“Water, Water everyone, nor any drop to drink”
-Rime of the ancient mariner by Coleridge
We’ve all heard or read that “water is the new oil”, often as a pundit’s shorthand for some market prediction. Drinking water, we are told by analysts and environmentalists, is a rare, limited resource which the world is rapidly running out of. It’s just like oil.
Well, it’s not.
Water, water everywhere
1. Oil gets used up, but water is inherently reusable.
We burn oil to make our cars go, or we make it into plastics, which will never change back into oil. Water, on the other hand, spends just a few hours in our bodies before we return it, unchanged molecularly, to the environment. In most cases, agricultural or industrial use, which are far greater than personal comsumption, return water similarly. . Water is inherently reusable; it’s up to us, as a species, to ensure we don’t return it in such a polluted state, that reusing the water becomes impractical.
2. Unlike oil, our planet has a huge stock of water, at mostly known locations.
Most of our planet’s surface is covered in water. Deep sea drilling and exploration are not required for water. True, most of that is seawater, but current desalination technology can already convert that to drinkable water at a commercially reasonable price (several times less than what many consumers already pay for their drinking water).
3. Even fresh water, almost ready to drink, is quite abundant.
Freshwater resources account for just one or two percent of Earth’s water (depending on what you count as a potential resource), but that’s still a huge amount, many times greater than what mankind consumes yearly. The best indicator of how much fresh water we can sustainably use is the rate at which freshwater resources are replenished by precipitation (any freshwater sources, like lakes, rivers, or aquifers, are just buffers we can draw from, but are ultimately refilled from precipitation, or channels passing precipitation water back to the ocean). That figure is around 4 times mankind’s current water use. That’s not so big as to make human consumption “a drop in the ocean”, but it does mean any water stress we have is not because “there isn’t enough to go around”.
4. No substitution
There’s no “renewable energy” analog in the water market. You can use water more efficiently, but you can’t really phase it out in favour of some alternative. Our bodies, our food crops, and often our industrial uses, just can’t go without water. On the plus side, water does not pollute the environment, and is returned to it in the same molecular form (although we frequently discharge it with a whole lot of pollutants inside).
5. Water is a local market
Like energy, water is consumed everywhere. But whereas energy sources, such as oil, can profitably be traded across the world, from oil-rich nations to oil-poor nations, water is just too bulky (or, equivalently, too cheap per volume) to be transported cost-effectively, and thus be a truly global commodity. In some water-stressed areas, transboundary water trade is emerging and makes sense, but this is nothing like global trade on the intercontinental scale seen in oil markets. Water technology and methodology still can (and should) be global, but water markets will remain local.
Nor any drop to drink
So, is water scarcity not a problem? Of course it is. In much of the developing world, access to safe drinking water is one of life’s great difficulties; this will soon threaten most of the world’s population. Even in many European and US cities, water resources are stressed, and depletion of aquifers and other “buffer” sources indicates an expected shortage within a couple of decades. But to say that we are “running out of water” is a dangerous oversimplification, and the oil analogy makes it sound like we now need to go prospecting for new (and expensive) sources of water.
The real reasons much of the world is now or is in danger of becoming water-stressed are more subtle. Many water sources are difficult to access, tap, and transport water from. Water withdrawal is multiplied many times by wasteful consumption, inefficient transport and distribution (water loss in distribution systems, e.g. through leaky and burst pipes, is estimated at 25% worldwide to 50% or more in the developing world), poor reuse/recharging strategies, and indiscriminate pollution of water sources.
Every drop counts
So, what can we do? We need to keep the total water withdrawal rate down. More often than not, the answers are simple, but require smart solutions to implement.
1. Use less water.
The US consumes twice as much water per capita as Europe does, for a similar standard of living. Consumers in the US and some other countries are typically charged an unrealistically low price marginal price for their excess water use (often far below the total cost to procure more water sustainably), so there is no disincentive to such waste. The issue of raising those prices is often a political minefield, and the local nature of the water market means that tenfold differences in water prices between countries are neither surprising, nor a transient condition, although the best-practice cost to supply that water may be identical. The AWE is fighting hard to promote efficient water use in the US, and other, more efficient countries could still do much better. If we used half as much water, it would be as good (or better!) as doubling our water resources.
2. Reuse water.
By polluting less water, treating, and recycling it, the same water can be reused several times along the water cycle, either directly, or indirectly by being recharged into groundwater or river water, from where it is eventually pumped out and used. This is like multiplying the water available from precipitation. Reuse can often require little or no water treatment, e.g. when greywater is used for irrigation. The vast majority of water is used for agriculture and industry, which can often use lower quality water. If we reused every litre of water even once, that would be like doubling our water resources.
3. Tap more sources.
OK, that’s the obvious one. The important thing, perhaps, is to add the adjective “responsibly”. Pumping water from lakes and aquifers faster than they are naturally replenished may at best be considered a loan from the environment. Sustained withdrawal from such sources can lower water levels, causing dangerous pollution, and of course can only be a time-limited solution until the stored water buffer is depleted. Freshwater sources must also supply sufficient water for existing ecosystems, after net human consumption.
4. Transport and distribute water more efficiently.
Leaky pipes lose tens of percent of the total water withdrawn globally. Just cutting down that lost water would save us – among other things – a significant fraction of total water demand, which today is simply lost and returned to the environment. In much of the developing world, this could more than halve the demand on freshwater resources.
Earth’s water cycle imposes a hard limit on the fresh water we can sustainably abstract from the environment. As mentioned, mankind already appropriates a sizeable fraction of that. With the actions listed above, we may improve that ratio five- or tenfold. But with the combination of population growth, and the need to close today’s water gap in much of the developing world, not to mention the unequal geographical distribution of easily accessible freshwater sources, that hard limit will remain too close for comfort for anyone taking the longer view. 100% efficient closed-loop water recycling is still a long way off, and may never be economically viable. Cheap desalination (as Israel has realized, for instance) is the only way to increase our total water sources, and seems like an eventual necessity.
Oil and water
It’s not so much access to water sources or ownership of those sources that will prove crucial (and make big business, the way ownership of oil has), but the technology and methods we use to ensure adequate water supply. We can move away from oil and oil technology – and we’ll have to, quite soon – but water is here to stay. For all the wrong reasons, water stress is felt or is beginning to be felt throughout the world. “New oil” or not, we should be giving it our very best effort.
Article by Haggai Scolnicov, appearing courtesy TaKaDu