Facts about Water

  • Freshwater use grew more than twice as fast population in the 20th century–its nine-fold increase ranked closely behind the thirteen-fold increase in energy as an economic resource. Today, freshwater resource depletion and population growth from 6.5 to 9 billion by 2050 make this trend unsustainable.


  • Over 3 1/2 billion people in some of the densely populated and poorest parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are projected by 2025 to live in countries that cannot feed themselves.
  • Water availability per person in the already bone dry, combustible Middle East is expected to halve by 2050 due as regional population swells by over 60%.


  • Growing clashes are also foreseen between food and energy, an intensive water user, as global demand for energy grows by 45% by 2030.


  • Environmental refugees from drought, floods, storms, and other climate change-induced water shocks, are expected to multiply from today’s 25 to 50 million to 150 million within a decade.


  • Over 1.1 billion people today lack access to safe drinking water; 2.6 billion—two-fifths of humanity—lack adequate sanitation.
  • Because water is heavy–8 1/3 pounds per gallon or 20% more than oil—a household of four often needs to fetch at least 200 pounds of water each day in order to survive.


  • The planet’s drylands, home to one third of humanity, have only 8% of the world’s renewable, accessible water supplies.


  • Water is a huge comparative advantage for America, which has five times more freshwater per person than China, and six times more than India.


  • As much as one-fourth of global freshwater use may already be exceeding accessible, sustainable supply. Some 70 major river systems are almost totally drained, groundwater tables levels are plunging, and mountain glaciers vital to re-stocking freshwater flows are shrinking worldwide.


  • Despite its scarcity, water is the most undervalued and wasted critical natural resource. Irrigation consumes over two-thirds of the world’s water, but half the water in traditional flood irrigation never ever reaches the crop roots. Major cities lose up to 40% of their water to leaky, old urban infrastructure.


  • Only 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh; of freshwater, only a miniscule 1/3rd of 1% is in the accessible, liquid form on or near the surface that has sustained all civilizations throughout history.


  • One hopeful sign is that, thanks to efficiencies, water use has started to decline in the industrial democracies. U.S. water usage per person has dropped by 30% since 1975.


  1. Is desalination the answer?

    What are good water investments?

    • Desal is a great technology that one day may be the source of new supplies of freshwater. But in the short and intermediate term it cannot be the silver bullet that solves the global scarcity crisis. Several reasons: While the costs have come down dramatically, it is still not a profitable enterprise. Of course, thirsty people don’t care about profitability–they HAVE to drink. So desal plants are going up rapidly in some places, from Israel to southern California and Singapore. But the amount of water they produce today is such a small fraction of what’s needed that, even with a breakthrough in costs, the build out would take too many years to truly solve the crisis.
      Even with a breakthrough, desal is mainly limited to coastal regions because the energy cost of pumping water–which is very heavy at 8 1/3rd pounds, or 20% more than oil–over long distances is prohibitive. (Some regions might be able to effectively ‘trade’ the cost of their desal plants which would be paid by arid inland regions with whom they shared another water source (eg Las Vegas shares Colorado River water with California and could pay the cost of California’s desal plant for a larger draw on California’s share of the Colorado)
      While enormous progress and investment is being made in the filtering membranes used in desal reverse osmosis processes, desal’s power still comes from burning fossil fuels–thus worsening global warming. Water and energy production are intimately interlinked with one another, and both with climate change (and food production too). So solving the water crisis by worsening global warming isn’t really a viable solution at all. What we really need is a technical breakthrough in a renewable source of power–solar or wind, for example.
      There’d still remain the problem of how to dispose of the brine, but I expect that’s a manageable trade off we’d gladly take.
      Thus, for the near and intermediate term, the world doesn’t have a foreseeable Supply Side technology that can deliver us from the global water crisis. We’re going to have to muddle through by improving the way we use Existing Supplies. Some of that is technological. But most is a reorganization problem–a political, economic, and often a social equity issue as well. And a VERY formidable challenge it is. But if we have the political stomach to make the reforms, there IS enough freshwater in most places, using mostly existing technologies, to go a long way to managing the problem.
      As for desal investments, I’d recommend that you focus your research on the filtering membrane companies and technologies, various component parts of the desal facility, and for a longer term, higher risk-reward investment, look at companies trying to deliver desal’s renewable energy source solution. An odder, longer term play might be in brine removal/storage.
      Thanks for the question…

  2. Excellent presentation on Book TV. Awareness at the local level is a start.Thank you for concise information on a global problem that concerns all of us.

  3. I saw your program at Rand in Santa Monica and did not get a chance to ask one question. My fishing group is in the process of establishing a bottled water ban at our events. Besides depleting aquifers, it is usually unnecessary in light of most municipal water supplies. I would like help on a selling point of this ban. How much water does it take to get a gallon to your home versus how much water is necessary to get a gallon of bottled water? Any help is greatly appreciated. Your book is great on a Kindle!

  4. I will come to Dallas to hear you speak at the World Affairs meeting. Perhaps we can meet. Ben Boothe (Water, Wind and Food Production are my areas of research and development)

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