The mass migration of Africans could cause civil unrest in Europe, China's economy could crash by 2015 and cholera may return to London as a secure supply of fresh water assumes greater and greater significance to the global economy.
That was the bleak assessment on Wednesday by forecasters from some of the world's leading corporate users of fresh water, 200 of the largest food, oil, water and chemical companies.
Analysts working for Shell, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Cargill and other companies which depend heavily on secure water supplies, suggested on Wednesday the next 20 years would be critical as countries became richer, making heavier demands on scarce water supplies.
In three future scenarios, the businesses foresee growing civil unrest, boom and bust economic cycles in Asia and mass migrations to Europe. But they also say scarcity will encourage the development of new water-saving technologies and better management of water by business.
The study of future water availability, which the corporations have taken three years to compile, suggests water conflicts are likely to become common in many countries, according to the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, which brought the industrial groups together.
"The growing demand for water in China can potentially lead to over-exploitation and a decline in availability for domestic, agricultural, industry and energy production use. This inevitably leads to loss of production, both industrial and agricultural, and can also affect public health -- all of which in turn will ultimately lead to an economic downturn. The question is how can business address these challenges and still make a profit," said Lloyd Timberlake, spokesman for the council.
The corporations were joined on Wednesday by the conservation group WWF and the International Water Management Institute, the world's leading body on fresh water management, which said water scarcity was increasing faster than expected. In China, authorities had begun trucking in water to millions of people after wells and rivers ran dry in the east of the country.
"Globally, water usage has increased by six times in the past 100 years and will double again by 2050, driven mainly by irrigation and demands of agriculture. Some countries have already run out of water to produce their own food. Without improvements ... the consequences will be even more widespread water scarcity and rapidly increasing water prices," said Frank Rijsberman, director of the institute.
The institute, funded by government research organizations, will report next week that a third of the world's population, more than 2 billion people, is living in places where water is overused -- leading to falling underground water levels and drying rivers -- or cannot be easily accessed.
Rijsberman said rising living standards in India and China could lead to increased demand for better food, which would in turn need more water to produce. He expects the price of water to increase everywhere to meet an expected 50 percent increase in the amount of food the world will need in the next 20 years.
According to the institute's assessment, Egypt imports more than half of its food because it does not have enough water to grow it domestically and Australia is faced with water scarcity in the Murray-Darling Basin as a result of diverting large quantities of water for use in agriculture.