There are also technological innovations, such as improved water treatments to make sewage reusable, or better desalinization. Of course, investing in such solutions, let alone making them widely beneficial to most of society, will require big policy and social changes. Even with the impact of climate change (itself a human-made issue) there is no reason billions of people, present and future, should be without clean water. It’s a human problem that needs human solutions — technological, economic, and political.

What are your thoughts?

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