Going, Going, Gone: The Global Water Crisis

Courtesy of Quartz, a report on the world’s water crisis:

t the edge of the Sea of Cortez lies what was once the mouth of the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River, a marsh land that, half a century ago, was filled with birds and wildlife and supported hundreds of small farms and fisheries. But drought, dams, and a booming population along the river’s path have turned the Colorado delta into a salt-caked dust bowl that geologists and hydrologists say may never recover.

The Colorado River delta

On the other side of the globe, in Syria, a multi-year drought pushed many farmers into the hands of Islamist extremists. Locals recounted how, as far back as 2009, when rains failed and extreme weather blighted crops, jihadists would appear and offer cash to farmers who would trade their plows for Kalashnikovs. Grain production in Syria peaked in 2001, and has fallen more than 30% since, as the country has pumped its aquifers nearly dry. The resulting combination of crop failures and water scarcity has pushed even more people into the arms of well-funded jihadists.

In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa came dangerously close to being the first major city to run out of water. Years of drought, brought about by El Nino and climate change, depleted the city’s reservoirs. The government planned for “Day Zero,” when the water supply would effectively cease and the city’s 3.7 million people would have to get water only at government-approved collection stations, as all other taps would be dry. Fierce restrictions on water use and welcome rainfall meant Cape Town was able to avoid Day Zero in 2018, but the region is only a dry season away from calamity.

The world is running out of water, and the consequences are dire. Water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th: the wealth of some nations and companies, and the cause of economic decline and political instability for others.

Water by the numbers

Almost all the water on Earth is salty, making it only useful to people and industries if it’s desalinated (a costly and potentially environment-damaging process in and of itself). Of the freshwater that’s readily available, most of it is locked in ice or underground, making it hard to get to. Surface freshwater—lakes, rivers, and streams—is a tiny fraction of the overall global water supply.

Source Volume (in miles³) Percent of total
Oceans, seas, bays 321,000,000 96.5
Frozen 5,844,970 1.76
Groundwater (saline) 3,088,000 0.93
Groundwater (fresh) 2,526,000 0.76
Lakes (fresh) 21,830 0.007
Lakes (saline) 20,490 0.006
Soil moisture 3,959 0.001
Atmosphere 3,095 0.001
Swamp water 2,752 0.0008
Rivers 509 0.0002
Biological water 269 0.0001

The population of the world is growing. It’s also moving increasingly out of poverty and into something more prosperous. That’s obviously a great thing, but it brings with it new challenges. With growing industrialization and a growing consumer class, our water needs will also grow. In 20 years, many countries around the globe will be struggling to provide enough water to meet demand.

Our water footprints are bigger than we think

We use water for far more than drinking. It’s arguably the most essential ingredient in modern industry, responsible in large part for much of our agriculture and manufacturing. Water experts talk about the “water footprint” of what we make and grow, calculating the total amount of water used in a given product. Behind that morning cup of coffee are 37 gallons of water used to grow, produce, package, and ship the beans. That is roughly the same amount of water used by an average person daily in England for drinking and household needs. A single hamburger is made from an estimated 634 gallons of water.

Item Quantity Water footprint (gallons)
Salad 1 (includes tomato, lettuce, cucumbers) 21
Coffee 1 cup 37
Wine 1 glass 34
Soda 17 ounces 46
Eggs 1 egg 52
Ham (pork) 3 ounces 135
Hotel room 1 (per day 200
Smartphone 1 240
Small pizza 1 333
Hamburger 1 (includes bread, meat, lettuce, tomato) 634
Steak 6 ounces 674
T-Shirt 1 713
12-inch circuit board 1 1,100
Almonds 1 pound 1,929
Car Tires 4 2,074

From an environmental crisis to a geopolitical one

Water has long been a  source of power and profit, from the irrigation of the ancient Fertile Crescent to the creation of Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley. Vast profits go to those who own or control water resources and their distribution, and those without water are condemned to lower living standards and greater chaos. Globally nearly 850 million people live without access to safe water, and 2.3 billion people lack access to decent sanitation. Nonprofits have tried to bridge the gap, but that kind of instability has also created opportunities for warlords and other bad actors.

Dan Coates, the US director of national intelligence, warned in 2018 that water will become a new source of political instability and wars. The State Department has an entire bureau devoted to water issues and is actively brokering treaties in Southeast Asia, the Nile Basin, and Africa to stave off conflict over scarce water resources. Some of the world’s largest economies are moving aggressively to secure water resources beyond their borders as China and the Gulf states buy or lease land in wet parts of the world, from Africa to South America, to grow food. Whole new sets of winners and losers in the global fight for economic growth are emerging due to water.

The 2018 National Threat Assessment from the US intelligence community notes that the increasing scarcity of fresh water driven by climate change, urbanization, and development will affect human health and fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval. “Water scarcity, compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries,” the assessment says.

Where water could lead to war

The Nile Basin is shared by 10 countries, and growing tension over controlling its waters could lead to armed conflict. Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, is building dams to improve its farms and generate power, and Sudan is selling vast areas of Nile-irrigated land to farm-poor Chinese and Gulf Arab states. But that’s reducing the amount of water that flows to Egypt, whose own population is growing and needs the water.

The Mekong River in Southeast Asia rises in Chinese-controlled Tibet and flows through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. China’s refusal to join the Mekong River Commission (an inter-governmental organization that jointly manages shared water resources) has downstream members concerned about Chinese dam construction. China has built seven dams since 1995, and has plans for 20 more. Observers say the Mekong could become a source of geopolitical tension, much like China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

The Euphrates, where Turkey is damming the river upstream from Syria and Iraq, is another flashpoint. Turkey has pushed forward with the Southeastern Anatolia Project, a plan to build 22 dams and 19 power plants along the Euphrates that would curb water flow into the downstream states by as much as half. Drought and mismanaged government policies in Syria’s Euphrates helped fuel support for protests that led to the Syrian civil war and left critical water infrastructure in ruins.

The Indus River has been primarily under Indian control since partition in 1947. That includes the water supply for 90% of Pakistan’s irrigated land. Upstream dam building by India and reduced water flow is a source of constant tension between the two nations, which continue to vie for regional prominence.

Trying to build our way out of trouble

From Ancient Rome’s Aqueducts to Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, humankind has spent millenia building bigger and bigger projects to control water, slaking the thirst of growing cities and turning vast expanses of arid ground into fertile farmland.

Here are some of the most recent Herculean efforts to gain greater control over water supply:

In China, the $48 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project has built two canals bringing 25 billion tons of water a year nearly 900 miles from the water-rich south to Beijing and the parched agricultural lands of the north. The project could boost GDP by up to 0.3 percentage points and has revived severely eroded ecosystems including Lake Juyanhai in Inner Mongolia, which had dried up in 1992.

The Danjiangkou Dam, part of China’s water diversion project

Houston’s $1.3 billion Northeast Water Purification Plant is a response to the typical challenges facing many US cities: Houston is running out of groundwater, and its population is expected to grow by a million people a decade. The plant will draw up to 400 million gallons a day from Lake Houston when it’s completed in 2024.

A rendering of Houston’s plant expansion 

Vast advances in technology have made desalination affordable, and Saudi Arabia has built the world’s largest seawater conversion plant in its capital of Riyadh. The $7.2 billion Ras Al Khair Desalination Plant produces 264 million gallons of fresh water a day for 3.5 million people. It runs on an abundant local resource: natural gas.

Desalination equipment at Ras Al Khair

In Orange County, California, wastewater and sewage is captured, purified to drinking-quality water, and then pumped back into the depleted aquifers below at the Groundwater Replenishment System, refilling the wells that service the area, and creating a barrier to ocean brine that’s been slowly seeping into the groundwater. The $481 million plant generates 100 million gallons a day, enough for 850,000 residents.

Purified water at Orange County’s GWRS


Water may be free, and the UN has declared access to clean water a human right, but cleaning up water to make it drinkable and delivering it through miles of pipes is a business—a growing one that has attracted many well-funded multinational corporations. As cities and municipalities contend with shrinking budgets and rising interest rates, privatization is a tantalizing option. Some of the world’s largest water utility operators are actively buying utilities in the US, Latin America, and Asia. “Making clean, reliable water also makes positive returns for investors”, says Matt Diserio, who runs Water Asset Management, which invests in water assets.

Companies that are part of Big Water

France’s Veolia, and its US subsidiary Veolia North America, own or manage some 8,500 water and sewage treatment plants or systems around the world. Founded in France in 1853, as the Companie Generale des Eaux, in 2017, the Veolia group supplied 96 million people with drinking water and 62 million people with wastewater service, posting consolidated revenue of $30.1 billion in 2017.

American Water Works, founded in 1886, owns or operates water utilities in 16 states in the US, and provides drinking water and wastewater services to a total of 15 million people in 47 states. Many are tiny utilities like the acquisition of Roxbury Water Company in Morris County, NJ, which serves 4,000 customers. American Water Works had revenue of $3.4 billion in 2017. Its share price has risen about 80% in the past five years, while the Dow has climbed about 50%.

Suez, based in Paris and founded in 1858 (yes, they built the canal), has 90,000 employees worldwide working in water, energy, and waste treatment. It operates water treatment plants from Dhakka to Barcelona, and from wastewater treatment in Amman to a complete water management solution for Bora Bora. Revenue for 2017 was $17.97 billion.

Thames Water is the UK’s largest water and wastewater services provider, serving 15 million customers with more than 6,000 employees, and serves a vast area around and including London, operating 97 water treatment facilities, 26 raw water reservoirs, 308 pumping stations, and 235 clean water service reservoirs. It posted revenue of $2.57 billion in 2017.

Companhia de Saneamento Básico do Estado de São Paulo S.A. (Sabesp) supplies fresh water and collects and treats wastewater for 27.8 million users in Brazil’s Sao Paulo state. Founded in 1973, it’s half-owned by the Sao Paulo government, and provides wholesale water service for other five cities in the state. It posted revenue of $4.2 billion in 2017.

Xylem is a New York-based former ITT unit that makes pumps machinery for water treatment and transport, and engineers water and wastewater systems. It operates three business segments: water infrastructure (distribution and treatment), applied water (distribution systems inside factories, office buildings, and in agriculture), and measurement and control solutions. Its 2017 revenue was $4.7 billion.

Treating water for drinking or sewage is one opportunity; trading rights to water is another. A Colorado firm called Two Rivers has created a marketplace for water rights holders on the Arkansas River to buy and sell access to water. When water is abundant, Two Riversstores it in vast gravel quarries so farmers can water intensive crops like melons and squash. When water is scarce, it stays in the rivers.

A crisis in slow motion

In the US, which uses 42 billion gallons of water every day, the biggest  problem is aging infrastructure. One million miles of old, leaky pipes deliver the country’s water, losing about 18% of it, or 6 billion gallons, a day in the process. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the US drinking water system a grade of “D” in its annual report on the state of American infrastructure, and estimates it will take $1 trillion over the next 25 years to ensure the US alone has enough safe water.

Even after massive disasters like Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, contamination is still a problem, and an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year waste more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water. Significant new investment and increased efficiencies are needed as filtration plants, pipes, and pumps age past their useful life. With more than 4,000 large municipal water systems in the US, and another 50,000 rural systems, all of which will need to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for renewal and expansion, the opportunities for M&A and privatization are vast.

Is there a way out?

We will need to learn how to do more with a lot less water. The global population is set to rise from 7 billion today to 10 billion by 2050, and the demand for food, drinking water, and sanitation—even before we consider the need for goods whose production requires vast amounts of water—will be crushing.

The traditional answer has been big infrastructure projects—dams and reservoirs and vast purification plants and hundreds of miles of pipes and canals. A real solution will likely instead require a combination of solutions, everything from shifting where crops are grown and where cities are located to how water is used and how many water-intensive industries operate. These are shifts that will create tremendous disruption and provide equally tremendous opportunities.

“We describe it as the world’s water crisis, but ultimately, water is local,” says Peter Gleick, director emeritus of the Pacific Institute and one of the world’s leading experts on water. “If you live in sub-Saharan Africa, and you have no safe water, you take it very seriously, but the rest of the world can ignore you. It’s not until there’s a five-year drought in California, or a nine-year drought in Australia that people elsewhere take these things seriously.”

This entry was posted on Monday, January 28th, 2019 at 9:21 am and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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