“We’re going to run out of water much much earlier than we’ll run out of oil,” warned Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé, at the OECD Forum in May 2012.
Water covers 70% of our planet, and it is easy to think that it will always be plentiful. However, freshwater—the stuff we drink, bathe in, irrigate our farm fields with—is incredibly rare. Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use.
We use water for cooking, growing and preparing food; in sustaining industry, to maintain our health, and for recreational purposes. Our daily existence relies on the availability of water. Yet as the global population rises and the consumption of water increases, we find ourselves depleting all of our water sources.
The projections in the OECD’s Environmental Outlook to 2050 certainly suggest that freshwater availability will be strained unless new action is taken. For instance, by 2050 some 2.3 billion more people than today (that’s a total of over 40% of the global population) are projected to be living in river basins experiencing severe water stress, with parts of Africa and Asia being particularly affected. Also, global water demand is projected to increase by some 55%, due to manufacturing (demand up 400%), electricity generation (+140%) and domestic use (+130%).
Moreover, there is little scope for increasing irrigation water under current baseline scenarios, while groundwater depletion will threaten agriculture and urban water supplies. Pollution from wastewater and agriculture will worsen too, damaging biodiversity and well-being.
Though access to improved water sources (but not necessarily safe for consumption) should increase, more than 240 million people are expected to be without such access by 2050. Moreover, 1.4 billion people worldwide are projected to be without access to basic sanitation.
Only new policies can help improve this outlook, with greener infrastructure investment, sewage and wastewater management, better governance, and water pricing to encourage more efficient use.
OECD (2012), OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction, OECD Publishing.