By | Updated Aug 14, 2015 10:14 PM UTC

The world has plenty of water — it’s the ultimate renewable resource. So why do we seem to be running out of it? In the spring of 2015, California imposed its toughest-ever water restrictions as a drought stretched into its fourth year. Shortages are sparking conflicts and policy changes from Turkey to Taiwan, as governments try to balance the needs of residents, farms and industry. What’s going on? Scientists suspect that climate change is playing a role. There’s no doubt that humans are using more water. There are more of us, for one thing. Rising standards of living also mean more intensive water use. By some estimates, more than a billion people live in regions where water is scarce, a number projected to grow to 3.5 billion by 2025.

The Situation

Thirsty Brazilians are drilling through their basements for water. Iran is short of water from border to border as its lakes and wetlands shrink. Taiwanese chipmakers are searching for alternate water supplies as cities there struggle against a record drought. Droughts in China, India and South Africa have power producers and beverage makers interrupting operations or facing protesters saying don’t take our water. Overpumping in places like California’s Central Valley and the Great Plains’ Ogallala basin has depleted some of the world’s biggest aquifers. Water played a role in instigating civil war in Syria, and scientists suggest that Yemen could collapse as a state over an even more serious lack of water. Egypt and Ethiopia have long bickered over shared Nile River water, while the only thing that Iraq and ISIS agree on is that Turkey is storing too much water from the Euphrates River. Quality is also a vast concern: More than 20 percent of the Earth’s 7 billion people drink contaminated water.

Source: World Resources Institute

The Background

Solving local water shortages by moving it to where it’s wanted is as old as the canals of Mesopotamia, and ancient Roman aqueducts still span valleys across Europe. But water transport has its limits. And the amount of water consumed by industry, agriculture, energy and municipal users has grown globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. Today, it takes about 40 barrels of water to produce a barrel of oil despite improved efficiencies, and coal-fired generators use large volumes. Water footprint analyses show about 450 gallons of water, about 1,700 liters, is needed to make a quarter-pound hamburger. Climate change isn’t just exacerbating droughts. It’s intensifying downpours and speeding up evaporation, both of which make it harder to harvest water produced by the rain cycle. And rising sea levels bring salt into freshwater sources in places like Florida and low-lying South Pacific islands.

Sources: Maddison (2010), Shiklomanov (2000), International Monetary Fund

The Argument

There are two ways to change the equation leading to water shortages — make more water by desalinization or use less of it. Either way, water is likely to cost more. High prices not only discourage waste but provide funds for modernizing water systems. In the U.S., Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco charge the most for water. Desalinization has been successfully used in Israel, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, but it’s expensive and energy-intensive. Other approaches include smart meters to monitor water usage and detect leaks, “toilet-to-tap” water re-use, rationing, rainwater harvesting and ripping out thirsty lawns. Australia has had great success by monitoring every drop of water and creating markets on which it’s traded like any other commodity. Adopting such measures elsewhere would require legal and cultural changes. In the U.S., land rights and water rights are tied together, creating incentives to drain down aquifers. And even with greater efficiencies, few think that farms in California will be able to use 80 percent of the state’s water indefinitely. In more stressed areas, the United Nations deputy secretary general sees an urgent need for “hydro diplomacy’’ to keep water wars from turning into shooting wars.

The Reference Shelf

First published July 29, 2015

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net