Michael McCarthy: World's most precious commodity is getting even scarcer

A A A

Ask yourself what the world's most precious commodity is, and you might say gold; you might say diamonds. You'd be wrong on both counts. The answer is water.

If by "most precious" we mean what's most desired by most people, nothing comes close to water - fresh, clean water, that is.

This basic truth has been hidden from us in the rich Western countries because we have long had such a plentiful supply. But much of the rest of the world has had no such luxury.

Across the globe, perhaps a third of all people suffer from "water stress". There are 1.1 billion people lacking access to clean water, 2.4 billion lacking access to improved sanitation, and half the world's hospital beds at any one time are thought to be occupied by people suffering from water-borne diseases. You think this is bad? It's going to get worse.

In 2003 a UN report predicted that by the middle of the century - in the worst case - 7 billion people in 60 countries could be faced with water scarcity, although if the right policies were followed this might be brought down to (merely) 2 billion, in 48 nations.

It doesn't take much to realise that with such a commodity in desperate demand, fights are going to break out.

The essence of the problem is that there is only so much water to go round, and as the world population mushrooms upwards, we are at last coming up against the limits of it.

You might not think so from a picture of the Earth, more than two-thirds of it water, making us the blue planet. But only about 2.5 per cent of it is freshwater, while the rest of it is salt. And of the freshwater, two-thirds is locked in glaciers and permanent snow cover. What is available, in lakes, rivers, aquifers (ground water) and rainfall runoff, is increasingly coming under pressure .

Population growth is the biggest pressure. Even though growth has slowed, the world population of 6.3 billion is likely to about 9.3 billion by 2050.

Demand comes not just from drinking, washing and human waste; the greatest calls come from industry in the developed world, and in the developing world, from agriculture. Irrigating crops in hot, dry countries accounts for 70 per cent of use. Pollution from industry, agriculture and human waste, adds fierce pressure. Finally, climate change will probably account for about a fifth of the increase in water scarcity. While rainfall is predicted to get heavier in winter in high latitudes, such as Britain and northern Europe, in many already-drought-prone countries and even some tropical regions it is predicted to fall.

Other pressures will also make themselves felt, such as the growing move of the world population into urban areas (which concentrate wastes) and the increasing privatisation of water resources.

But the combined effect of population growth, pollution and climate change will probably be enough to bring world water supplies to a critical point.

Although the issues of water and sanitation are now on the international agenda, thanks to being included in the Millennium Development Goals, the UN believes that the true scale of the potential world water crisis is still eluding world leaders. A nasty wake-up call may be on the way.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition