The Coming Age of Freshwater Scarcity

Parched Earth

By Hyungsub Moon, Staff Writer

Modern society in its current form cannot exist without oil.  As such, the oft-discussed possibility of dwindling oil supplies is considered a doomsday scenario for the global economy.  Markets rise and fall and fortunes are made and lost as the price of oil fluctuates.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time not too long ago when oil availability was a convenience and not a necessity.  Many decades later it creates a dichotomy for every modern society.  Excessive usage of crude oil is harmful to the environment, endangering the living standards of humanity.

Yet the current standard of living of entirely is dependent on the availability of relatively cheap oil.  While we are paying much attention to this crucial element, which could lead to ecological catastrophe, another key resource is dwindling and few are taking notice.  Now is the time to ask: can humanity survive without water?

The History

On a planet covered with water, it’s easy to have a complacent attitude.  In fact, through the water cycle, the total amount of water on Earth remains constant.  But under heavy pressure from population growth and industrialization, the availability of freshwater is on the decline.  In short, the natural process that produces freshwater cannot support the ever-increasing consumption by our civilization.

While the availability of oil is a modern concern, access to freshwater has been crucial to every human civilization.  Between 6000 and 4000 BCE, four of the world’s ancient civilizations emerged along nearby rivers.  The Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, the Indus River in Pakistan, the Nile in Egypt and the Yellow River in China provided access to one of the most essential elements to human life: freshwater.

Back in 2010, we are one step closer to ‘peak water’ with no clear solution to the growing scarcity of freshwater for Earth’s 6.8 billion (and counting) inhabitants.  If oil fuels the conveniences of the modern life, water fuels the essence of life itself.

While not blatantly obvious to some, it is arguably one of the most serious social and economic problems, one that requires urgent attention from politicians, industrialists, environmentalists, economists and even investment bankers.

Like the recent financial crisis of 2008-2009, the water crisis can be summarized as a problem of unchecked excess.  Just as the global recession was caused by excessive risk-taking in the financial industry, the water crisis has been caused by an excessive usage of freshwater, far beyond what natural processes can sustain in the long term.



Regional population growth that is disproportional to the supply of regional water has created water ghettos where the average person has very poor access to clean, drinkable water.  For example, with explosive population growth and an extremely limited freshwater supply, drinking water is a costly necessity in many parts of Africa.  Meanwhile, Canada is blessed with massive supplies of freshwater that its small population could never reasonably exhaust.  With these massive worldwide inequalities, water should be viewed in social and economic terms.

Some Canadian policy groups believe that Canada is being targeted for freshwater exploitation.  Linda Diebel from the Toronto Star published an article in 2008 on a study by the Polaris Institute (a public policy group) and reported about how unfavorable terms in trade agreements under NAFTA have contributed to growing exploitation of Canadian freshwater to suit U.S. interests.  According to Diebel, the Canadian government agreed to clauses within NAFTA that require Canada to allow a defined level of water export regardless of a domestic shortage.  This certainly brings up political discussions on water as a political and economic commodity among nations.

It is easy to see that industrialized and developing countries all face a problem of freshwater management and without a doubt rapidly developing countries like China and India face not only the supply-side problem but also water pollution issues.

In fact, the water crisis works very much like a credit default swap with high leverage: the negative effects spread like water rings in a pond.  Since freshwater is heavily used in various industrial, commercial and agricultural production, the long-run equilibrium price level of ‘water-intensive’ products will rise.  Food is one of them.

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