Water Is Not the New Oil: The Future of Water, Part I


by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Water is not the new oil; it’s much more important than that. There are substitutes for oil, but there are no substitutes for water, and we are running dry. As that happens (and it will happen at different rates in different places), the conflicts over water will rise, as will the economic consequences.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the drought that is haunting California, and suggested that, should it continue for a few more years, we are going to see water refugees leaving the state. But California is by no means the only part of the world experiencing problems with water, nor are these unusual weather patterns at the core of our water problems. Our real problem with water is us. We have grown accustomed to over-using water supplies for thousands of years, during which time human population has exploded at exponential rates. The combination of these two factors – population growth and overuse – are what will cause us extreme problems with water.

For instance, both China and India are already experiencing major water shortages. This reduces the standard of living of the people affected; increases the costs of everything they do, produce, and consume; and, if things get really bad, may even derail the economic miracles of these two countries. Water is that important.

Water Comes Second Only to Oxygen

Think about it: after oxygen, water is the thing you need most, most often, and whose absence you feel most deeply. If your town or city has its water supply disrupted, or if your water supply is contaminated, this quickly becomes the number one problem you face. In such a situation, stocks of bottled water vanish from supermarket shelves, and people hoard their supplies. People who are denied water become desperate very quickly; a few days without is usually enough to strip off the veneer of civilization to the point where most people will scheme or steal to get the water they need.

How would we grow our food? Indeed, this may be the biggest issue in the next two decades. Some commentators say that countries that import food are actually importing “virtual water.” Countries that import food often don’t have enough water to grow the food domestically, so they are forced to buy food that, had they sufficient water, they could grow for themselves.

And we use water for an amazing range of things. Without water, how would we fight fires? How would we cool nuclear reactors? How would we wash ourselves and our clothes? How would we provide basic sanitation? How would we manufacture most industrial products, from ships to steel to microchips to clothing? How would we extract oil and natural gas from the ground? How would we generate most kinds of power, from hydroelectric to natural gas generators to nuclear, without water? How would we run our cars? How would we prepare food to eat?

Going back over the (very abbreviated) list of things we use water for, it might be possible to work around the absence of water, or use other techniques if water’s not available, but it would be dramatically more expensive to do so. So one of the principal effects of water shortages is going to be economic, and that’s what I want to focus on first.

Where It Comes From, Where It Goes

We’re not running short of water, what we are running short of is useable, fresh water. Almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, but most of that isn’t useable. Of the water on Earth, 97% is saline, mostly in the oceans; freshwater accounts for only 3%. Of that 3%, almost 69% is locked up in ice and snow, and 30% lies belowground (and only a tiny portion of that is available by pumping from aquifers, which I’ll come back to in a later post), leaving only about 0.03% of all the Earth’s water available as fresh, potable water where we need it, typically in rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams.

Now, water is a remarkable substance, one of the most remarkable – even bizarre – in nature. It is one of the very few substances that expands instead of contracting when it freezes. It boils and freezes at a substantially higher temperature, and has a much higher surface tension, than molecules of comparable structure. It is one of the only substances that can act as both an acid and a base. It has been called the “universal solvent” because the large majority of substances are dissolved to at least some extent by water. And it is the one substance that virtually all life on Earth must have to exist.

But one of the most important aspects of this remarkable substance is that it doesn’t get used up, the way oil does, for example. When oil is burned, it changes into something else and is no longer available as oil. On the other hand, when water is used, whether to drink, irrigate plants, used in an industrial process, or whatever, most of the time it returns to water, and goes back into the Earth through the water cycle. So, in one sense, we aren’t using water up.

We’re Using It Faster Than It Can Be Renewed

What we are doing is using water – fresh, drinkable water – faster than it can be renewed. And this is why we are experiencing shortages, and why those shortages are getting worse.

The most important drivers of water shortages are population growth combined with the intensification of water use. Since the beginning of the 19th century, human population has grown from just under 1 billion to well over 7 billion people, while the amount of freshwater used per person has doubled. Worse, as more and more of the Earth’s human population moves out of poverty, and wants to change their diets to something akin to what we eat in the developed world, especially consuming more meat and dairy products, the rate of water consumption per person is accelerating. From 1900 to 1975, America’s population tripled, but the consumption of water increased 10-fold, or more than three times as fast as population.[1]

Much of that increase in water consumption has arisen because of our richer, more resource-intense diet. Here’s how much water it takes to produce some of what we consider our basic foodstuffs[2]:

1 lb. of wheat                                    125 gallons

1 lb. of rice                             250-650 gallons

1 glass of cow’s milk            200 gallons

1 hamburger                         700 gallons

Now, again, water doesn’t disappear when used to produce these things. It returns to the water cycle. But if you don’t have that much water available, then you simply cannot produce these foodstuffs.

Indeed, agriculture is the single biggest consumer of water, absorbing about 70% of all water used by humanity today. In the 60 years from 1950 to 2010, the amount of farmland being irrigated doubled, and the amount of water used for farming tripled. And as I’ve described here and elsewhere, the demand for food, and the demand for more resource-intensive food, is growing far faster than population growth. It required roughly a quadrupling of the resources needed to produce sufficient food to feed a doubling of China’s population from 1960 to 2000 during the period of China’s most rapid growth. I don’t have figures that relate specifically to the amount of water required for that purpose, but I would be very much surprised if it were less than a four-fold increase, and would not be at all surprised if it were actually much higher.

After agriculture, the biggest users of water are industry, which makes about 22% of humanity’s water withdrawals, and domestic activities (cooking, washing, sanitation, and so on), which take 8%. Moreover, industrial and domestic demands for water quadrupled in the last half of the 20th century, or even faster than the demands from farming.[3]

Demand Increases Much Faster Than Population

All of this adds up to dramatic increases in the demand for water in future, even if human population stood still – which it won’t. Global population is projected to continue to grow from about 7.3 billion people today, to about 9.3 billion by 2050. And recently revised UN projections indicate that global population could level out at around 9.5 billion by 2100 – or could continue to increase, to as high as 13.5 billion.

But let’s look at just the period to 2050, and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the experience of the last 50 and 200 years. Let’s assume we will be adding two billion more people to global population. That would, on its own, increase water consumption by about 30%. If we also include a factor for the greater intensification of water use per person, then we get at least a 75% increase in the demand for water in 2050 over today.

The problem is that this is flatly impossible because we’re already using more fresh water than we have available. And that’s where I’ll start the next post.

© Copyright, IF Research, June 2015.

[1] Solomon, Steven, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization”, Harper Perennial, New York, 2010, p.344.

[2] ibid., p. 373.

[3] Grimond, John, “For want of a drink: A special report on water”, Economist, May 22, 2010, p.4.