By Adam Bates

On 31 October 2011, the United Nations told us that the birth of the 7 billionth baby was due shortly. While the excellent BBC website told me that I was the 3,019,907,734th person on the planet and the 76,654,641,382rd person to have lived since history began. If ever I thought I was in any way remotely important then that news certainly put me in my place!

Looking back to when my father was born in Ireland in the very troubled year of 1916, there were less than two billion people on the planet. In the time it took him to go to school, live through the Second World War, become a professor, find a wife and produce me, another billion people were born. And in the time it took me to go to school and to then end up writing this article, an additional four billion people were added to
the masses.

There are many implications to this, however, for the purpose of this article I will focus on water use and food consumption.

Most of the growth of the world’s population will take place in the fast growing economies. This will create hundreds of millions of the ‘new’ middle classes. Their consumption patterns will change. More meat will be eaten and increasing numbers of wardrobes will be sold to hold all the extra fashionable clothes that will be worn in the shopping malls. Many millions will move to the cities straining existing infrastructures.

This will have a massive impact on water use. One kilogram of rice takes about 3,400 litres of water to produce while one kg of beef takes about 15,500 litres, yet the rice has more calories. In many countries agricultural water has little or no cost, which does nothing to encourage efficient use or discourage waste. Combine all of these factors together with the population growth described above and you can understand why water consumption is rising very, very quickly. Since I have not noticed any new major rivers or lakes being formed recently, it is safe to say that supply is not increasing at the same rate.

The Water Resource Group estimates that by 2030 if no efficiency gains are assumed then global water requirements will grow from 4,500 billion m3 [cubic metres] to 6,900 billion m3 [cubic metres]. This is 40 per cent above current accessible, reliable supplies. This is the overall picture. In many Asian countries, the gap is much worse. The United Nations estimates that by 2025 as many as 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions facing water scarcity.

China is investing huge sums in water conservation infrastructure. It has to. It has 20 per cent of the world’s population and only 7 per cent of its fresh water supply. In October the government announced that China spent $31 billion (£19.9 billion) on water projects in 2010 and intended to double its annual spending over the next decade to 2020. It has more than 50 per cent of the world’s large dams and intends to quadruple the production of desalinated water by 2020.

In my view, global companies cannot ignore this issue, so:
1. Those that use water to manufacture goods must look to reduce their consumption. Be they brewers, jeans manufacturers or power stations; all must look to change their processes.
2. Biotech companies which can produce drought resistant crops can
look to take market share, but only if society is willing to accept genetically modified crops.
3. Innovative companies will reap great rewards from designing efficient
desalination systems, purification techniques and efficient irrigation systems which do not waste water.

In addition we all must assume that water will at some stage be charged at the real economic value.

But rather than getting better it gets worse. The United Nations Development Programme highlighted the danger of conflicts triggered by disputes over rivers and lakes shared by more than one country. Conflict is not just about extraction but also pollution. If man is able to start wars over religious or political differences, accident and disputed borders, then why not water?

So what you might say? How much water does your busienss use? What is the current cost? So while Mark Twain said “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody”, I would say “Water, must be used in moderation, otherwise we will all be hurt”.

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