TODAY’S CRISIS WILL BECOME A CATASTROPHE.
As water becomes ever more scant the world needs to conserve it, use it more efficiently. Researchers from MIT predict that by 2050, more than half of humanity will live in water-stressed areas, where people are now extracting unsustainable amounts from available freshwater sources. We can expect a water crisis that will go viral into a catastrophe if we continue with business as usual.
Many people have a strong moral aversion to paying for the life-sustaining liquid. Some feel that water is a right, and should therefore be free. Others lobby governments to subsidize its distribution to favored groups. This results in vast, but preventable waste.
To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most.
In many countries people can pump as much water as they like from underground aquifers, because rules are either lax or not enforced. But it is unsustainable: around a fifth of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited.
People do not drink much water—only a few liters a day. But putting food on their tables requires floods of the stuff. Growing 1 lb of wheat takes 125 gallons of water; fattening a cow to produce the same weight of beef involves 12 times more. Overall, agriculture accounts for more than 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. Farmers in parched places grow thirsty cash crops such as avocados, which could easily be imported from somewhere wetter.