The myth of water scarcity

In: Uncategorized

26 Apr 2010

Here is my comment from this week’s Fund Strategy.  I also wrote a related cover story although some of it is fairly technical and financial.

Philosophical distinctions are often derided as useless. In relation to water scarcity they are literally a matter of life and death.

The term “scarcity” is used promiscuously in most discussions of water. The implicit assumption is that there are natural limits to the supply of water so its use should be rationed. If we leave the tap running when we brush our teeth the poorest people are likely to suffer most. From this perspective having private swimming pools or watering golf courses is obscene.

But the notion of scarcity is hard to square with the huge volume of water in the world. As I point out in this week’s cover story the total amount of water globally is equivalent to 200m cubic metres per person. The total volume of the world’s water is equivalent to 300,000 times our annual use. Even on the most narrow definition of freshwater available for human consumption there is 30,000 cubic metres per person.

What is more, water is eminently recyclable. It does not magically disappear from the planet after use. Water that is used to drink, to nourish plants or for any other purpose can be reused.

When people talk about water scarcity what they are really referring to is local or temporary shortages. Even where groundwater is being depleted and aquifers are not being replenished there are ways around the problem. The technology is available – although there is always room for improvement – what is sometimes lacking is the economic resources or the political will.

The provisional character of water scarcity is even clearer in relation to the developing world. Certainly the figures are shocking: about a billion people without access to clean drinking water and 2.6 billion without adequate sanitation. But that is a problem of poverty rather than of global scarcity.

Some of the driest places in the world have access to ample water as they can afford the systems necessary to provide it. These include Arizona, Australia, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Windhoek in Namibia.

Any water shortages are the result of inadequate economic development and a lack of imagination rather than of physical scarcity.