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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most