Blue Gold: The Past, The Present & The Future

Thirsty? Hold the picture in your mind of a cold glass of water on a hot summer’s day, before we begin! The world is a-buzz with talk of climate change — the urgent need to diversify away from fossil fuels, and shrink green-house gas emissions — and of course these issues are worthy of our focused attention, but another gargantuan topic of conversation seems to be far from the minds of most. Are we running out of water?

Our Most Precious Resource

All life as we know it, from the tiniest organism to the largest mammal requires water as a basic necessity for it’s very existence. Each drop holds survival, distilled into it’s purest essence. Ours is the beautiful blue planet, with much of it’s surface covered in water — but 97% of the worlds H2O is salt water, with only a precious 3% comprised of fresh water — and we haven’t always acted as diligent guardians to this often overlooked asset.

We think of water as an infinite resource in the context of natural water cycles. We learn in school that water continuously repeats the process of evaporation, rainfall, rivers, ocean and back up to the skies again, but a changing climate, and human activity are dramatically altering water patterns. Increasing demand for water from growing population and industrialisation, and the globally expanding middle class make water the true Blue Gold: a resource the scarcity of which is causing an increasing amount of global conflict.

We are Integrated with Water

The necessity for water has always steered the course of impressively bounding human evolution, while causing it’s share of power struggle and disaster. From the masterful irrigation systems of the Ancient Egyptians to the revolutionary Aqueducts and sewer systems of the Romans, water has allowed human development to bloom. In this sense, the pure liquid is our gateway to health, hygiene and prosperity. The ancient Mayan empire fell when drought struck the central Americas, and conflict over the diversion of rivers is a repeated battle woven into the history of our species.

While this invaluable resource has been ever-bound to the fate of humanity, a new scale of threat is now wielding heavy blows. It is estimated that by 2025, roughly 1.8 billion people will live in areas burdened by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions. If current trends of water usage are continued, accompanied by population increases and upward social mobility, the world will have only 60 percent of the water it needs by 2030. Unlike the oil crisis — with renewable energy sources on the rise — to water there are no alternatives. No alternatives, certainly, but potential solutions to be explored. What is clear is that protecting what precious water we have, and carefully managing this life-giving resource are vital to avoiding spiralling war over water.

An Environmental Impact

Staggeringly, roughly 70% of global freshwater is already used in agriculture. The demand for water calls more and more for the draining of subterranean reserves, which precariously cannot be accurately measured. The decline of groundwater levels is exacerbated by increasingly unstable climates — drought creates scarcity, while extreme rain-fall events contribute to erosion. Automotive transport pollutes cloud water, while agriculture pollutes groundwater, and industrial production leads to the contamination of both. Tragically, some 60% of the world’s wetlands are now polluted, and water borne disease trumps both war and malaria as a global killer.

Despite these challenges, optimism is still there to find. Advancements in water treatment and distribution, alongside growing awareness, had allowed many to gain access to improved drinking water sources. We will be tested, however, in water-stressed nations such as China, where 20 percent of the world’s population reside, with only 7 percent of is water.

The Blue Gold Rush

In the wake of increasing water demand, a global water grab is underway. From ownership of water rights, and the land where water concentrates, to dominance of services and utilities, the water which makes our lives possible is continuously coming under new ownership. Not only the resources, but the technologies that will allow unusable water to become usable — and sellable — are booming business.

Mega-banks such as Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Barclays and Allianz are consolidating their hold on the globe’s water, while the world’s wealthiest such as the Bush family, Li Ka-shing of Hong Kong and the Pickens family are acquiring vast swathes of the most prime real-estate the planet has to offer in terms of aquifers and lakes, alongside shares in water engineering and technology companies the world over. Goldman Sachs referred to water as “the petroleum for the next century”, and so we see something that was once a basic fundamental become a big-business commodity on a dizzying scale. Critical water infrastructure, and the rights to the resource offer rapidly expanding investment potential.

Solutions At Hand

Challenges stand between ensuring the right to that clean, cool glass of drinking water and the world’s population, but innovation is providing technological solutions to redress the damage environmental changes and water miss-management can cause. Water-efficiency technologies and products, from low flow shower heads and dual flush systems to implementation of aquaponics and hydroponics in agriculture make water use more efficient.

Huge investments are being made in desalination technology, which poses to make the out-of-reach 97% of the world’s salt water a viable resource. The tech is hugely promising, but requires large amounts of energy, and so goes hand in hand with solving the planet’s clean energy crisis. Increasing regulation such as that imposed on produced water — the water that results as a by-product of the oil and gas industries — and ballast-water from the shipping industry which historically destabilised ecosystems as non-native life within ballast tanks was dumped far from it’s point of origin, each serve to improve global water standards, when effectively enforced.

Improvements in the application of tech, from water reuse and membrane technologies to ultraviolet (UV) disinfection, alongside the broader adoption of point-of-use treatment systems contribute to accessible and safe water. A watchful eye must be maintained on water utilities, whether private or publicly owned. The debate continues: should water be a commodity, or a basic human right? Wherever you stand on the issue, what is certain is that increasing awareness and careful management will be necessary for a secure and healthful future. As blood pumps through our veins, the rivers and estuaries of the world are our planets own life-giving veins, and the priority of their protection may just be the next great human cause.

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