Is water becoming ‘the new oil’?
Population, pollution, and climate put the squeeze on potable supplies – and private companies smell a profit. Others ask: Should water be a human right?
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The idea of “peak water” is an imperfect analogy, he says. Unlike oil, water is not used up but only changes forms. The world still has the same 326 quintillion gallons, NASA estimates.Skip to next paragraph
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But some 97 percent of it is salty. The world’s remaining accessible fresh-water supplies are divided among industry (20 percent), agriculture (70 percent), and domestic use (10 percent), according to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, fresh-water consumption worldwide has more than doubled since World War II to nearly 4,000 cubic kilometers annually and set to rise another 25 percent by 2030, says a 2007 report by the Zurich-based Sustainable Asset Management (SAM) group investment firm.
Up to triple that is available for human use, so there should be plenty, the report says. But waste, climate change, and pollution have left clean water supplies running short.
“We have ignored demand for decades, just assuming supplies of water would be there,” Dr. Gleick says. “Now we have to learn to manage water demand and – on top of that – deal with climate change, too.”
Population and economic growth across Asia and the rest of the developing world is a major factor driving fresh-water scarcity. The earth’s human population is predicted to rise from 6 billion to about 9 billion by 2050, the UN reports. Feeding them will mean more irrigation for crops.
Increasing attention is also being paid to the global “virtual water” trade. It appears in food or other products that require water to produce, products that are then exported to another nation. The US may consume even more water – virtual water – by importing goods that require lots of water to make. At the same time, the US exports virtual water through goods it sells abroad.
As scarcity drives up the cost of fresh water, more efficient use of water will play a huge role, experts say, including:
• Superefficient drip irrigation is far more frugal than “flood” irrigation. But water’s low cost in the US provides little incentive to build new irrigation systems.
• Aging, leaking water pipes waste billions of gallons daily. The cost to fix them could be $500 billion over the next 30 years, the federal government estimates.
• Desalination. Dozens of plants are in planning stages or under construction in the US and abroad, reports say.
• Privatization. When private for-profit companies sell at a price based on what it costs to produce water, that higher price curbs water waste and water consumption, economists say.
In the US today, about 33.5 million Americans get their drinking water from privately owned utilities that make up about 16 percent of the nation’s community water systems, according to the National Association of Water Companies, a trade association.
“While water is essential to life, and we believe everyone deserves the right of access to water, that doesn’t mean water is free or should be provided free,” says Peter Cook, executive director of the NAWC. “Water should be priced at the cost to provide it – and subsidized for those who can’t afford it.”