Tue, Aug 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Dealing with the increasing global demand for potable water

By Brahma Chellaney

These countries already understand that water is a renewable, but finite resource.

Nature’s water replenishment capacity is fixed, limiting the world’s usable freshwater resources to about 200,000km3. However, the human population has almost doubled since 1970, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Major increases in water demand are being driven not merely by economic and demographic growth, or by the additional energy, manufacturing and food production to meet rising consumption levels, but also by the fact that the global population is getting fatter.

The average body mass index (BMI) of humans has been increasing in the post-World War II period, but especially since the 1980s, with the prevalence of obesity doubling in the past three decades.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. The issue thus is not just about how many mouths there are to feed, but also how much excess body fat there is on the planet. For example, a study published in the British journal BMC Public Health has found that if the rest of the world had the same average body mass index as the US, this would be the equivalent of adding almost 1 billion people to the global population, greatly exacerbating water stress.

With the era of cheap, bountiful water having been replaced by increasing supply and quality constraints, many investors are beginning to view water as the new oil. The dramatic rise of the bottled-water industry since the 1990s attests to the increasing commodification of the world’s most critical resource. Not only are water shortages likely to intensify and spread, but consumers also will increasingly have to pay more for their water supply.

This double whammy can be mitigated only by innovative water management and conservation, and by developing nontraditional supply sources. As in the oil and gas sector — where tapping unconventional sources, such as shale and tar sands, has proved a game changer — the water sector must adopt all unconventional options, including recycling wastewater and desalinating ocean and brackish waters.

In short, we must focus on addressing our water-supply problems as if our lives depended on it. They do.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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