Jessica Jones delves into the water crisis that has us on borrowed time.
Balance can be achieved through an equal relationship between supply and demand, cultivating sustainability. When we look at our treatment of our most valuable resource, water, our actions are strikingly out of balance. The exponential increase in demand for water has created the growing concern that is the global water crisis. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, water consumption has tripled globally in the last 50 years, with the World Bank predicting that by 2025 two thirds of the world’s population will suffer a shortage of fresh drinking water. This vital human resource is being treated and priced as if it were limitless, and thus is used in absurdly wasteful ways. BBC’s environment correspondent Matt McGrath reports that enough water to meet the needs of 20 million people every day is lost through leakage. The urgency of this crisis is often overlooked, despite it being our largest global risk in terms of impact over the next decade.
There are two kinds of water scarcity: physical and economical. Physical water scarcity is an issue of quantity, where there is no longer enough water to meet its demand, whether that is due to uneven distribution or by the draining of aquifers. Aquifers are bodies of permeable rock found underground that can contain or transmit groundwater. They also provide 37% of our drinking water. To extract this water, we drill into these wells and pump the water out. However, these underground deposits of water have accumulated over millennia, and will take millennia to fill back up again. Additionally, the surface soil above these ever-emptying wells physically sinks as a result of this extraction.The effect is irreversible and has become a damaging reality to regions such as Mexico City.
Economic water scarcity, on the other hand, is an issue of water quality and the economic support required. For example, a lack of technology and investment needed to provide clean fresh water can cease to exist even when water is physically available. This is particularly prevalent in regions such Sub-Saharan Africa. However, in London (one of the most developed cities in the world), any talk of water scarcity or rationing can seem fictitious and dystopian – a cause for widespread dismissal. However, the Environment Agency has warned that England will be facing water supply shortages in 2050 unless rapid action is taken to curb its water use and wastage. To imagine the extremity of what rationing would be like, we can look at the state of Africa’s fourth richest city: Cape Town.
From 2015 to 2017, Cape Town suffered severe droughts, putting a strain on the water resources accessible to the city. Although measures to conserve water were put into place in 2015, by May 2017 it was declared that Cape Town was experiencing the worst dry season in a century. The Theewaterskloof Dam, despite government efforts, was drying up, and water restrictions became increasingly severe until the nightmare of ‘Day Zero’ became a fast approaching reality. Day Zero refers to Cape Town’s doomsday countdown, where the city’s faucets are set to run dry, leaving citizens to queue for rationed fresh water. This day was first announced in 2017 to occur in March 2018. However, due to successful implementation of legally binding water restrictions, the citizens of Cape Town grouped together in an urgent effort to push back their Day Zero for as long as possible. The idea that Cape Town would become the first city on earth to run out of water caught the attention of national and international media outlets, inspiring a flurry of environmentally conscious and fear-mongering articles.
The approaching Day Zero has already drastically changed the attitude of thousands of residents. In March 2018, CNN reporter Raymond Joseph wrote of his experience driving through Cape Town, and the 20 people lined up on the street in an orderly queue, all of whom were holding large plastic bottles. Apparently, rumours had spread throughout the neighbourhood of a burst water main, from which fresh water was wastefully flowing. Immediately, citizens arrived to systematically conserve the water instead of leaving it to flow into the storm drain. These efforts likely stem from Cape Town’s daily water use restrictions of 50 litres per person, differing from the UK’s daily average use of 150 litres per person. From drastic actions such as these, Cape Town’s Day Zero countdown has been postponed until further notice, although we are likely to see more stories of its return in 2019.
The perceived value of water in Cape Town has skyrocketed since the potential threat of its disappearance. Yet, for those of us who cannot imagine its disappearance as it seamlessly pours from our taps, we find difficulty in attaching any real value to it. How do we value something, economically speaking, that is necessary to every living person? Less than 1% of the world’s water supply is readily available for human use, the rest is salty, frozen at the poles, or trapped underground. And 70% of the 1% of available water is used on water-intensive agriculture and lost through leaky pipes.
Goldman and Sachs predict that water will be “the petroleum of the next century”, due to its diminishing supply and rapidly growing demand worldwide. The debate of whether water is a commodity, or an essential human resource remains in discussion as its value becomes unprecedented. In 2011, Citigroups’ Willem Buitler said that “water as an asset will eventually become the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” There is a disconcerting pattern of billionaires such as George H.W. Bush and banks such as JP Morgan and HSBC that are buying thousands of acres of land containing aquifers, lakes, and water utilities.
Investing powerhouses such as T. Boone Pickens and UBS are also buying shares in water engineering and technology companies across the world. Many believe the privatisation of water to be incompatible with ensuring the international human right to water, as it gives a select few the power to dictate an international necessity. The privatisation of water also means significant price increases, furthering the economic water disparity that already exists.
However, it is certain that in the next few decades water will become the sought-after commodity. Michael Burry is famous for predicting the 2008 downfall of the subprime lending market years before anyone else. His story of his profits made from America’s economic crash inspired the Hollywood film The Big Short, where his Wall Street guru persona is re-enacted by Christian Bale. Since 2016, it became apparent that Burry “is focusing all his trading on one commodity: water”.
Perhaps our Day Zero feels too far away to spur on such intensive conservation efforts. However, it is apparent that there needs to be significant change in the way we perceive water. Investment in water leakage reparations and environmentally safer desalination schemes, if applied internationally, could save the lives of millions. Irrigation efforts can become more efficient and a change in national attitude towards water could promote a thread of popularity for conservation. Yet, unless human ingenuity comes up with a sustainable way of accessing or re-creating fresh water, without severe or irreversible impacts to the environment, we are ultimately all on borrowed time.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.