Super Cities №231—Why The World Is Thirsty

Brendan Hart

Did you know that 25% of the world’s population is at high risk of running out of water? That number will soon be closer to one-in-three.

Cities are on the front lines of the world's fast-moving water crisis. According to one study, of cities with more than three million people, one-third — 250 million people — are under high or extremely high levels of water stress. These numbers are expected to double by 2030.

No region will be spared.

The Middle East and North Africa are first. A World Bank study found that those regions lose 82% of their water. Total water productivity — a measure of the economic gain from water — in those areas is half the global average.

In eighteen countries across the Middle East and North Africa, cities are considered to be at high risk of completely running out of water.

Yet the challenges of water scarcity stretch far beyond two regions.

Last year, Cape Town came dangerously close to declaring Day Zero, the moment when city residents would no longer have access to water. In this scenario, barely missed, four million Cape Town residents would be forced to line up at government-run rationing stations. As one Cape Town resident said, “When Day Zero comes, they’ll have to call in the army.”

Researchers predict that many cities — from India to Mexico — will soon face Day Zero scenarios.

In a classic tragedy of the commons scenario, cities and rural areas are directly competing for water. This competition comes down to agriculture, which accounts for 70% of global water usage, and the global need to produce more food in the next three decades than we have in the last 10,000 years.

It is hard to imagine a more dystopian future than one where seventy-percent of the world lives in military-occupied cities with little food, no water, and burning temperatures.

Water scarcity is not only a problem for emerging countries or those with extreme weather. America’s water demand will exceed supply by 40% by 2030. America's largest food producer, California, is in perpetual drought because, among other things, 80% of all state water goes to agriculture.

Italy, Spain, and South Korea face similar crises.

The upshot is that, with the right mix of government policy and private-sector innovation, water scarcity is manageable and, in some cases, reversible. It will take a herculean effort, though.

Any action must start with water efficiency — reducing water use without affecting the benefits it provides — in agriculture. Efficiency gains will require vast improvements to both fields and cities.

Many cities are actively collaborating with businesses on smart ag projects that significantly cut water usage and the costs — financial and environmental — of food transportation. Local collaboration is a good start, but the challenge requires solutions orders of magnitude larger.

To extend efficiency gains, governments must invest heavily in water infrastructure — pipes, treatment plants, etc. — and maintenance. Water infrastructure is part of a much larger problem. The world must spend $97 trillion on infrastructure by 2040. America’s need is the largest at $3.8 trillion. China requires $1.9 trillion in investments.

Don’t hold your breath. As I wrote two years ago:

The central tragedy of infrastructure is that when deep public-private investment is most needed, global governance — the lead element historically — is in ruins.

In the short term, the most meaningful progress will be in water recycling. Technologies will make it much easier and more cost-effective to capture and recycle water from waste, households, and storm drainage. Since only 1% of the world's water is drinkable, improvements in water recycling should directly benefit people in thirsty cities such as Tehran, Cape Town, and Los Angeles.

Everyone needs water to survive, but for reasons Adam Smith could not fully answer, most people do not value it. Scarcity is a hell of a forcing function, though.

Especially when the alternative is a future of widespread starvations, migrations, wars, climate catastrophes, pandemics, and, ultimately, mass extinctions.

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