World Water Day 2010

Today is World Water Day. Having evolved in a watery world, nearly all life on earth needs water to survive. In the short run humanity is going to face an acute shortage of water. But not in the long run.

A few statistics from the World Water Council:

In 2000, the World Health Organization estimate that of the world’s 6 billion people, at least 1.1 billion lack access to safe drinking-water and 2.4 billion persons live without access to sanitation systems. An estimated 14 to 30 thousand people, mostly young and elderly, die everyday from avoidable water-related diseases (e.g. diarrhoeal diseases). The lives of these people who are among the poorest on our planet are often devastated by this deprivation, which impedes the enjoyment of health and other human rights.

A short article on the day on BBC says

Most people equate water consumption with what they use in their homes and places of work, but the challenge facing the globe goes much, much further than that. The 2030 Water Resources Group, a collaboration between the private and social sectors to discover solutions to combat water scarcity, estimates that global water requirements will grow by over 50% over the next 20 years. Such levels of usage will be 40% greater than what can currently be sustainably supplied.

Of course this global figure is an aggregation: at a more local level the situation is far worse. For example, by 2030 one third of the global population, mainly concentrated in developing countries, will have only half the amount of naturally renewed water available they need.

What most consumers might not be aware of is that agriculture accounts for 70% of global water usage today, and how the need to feed the growing population of the world will put an even greater strain on already scarce water resources.

And in recent years food and water supplies have also been significantly affected by the use of agricultural land and resources on the production of biofuels.
The 2030 Water Resources Group also predicts that industrial use of water will almost double by 2030. It currently accounts for 16% of total usage – more than half of it for energy production – and this will grow to a projected 22% by 2030 with China alone accounting for 40% of the additional demand.

The challenge facing governments, businesses and – arguably – all of us, is how to close the gap in supply in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. At the moment we are coping by ‘borrowing’ water supplies from non-replenishable aquifers or from water reserved for environmental needs, an approach which is clearly not a long-term solution.

Most people have a hard time thinking about natural resources and the constraints that exist. For instance, the BBC article quoted above is by Peter Brabeck-Letmanthe, Chairman, Nestle S.A. He writes, “the harsh fact is that we will probably run out of water long before we run out of fuel.”

That is demonstrably not true. We will never run out of a resource as abundant as water. What we will run out of — and only in the short run — is energy sources. In the long run, humanity would have discovered new sources of energy and that would release most of the natural resource constraints. Given cheap enough energy, the oceans can provide for all the water humanity will ever need for the foreseeable future. Not just water, the oceans can provide trillions of tons of minerals. One cubic mile of sea water contains — besides the 130 million tons of salt — 6 million tonnes of magnesium, 25 tons of gold, 135 tons of silver, etc.

[I guess from sources that I have read but since then forgotten, the total amount of gold hoarded by humans is around 93 thousand tons — which is a cube about 17 meters on a side.]

In “The Fundamental Problem of Development” (Oct 2003), I wrote —

Constraints are all over the place. Physical resources are limited. It is interesting to ask if there is one single physical resource which if not constrained would release all other constraints. There are some basic limited resources such as land, labor, energy, water, etc. Of these, energy is that resource which if it were unconstrained, all the other basic resources constraints will be released.

If you had sufficient energy, you could transform whatever you had into whatever you wanted and recycle old stuff into new stuff. For instance, water. Using energy, clean the water; use the water; and then clean and reuse the water. You can use energy to desalinate sea water (lots of that around) and grow food hydroponically (don’t need too much land). You need basic minerals and metals? Use energy to get it by the millions of tons from the sea. Bottom line: if you had unlimited energy, you don’t have any real scarcity.

What we have to be concerned about fundamentally is energy. Humanity is at the point where it is running out of fossil fuels. But that is not a huge problem. Research and development already under way will yield results sometime in the future. My guess is that in about 10 years, there will be a major breakthrough which would become commercialized in 20 years and that would be the end of humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels.

That figure above — 20 years — is the boundary between the short and the long run. In that long run, most resource constraints will be eliminated because with the energy available, you can get all the water you need, substitute for most of the land needs, and get all the materials needed. Energy is the greatest constraint in the world of matter. Fixing our energy problem is a technical issue. Humans have always solved technical problems when the need arose. I am a technological optimist and don’t have the slightest doubt that humanity will solve the energy problem in the long run.

Related Post: Free Energy–Not Really.

6 thoughts on “World Water Day 2010

  1. “That is demonstrably not true. We will never run out of a resource as abundant as water. What we will run out of — and only in the short run — is energy sources.”

    I think it’s obvious that people are concerned about accessible water resources, not simply all the water available in the world. Nobody thinks that there isn’t enough seawater. No one thinks all the water on Earth is going to go away. Everybody realizes that IF you had cheap abundant energy you could get as much water (and pretty much anything else) as you want. The discourse is about accessibility of water within certain timeframes. The worry is that large proportions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people who currently have easy access to water may not have said access in the near future.

    Also you’re taking the words “run out of water” out of context. It’s not about the survival of human civilization. It just means that we won’t be able to prevent mass suffering and hardship due to lack of water. Cheap abundant energy won’t arrive in time to help.

    “Humans have always solved technical problems when the need arose. I am a technological optimist and don’t have the slightest doubt that humanity will solve the energy problem in the long run.”

    It happened in the past, so it will happen in the future — a standard fallacy promoted by the likes of Julian Simon. Such arguments are simply invitations for irresponsibly environmental management.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your post! The Economist had some good news on teh drinking water situation. The resource exists, the challenge is to manage it in a sustainable and equitable manner.

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  3. Save the world? Save the planet? Running out of resources, climate change. What are they crusaders?

    What they do not understand is such news read by the ‘common man’ just produces mass hysteria? George Carlin puts it rather succinctly.

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  4. Off topic, but I am curious if you are aware that the Americans are planning to give Pakistan a nuke deal similar to that given to India.

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