“Water water every where, nor any drop to drink”
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, 1798)
The world is awash in water. 70% of the planet’s surface is covered by water, and significant water is contained in frozen and gaseous forms as well. Further, the volume of water on planet Earth has remained roughly constant for more than 1 billion years at ~344 million cubic miles. By almost any account, water is quite literally everywhere. Yet we constantly hear of impending shortages. Why? To begin, 97.5% of the water on Earth is in oceans and unfit for human consumption. This means that if all of the planet’s water filled a typical one-gallon milk container, less than a teaspoon of it would be freshwater.
The real problem is a shortage of freshwater consumable by plants, animals, and humans. By changing historical rainfall patterns and increasing the severity of storms, climate change is exacerbating the already tenuous balance of water supply and water demand. Agriculture is a primary culprit – accounting for more than 90% of freshwater use each year. The same forces driving demand for food—namely a global population boom and increasing preferences within that population for animal protein—are placing unsustainable pressure on water supplies (see my “King Morocco” piece HERE).
So what? Climate change and food-driven water demand are creating a toxic cocktail that will meaningfully shock global stability. Consider that 1 in 4 large cities are “water stressed,” according to the Nature Conservancy (see HERE). A recent Bloomberg story highlighted rising tensions between Brazilian cities jockeying over water resources (see HERE). Or let’s not forget that Barcelona actually came within days of running out of water in 2008 and actually imported a tanker of drinking water (see HERE).
Water wars are coming. The US National Intelligence Strategy (see HERE), released in September of this year highlighted the potential for water scarcity to generate instability. Further, a US intelligence community report on Global Water Security (see HERE) released in 2012 clearly warned that “During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods – that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives.”
Sadly, it appears we may soon have to update Coleridge to “Water wars every where, nor any drop for peace.”