A water faucet juxtaposed against a parched field. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Everyone agrees that we are in the midst of a global freshwater crisis. Around the world, rivers, lakes and aquifers are dwindling faster than Mother Nature can possibly replenish them; industrial and household chemicals are rapidly polluting what’s left. Meanwhile, the global population is ticking skyward.

Goldman Sachs estimates that global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, and the United Nations expects demand to outstrip supply by more than 30% come 2040. In the coming decades, as growing numbers of people live in urban areas and climate change makes some regions much more prone to drought, water will become an increasingly scarce resource.

By 2030, nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the UN’s World Water Assessment Program, the future indeed looks gloomy: By 2030 half the world’s population will face a freshwater deficit. Thirsty nations will take up arms against their saturated neighbors. People drinking polluted water will become ill. Ecologies will die out when the rivers feeding them are depleted for the sake of human farms and factories.

Therefore, the rush to control water resources is gathering speed around the planet. In Australia, brokers in urban areas are buying up water rights from farmers. Rural residents around the US are trying to sell their land (and water) to multinational water bottlers like Nestlé. Companies that use large quantities of the precious resource to run their businesses are seeking to lock up water supplies.

Many of the biggest corporations and the largest food-product manufacturers in the world believe corporations should own all the water on the planet, and no one should be allowed to have access to it unless they pay. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former chief executive of Nestlé, claims that water is not a human right and that it should be privatized and controlled.

So, is water a free and basic human right, or should all the water on the planet belong to major corporations and the elite? And, in another sense of the term “green,” is there money to be made in a time of water scarcity? The answer to both questions, according to environmental activists, is yes. So what happens to those who can’t pay for it? It is an absolute human need – people can live as much as 30 days without food but only seven without water.

However, despite its scarcity, we take water for granted. And why not? We turn a tap and water comes out.

The World Bank argues that higher prices for water are a good thing – if water costs more, we will conserve it better. It is true that there’s not a great economic incentive to use water efficiently. I we don’t price water, people waste it. On the other hand, however, if we price it too high, then we are playing a game of life and death, predicated on making a profit.

Now the most critical question is, what shall we do? Shall there be a middle ground? A middle ground is probably an acceptable solution. We need to provide a certain amount of water to every person, in essence for free. And that figure is about 50 liters per capita per day. In the US, that’s not very much water, but in a place like sub-Saharan Africa or China or India or Bangladesh, it’s a lot. Beyond that, we should institute a tiered price structure, so that the more water you use, the more you will pay for it.

The other important question is, what else can we do to make our water use sustainable? The most common answer is that we need to change the way we value water. We need to focus on efficiency and conservation. The choice is between a “soft path,” as opposed to a “hard path,” to a solution. The soft path is technologically driven; it’s kind of a smarter, less dramatic way of conserving the water supplies that we have, and using them more efficiently. How? Fairly simple steps – low-flow shower heads, low-flush toilets, drip irrigation, side-mounting washing machines, storing water underground instead of above ground, where it evaporates. These are not super high-tech, they’re existing technologies; we just haven’t used them enough yet.

Now, it is a question of motivation to adapt these “soft path” technologies for using water more efficiently. Is education on the way to use water helpful? My personal experience is yes, it is. Once I got into the proper information about the scarcity of water and information on how to use water, I discovered to my horror that I was wasting water in many small ways. So now I and my family recycle water much more. We are very careful about what we put down the drain; we now have a more efficient, low-flush toilet. We have fixed leaks in our house. The statistic that I remember is that a dripping faucet can lose nearly 40 liters a day of water – water that has been carefully collected and cleaned and piped to us. That’s just a crazy waste of resources.

So what do we do now? On the one hand, most of the world views water as a basic human right (the UN General Assembly voted unanimously to affirm it as such). On the other, it’s becoming so expensive to obtain and supply that most governments cannot afford to shoulder the cost alone. Ultimately, both public and private entities will have to work together, and they need to start it now.

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Rashed Chowdhury

Dr Rashed Chowdhury, a research faculty member at the University of Hawaii, works on the critical issues of water, climate, and society.

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