Running Out of Freshwater

"Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man."
-Stewart Udall

Let me open this month’s Absolute Return Letter with two striking indictments:

  1. Between now and 2050, the world will need to produce more food than it has done in the last 10,000 years put together.
  2. ‍2.4 billion people (one in three globally) have no access to proper sanitation; in fact, more people have a mobile phone now than have access to a toilet.

Those who tell you that access to freshwater won’t be a problem are either lying, or they haven’t done their homework, and here is why you should take this very seriously. However, before I go there, a brief note to those few of you, who did indeed read my recent research paper on water. You don’t need to read any further. The following is an abbreviated (and shortened) version of that paper.

Water resources under stress

Going back to the first point above, water is critically important to the agricultural industry. The world is populated by approx. 7.5 billon people today. As the global population approaches 10 billion by the middle of the century, and as living standards rise across emerging markets, demand for food and water will rise exponentially. Food production must rise 60% in the next 20 years to meet projected demand, and food production accounts for 70% of all water consumption globally, and as much as 90% in the fastest growing countries.

A huge amount of water is consumed every day; much of it wasted as the result of negligent attitudes. Take the US, for example, where the average person consumes 1,583 cubic metres per year (Exhibit 1). Compare that to the UK, where average annual consumption is ‘only’ 129 cubic metres.

That is a massive difference, which is certainly not due to differing living standards in the two countries, as they are quite similar. The US climate is much drier than the UK climate so, admittedly, more irrigation is required in the agricultural industry over there, but that is far from the whole story. The impact of different consumer habits and attitudes in the two countries is also a major factor and should not be underestimated.

Exhibit 1: Water consumption per capita in various countries (m3)
Exhibit 1: Water consumption per capita in various countries (m3)
Source: Statista