Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization - Steven Solomon (2010)

Part IV. The Age of Scarcity

Chapter 14. Water: The New Oil

The challenge of freshwater scarcity and ecosystem depletion is rapidly emerging as one of the defining fulcrums of world politics and human civilization. A century of unprecedented freshwater abundance is being eclipsed by a new age characterized by acute disparities in water wealth, chronic insufficiencies, and deteriorating environmental sustainability across many of the most heavily populated parts of the planet. Just as oil conflicts played a central role in defining the history of the 1900s, the struggle to command increasingly scarce, usable water resources is set to shape the destinies of societies and the world order of the twenty-first century. Water is overtaking oil as the world’s scarcest critical natural resource. But water is more than the new oil. Oil, in the end, is substitutable, albeit painfully, by other fuel sources, or in extremis can be done without; but water’s uses are pervasive, irreplaceable by any other substance, and utterly indispensable.

The long sweep of history revealed that long enduring civilizations were underpinned by effective water control using the technology and organization methods of its time. Whether it was the irrigation canals of ancient Mesopotamia, the Grand Canal of imperial China, the waterwheels and steam engine of early industrial Europe, or the giant, multipurpose dams of the twentieth century, societies that rose to preeminence responded to the water challenge of their ages by exploiting their water resource potential in ways that invariably were more productive, larger in scale, and unleashed larger usable supplies than their slower-adapting rivals. In contrast, unmet water challenges, a failure to maintain waterworks structure, or simply being overtaken by more productive water management elsewhere was a common factor of many of history’s declines and collapses. Likewise, the economic productiveness and political equilibrium of today’s advanced societies depends critically upon the robustness, security, and continuous innovative development of an interlinked array of giant dams, electric power plants, aqueducts, reservoirs, pumps, distribution pipes, sanitary sewage systems, wastewater treatment facilities, irrigation canals, drainage systems, and levees, as well as transport waterworks including port facilities, dredgers, bridges, tunnels, and ocean-spanning shipping fleets. In the unfolding reality of the new millennium, water use and infrastructure are also at the heart of the interlinked challenges of food, energy shortages, and climate change dictating the fate of human civilization.

Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is hardly an accessible freshwater source or a strategically placed waterway on an economically advanced part of the planet that has not been radically, and often monumentally, engineered by man’s prodigious industrial power. As world population continues to be propelled toward 9 billion by 2050, and with so many third world inhabitants starting to move up toward consumption and waste-generation levels of the one-fifth living in industrialized nations, demand for more freshwater is continuing to soar. Yet no new innovative breakthrough capable of expanding usable water supply on a large enough scale to meet the demand is anywhere evident on the horizon.

Over the past two centuries, freshwater usage has grown two times faster than population. About half the renewable global runoff accessible to the most populated parts of the planet is being used. Simple math, and the physical limits of nature, dictates that past trends cannot be sustained. Throughout history the ceiling of man’s capacity to extract greater water supply from nature had been bounded only by his own technological limitations. Now, however, an additional, external obstacle has arisen to impose the critical constraint—the depletion of the renewable, accessible freshwater ecological systems upon which all human civilization ultimately depends. As a result a new application of water is emerging to join society’s traditional four primary uses—the allocation of enough water to watersheds and related natural ecosystems to sustain the vitality of the hydrological environment itself.

The age of water scarcity consequently heralds the potential start of a momentous transition in the trajectory of water and world history: from the traditional paradigm based on centralized, mass-scale infrastructure that extracted, treated, and delivered ever greater, absolute supplies from nature to a new efficiency paradigm built upon more decentralized, scaled-to-task, and environmentally harmonious solutions that make more productive use of existing supplies. This transition is fomenting a new politics in the old equations between population sizes and available water resources in societies all over the world. New population-resource equilibriums eventually will be achieved within each society, water-poor and water-rich alike, through breakthroughs in efficiency and organization on the one hand, or stagnation in personal living standards and overall population levels on the other—and very likely some mixture of both. History suggests that it will be a tumultuous process, recasting social orders, domestic economic hierarchies, international balances of power, and everyday lives. Some regions are better placed than others to face the transition. With water demand continuing to outstrip soaring population growth and many planetary ecosystems being taxed beyond sustainable levels, more and more water-fragile nations were already being driven to the brink.

Most prominent, water scarcity is cleaving an explosive fault line between freshwater Haves and Have-Nots across the political, economic, and social global landscapes of the twenty-first century: internationally, among relatively well-watered industrial world citizens and those of water-famished, developing countries; among those upriver who control river flows and their neighbors downstream whose survival depends upon receiving a sufficient amount; and among those nations with enough agricultural water to be self-sufficient in food and those dependent upon foreign imports to feed their teeming populations. Within nations the new freshwater fault line is fomenting a more divisive competition among interest groups and regions for a greater allocation of limited domestic water resources: between heavily subsidized farmers on the one side and industrial and urban users without government assistance on the other; between the well-heeled situated within close proximity of freshwater sources and the rural and urban poor, who, by dint of occupying secondary locations more remote from water sources, endure the added insult of having less piped connectivity and regressively greater expense in obtaining water. The water fault line cut across humanity, between those able to pay the top price for abundant, wholesome drinking water and the water destitute who glean the dregs; between those who dwell in locations with effective pollution regulations, modern wastewater treatment, and sanitation facilities and those on the other side of the sanitary divide, whose daily lives are contaminated by exposure to impure, disease-plagued water. Across geographical habitats, water’s fault line contrasts the privileged minority who live in the planet’s relatively well-watered and forested temperate zones and the largest part of the human race that live on water-fragile dry lands, oversaturated tropics, or were exposed to the costly unpredictability of extreme precipitation events that cause out of season floods, mudslides, and droughts. Increasingly, the fault line between water Haves and water Have-Nots is being played out on the plane of international policy between traditional economic nationalists trying to manage affairs within the blinkers of domestic boundaries and the growing coalition of enlightened self-interests worried about destabilizing spillovers from the interdependencies of global society and from planetary environmental crises triggered by the regional degradation of water ecosystems.

Every day across the planet, armies of water poor, mainly women and children compelled by thirst to forgo school and productive work, march barefoot two or three hours per day transporting just enough water in heavy plastic containers from the nearest clean source for their barest household survival needs—some 200 pounds per day for a four-person household. The alarming dark side of this humanitarian divide includes over 1.1 billion people—almost one-fifth of all humanity—who lack access to at least a gallon per day of safe water to drink. Some 2.6 billion—two out of every five people on Earth—are sanitary Have-Nots lacking the additional five gallons needed daily for rudimentary sanitation and hygiene. Far fewer still achieve the minimum threshold of 13 gallons per day for basic domestic health and well-being, including water for bathing and cooking. The lives of the most abject of Water Have-Nots, moreover, are chronically afflicted and shortened by diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, dengue fever, schistosomiasis, cholera, and the myriad other illnesses that make waterborne diseases mankind’s most prevalent scourge. Half the people in the developing world of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean are estimated to suffer from diseases associated with inadequate freshwater and sanitation. This side of the humanitarian divide includes the 2 billion human beings whose lives are uprooted catastrophically every decade from inadequate public infrastructural protection from water shocks. By contrast, on the Water Have side of the humanitarian divide, industrialized-world citizens use 10 to 30 times more water than their poorest, developing nation counterparts. In the water-wealthy United States, each person uses an average of 150 gallons per day for domestic and municipal purposes, including such extravagances as multiple toilet flushes and lawn watering.

Water rationing is increasingly commonplace in Water Have-Not societies. So, too, are internecine conflicts and violent protests over scarce supplies and high prices. Inadequate water supply commonly manifests itself in the form of insufficient food output, stunted industrial development as critical water inputs are sacrificed to the priority of agriculture, and shortages in energy, whose modern production infrastructure is closely interlinked with copious volumes of water used for cooling, power generation, and other purposes. Chronic water scarcity undercuts the political legitimacy of governments, fomenting social instability, and failed states. Water riots, bombings, many deaths, and other violent warning signs occurred from 1999 to 2005, for example, in various conflicts over water in Karachi, Pakistan, in Gujarat, India, in provinces of arid north China, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between Kenyan tribes, among Somalia villages, and in the Darfur, Sudan, genocide. In the oddest report of water violence, eight monkeys were killed and 10 Kenyan villagers wounded when the desperate primates descended upon water tankers brought to relieve the drought-stricken village. Cross-border tensions and military threats between nation-states are palpable perils in a growing number of international watersheds in some of the world’s most combustible regions. Today, it is a commonplace for statesmen to paraphrase the much publicized 1995 prediction of a former chairman of the World Commission for Water in the 21st Century and senior World Bank official, Egyptian Ismail Serageldin: “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water.”

From the early 1990s, a decade marked by the global environmental awakening symbolized by the first Earth Summit in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, a consensus began to coalesce among attentive world leaders that on existing trajectories and technologies, usable freshwater resources were falling short of what was needed for long-term global economic growth. The consensus helped galvanize in 2001 the first comprehensive, planet-wide assessment of the health of all of Earth’s major ecosystems and its effects on human well-being. The headline findings of the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched under U.N. auspices and completed in 2005 with input from over a thousand experts worldwide, was that 15 of the 24 studied Earth ecosystems were being degraded or used unsustainably. Freshwater ecosystems and capture fisheries, in particular, were singled out as “now well beyond levels that can be sustained even at current demands, much less future ones.” Up to half the world’s wetlands disappeared or were severely damaged in the twentieth century’s drive to obtain more arable land and freshwater for agriculture. Worldwide expansion of irrigable farmland is peaking out for the first time in history.

Under demographic and developmental duress, mankind’s withdrawal of usable, renewable freshwater from the surface of the planet is expected to rise from half to 70 percent by 2025. Due to heavy overdrafts on slowly replenishing reserves in some water distressed regions, MEA experts estimated that possibly as much as one-quarter of global freshwater use might already be exceeding the accessible, sustainable supply.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, an increasing number of nations were so critically water stressed that they can no longer grow all the crops they need to feed and clothe their own populations. Growing crops is an astonishingly water intensive enterprise—about three-quarters of mankind’s water use worldwide is for farm irrigation. Indeed, food itself is mainly water. To produce a single pound of wheat requires half a ton, or nearly 250 gallons of water; a pound of rice needs between 250 and 650 gallons. Moving up the food chain to livestock for meat and milk multiplies the water intensity since the animals have to be nourished with huge quantities of grain; up to 800 gallons, or over three tons of water, for instance, are needed for the feed that produces a single portion of hamburger and some 200 gallons for a glass of cow’s milk. In all, a well-nourished person consumes some 800 to 1,000 gallons of water each day in the food he eats. The ordinary cotton T-shirt on his back requires as much as 700 gallons to produce.

As water poor countries fall short of self-sufficiency in producing their daily bread, they are growing increasingly dependent upon importing grain and other foods from water-wealthier farming nations. By 2025 up to 3.6 billion people in some of the driest, most densely populated and poorest parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are projected to live in countries that cannot feed themselves. Due to water scarcity a growing trade in virtual water—food and other finished products imported in substitution for scarce domestic water resources—is redefining the terms of international trade and emerging as a distinctive feature of the changing global order. The growing bifurcation between water-poor food importers and water-rich exporters is often further exacerbated by man-made ruination of cropland from soil erosion and polluting runoff. The prospect of upward spiraling international food prices as the era of cheap water and cheap food comes to an end is already causing experts to warn of grave consequences if there is not a new Green Revolution, perhaps including the development of genetically modified plant hybrids that grow with less water.

The same, finite net, 4/1,000ths of 1 percent of Earth’s total water that recycled endlessly and fell over land in the process of evaporation-transpiration and precipitation has sustained every civilization from the start of history to the present. Man’s practical access to this renewable freshwater supply remains limited to a maximum of one-third, since about two-thirds quickly disappears in floods and into the ground, recharging surface and ground water ecosystems and ultimately returning to the sea. Even so, that one-third totals enough available renewable water to more than suffice for the planet’s 6 billion—if it were all distributed evenly. But it is not. A large share runs off unused in lightly inhabited jungle rivers like the Amazon, the Congo, and the Orinoco and across Russia’s remote Siberian expanses toward the Arctic in the giant Yenisei and Lena rivers. So the actual total amount of readily available, renewable freshwater per person often averages less—often far less—in some regions than the threshold annual 2,000-cubic-meter measure of water sufficiency. And it is declining sharply in inverse relationship to the escalation of world population.

Yet even that does not convey the full measure of the deepening water crisis challenge because the remainder of renewable freshwater that precipitates within the reach of large human society falls in disparate intensities, seasonal patterns and degrees of difficulty in being captured for human use. Hot climates, for instance, suffer much higher losses from evaporation than cool, temperate ones—in Africa only one-fifth of all rainfall transforms into potentially utilizable runoff. The most difficult hydrological environment is not one of extreme aridity, or extreme wetness, however, but where water availability varies widely between seasons and is prone to unpredictable water shocks, such as floods, landslides, droughts and sudden, extreme deviations from usual patterns. Seasonality raises the complexity and the cost of water engineering, while unpredictability defeats even sound waterworks planning, often striking demoralizing setbacks against development. It is not a coincidence that history’s poorest societies often have had the most difficult hydrological environments.

As a result, each region’s actual water challenges vary enormously by environment, availability, and the population it has to support. Australia is by far the driest continent, with only 5 percent of world runoff. But it has to support by far the smallest human population, a mere 20 million, or less than one-half of 1 percent of world population. Asia, the largest continent, receives the most renewable water, about one-third of the total. Nonetheless, it is the most water-stressed continent because it has to meet the needs of three-fifths of humanity, contains some of the world’s most arid expanses, and over three-quarters of its precipitation falls in the form of hard-to-capture, highly variable, concentrated seasonal monsoons. The water richest continent is South America, with 28 percent of the world’s renewable water and only 6 percent of its population. On a per person basis, it receives ten times as much freshwater each year as Asia and five times as much as Africa. Yet most of it flows away unused through jungle watersheds, while some high desert regions remain bone dry. North America is water wealthy with 18 percent of the world’s runoff and 8 percent of its population. Europe has only about 7 percent of the world’s water for its 12 percent share of population, but is comparatively advantaged in its wet, northern and central half because much of it falls year-round, evaporates slowly, and runs off in easily accessible and navigable small rivers.

The continental volumes, of course, mask the all-important disparities among localities and nations that are animating the new water politics. One eye-popping headline of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was that the planet’s dry lands, encompassing one-third of humanity or over 2 billion people, had only 8 percent of the world’s renewable supply of water in its surface streams and fast-recharging groundwater tables. More than 90 percent of the dry-land inhabitants live in developing nations, making water famine one of the key, vexing challenges of international economic development. It is hardly surprising that the vast dry-land belt stretching from North Africa and the Middle East to the Indus valley is also one of the world’s most politically volatile regions. At the other end of the spectrum are super Water Have countries such as Brazil, Russia, Canada, Panama, and Nicaragua with far more water than their populations can ever use. The United States and China have large hydrological imbalances with shortages in their far western and northern regions, respectively; while the modestly populated American Far West felt constraints on its rapid growth, the fertile, overpopulated northern plain of China is one of the most severely water-scarce, environmentally challenged regions on Earth. Likewise, India’s growing, huge population is outstripping the highly inefficient management of its freshwater resources, forcing farmers, industry, and households to pump groundwater faster and deeper in a proverbial race to the bottom. Western European nations managed successfully because they use their limited water resources more productively, abetted by their higher proportions used for industry and cities, and less for agriculture.

Because water is so heavy and is needed in such vast quantities, chronic shortages cannot be permanently relieved by transporting it over long distances. The challenge of water scarcity, therefore, has to be confronted watershed by watershed, according to local physical and political conditions, and further constrained by the needs of foreign neighbors within the 261 transnational river basins that are home to 40 percent of the world’s inhabitants. One of the most reliable indicators of water wealth is the amount of water storage capacity each nation has installed per person to buffer it against natural shocks and to manage its economic needs; almost universally, the storage leaders are the world’s wealthiest nations, while the poorest remain most exposed to the natural caprices of water.

Despite its growing scarcity and preciousness to life, ironically, water is also man’s most misgoverned, inefficiently allocated and profligately wasted natural resource. Societies’ own poor management of water, in other words, is a key component of their water scarcity crises. In market democracies and authoritarian states alike, modern governments still routinely maintain monopolistic control over their nation’s supply, pricing, and allocation; commonly, it is distributed as a social good, as political largesse to favored interest groups, and in overweeningly ambitious public projects. Almost universally, governments still treat water as if it were a limitless gift of nature to be freely dispensed by any authority with the power to exploit it. In contrast to oil and nearly every other natural commodity, water is largely exempted from market discipline. Rarely is any inherent value ascribed to the water itself. Only the cost of capturing and distributing it is routinely accounted. Nor is any cost ascribed to the degradation of the water ecosystem from whence it comes and to which, often in a polluted condition, it ultimately returns. By belonging to everyone and being the private responsibility of no one, water for most of history has been consumed greedily and polluted recklessly in a classic case of a “tragedy of the commons.”

The result, compounded over time, is a colossal underpricing of water’s full economic and environmental worth. This sends an insidious, illusory economic signal that water supply is endlessly plentiful, promoting wasteful use on purposes with low productive returns. The twentieth century’s most breathtaking example was the former Soviet Union’s inadvertent destruction of central Asia’s Aral Sea—its hydraulic Chernobyl—and a symbol of the failure, after less than a century of existence, of its state experiment with communism. What started as a well-intentioned, decades-long effort to transform arid central Asia into a cotton belt that rendered the nation self-sufficient in water-thirsty “white gold” ended as an object lesson in the catastrophic side effects of misguided ecosystem reengineering, and politically, how wretchedly off course unchecked, price-insensitive industrial state planning could go.

In the late 1950s, Soviet engineers began efforts to divert the waters from the two great rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, the Jaxartes and Oxus of ancient history, feeding the Aral Sea, the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world. River flows soon began to decline sharply. By the early 2000s, the Aral Sea had lost fully two-thirds of its volume and had shriveled into two small lakes so saline that its once flourishing fishing industry was decimated. The former lake bed, strewn with abandoned ships and bordered by ghost fishing villages, became a salty dust bowl whose toxic residue was swept up in windstorms over the irrigated cotton fields, crippling yields and corroding the critical infrastructures of production. Worse still, the shrinking of the lake reduced its watery capacity to moderate the local climate, which grew more extreme. Summers were hotter, winters bitterer. Reduced evaporation lessened local precipitation and shrank snowpacks. The volume of water in the two arterial rivers was thus permanently diminished, creating a self-reinforcing pattern of growing desiccation and eroding soil fertility. In the end Soviet planners’ stubborn unresponsiveness to environmental signals and misvaluing of water resulted in the loss of everything—drastically reduced cotton output, decimated fishing industry, and a badly depleted environment less habitable by productive society.

A similar fate befell sub-Saharan Africa’s immense Lake Chad from the 1970s when uncoordinated dam building, irrigation diversions, and land clearance by bordering countries dried out the lake’s nourishing river flows, wetlands, and groundwater. This both accelerated and exaggerated natural climate cycles and resulted in the shocking disappearance of 95 percent of the lake’s surface area within only two generations and its replacement by widening desertification. Myriad other locations today are suffering less-pronounced microclimatic changes as a result of upsetting the natural rhythms of their local water ecosystems.

By far, man’s most egregious waste of water came from the distortions caused by the chronic underpricing of water for irrigation. Irrigation farmers in Mexico, Indonesia, and Pakistan paid little more than 10 percent of the full cost of their water. Because Islamic tradition held that water should be free, many Muslim countries charged little or nothing except partial delivery costs in some of the driest parts of the world. American government dam water subsidies were grandfathered upon a small number of farmers who cultivated a quarter of the irrigated cropland in the arid lands of the West. Inefficient flood irrigation is still subsidized in many water poor regions, even where sprinkler and drip methods are viable alternatives. These subsidies were so lavish that the farmers grew water-thirsty, low-value crops like alfalfa in the middle of the desert, while more productive, fast-growing industries and municipalities alongside them paid eye-popping premiums to obtain enough water. China’s postwar state planners misplaced many water-intensive industries and urban metropolises in the water-short north, where they eventually were forced to compete for water with the region’s vital grain farming.

Underpriced water is also a disincentive to urban conservation. Through leaky infrastructure, thirsty Mexico City loses enough water every day—some two-fifths of its total supply—to meet the needs of a city as large as Rome. The world faces a trillion-dollar-plus water infrastructure deficit in the years immediately ahead just to patch the leaks.

Water’s peculiar treatment in economic society was famously contemplated in the eighteenth century by Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations, he pondered, “Nothing is more useful than water; but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it.” Smith sought an explanation for the “diamond-water paradox,” one of the well-known dilemmas so beloved by economists as a means to explore the boundaries of economic theory: Why was water, despite being invaluable to life, so cheap, while diamonds, though relatively useless, so expensive? Smith’s answer was that water’s ubiquity and the relatively easy labor required to obtain it accounted for its low price. His theory was superseded within mainstream economics in the late nineteenth century by a more refined explanation. Water’s price was determined by a sliding scale based upon its availability for its least valued uses, say, for example, watering lawns, filling swimming pools, quenching the thirst of wildlife, or, until the environmental awakening of contemporary times, recharging ecosystems; its premium rose as it became scarce for its most precious uses, reaching its zenith as priceless drinking water. A half century before Smith, Benjamin Franklin, with his characteristic pragmatism, had cut through the theoretical musings to the essence of the water dilemma in his Poor Richard’s Almanac: “When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.” In the new age of water scarcity, in effect, the global well is starting to go dry. The worth of water is rising to its highest marginal utility value and to reflect Smith’s original observation that nothing is more useful.

For the first time in history, the fundamental economic and political rules governing water are starting to be transformed by the power of market forces. Under the duress of scarcity, the iron laws of supply and demand graphically described by Franklin are propelling the market economy’s expansive, profit-seeking mechanisms to colonize the realms of water. Beckoning bonanza profit opportunities have set off a worldwide scramble to control water resources and infrastructures, and to commercialize water as an ordinary commodity like oil, wheat, or timber. Bottled water is by far the world’s fastest-growing beverage, with global sales of over $100 billion increasing at 10 percent per year and reaping handsome profits for corporate giants Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola; the two latter in the United States sell high-tech filtered and treated common tap water from Queens, New York, and Wichita, Kansas, and elsewhere under the Dasani and Aquafina brand names, respectively, at a 1,700 times markup over public tap costs, more than their famous water-based, sugared soft drinks. Privatized management of water utilities is another huge global sector, as is wastewater services, dominated by corporate multinationals. In total, water is a fast-growing, highly fragmented, competitive, $400 billion per year industry. Specialized water investment funds have been launched on Wall Street. Before its ignominious collapse in 2001, Enron had been promoting a scheme to trade water rights as it traded energy in California. Many cities, such as New York, which had never curtailed water service for nonpayment, have been considering ways to turn off the faucet to force collection of many millions of dollars in delinquent water bills.

Subjecting water to the discipline and productive investment of market forces has enormous capacity to stimulate badly needed efficiency gains and innovations. But water is too precious to human life—and too politically explosive—to be left to the merciless logic of market forces alone. Indeed, warning shots have been fired in high-profile conflicts in India, China, Bolivia, and elsewhere in which international corporations have been compelled to close or make costly modifications to their local operations. Whether the commodification of water ultimately leads to efficiency gains that ease water scarcity or results instead in an unregulated regime of water pricing and allocation that condemns the water poor to choose between desiccated, unhealthy lives and desperate remedies, depends on the terms by which societies choose to inject market forces into the traditional, public realm of water.

The age of water scarcity poses a special threshold challenge for Western liberal democracy: whether such societies can artificially graft a new, effective mechanism that fully prices in the economic costs of maintaining sustainable water and other environmental ecosystems onto the market economy’s historically prodigious processes of wealth creation. Adam Smith described how the market’s unseen “invisible hand” caused individuals’ self-interested, competitive pursuit of profit to simultaneously, as a wholesome by-product, maximize wealth creation for the entire society. Yet the market has glaringly failed to evolve any corresponding invisible green hand to automatically reflect the cost of depleting natural resources and sustaining the total environmental health upon which an orderly, prosperous society ultimately depends. Twice in the twentieth century Western democracies had successfully adjusted to catastrophic market failings through state-led interventions—the trust-busting of Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive movement in the early 1900s, and the New Deal, welfare state response to the Great Depression in the 1930s. Each intervention altered the rules governing the relationship between the private and public realms. In each instance, the market economy’s productive power was reinvigorated, helping sustain the West’s global leadership. A third adaptation in the unspoken liberal democratic compact between markets and governments is needed for such a new mechanism to thrive.

Every society faces the core question in the age of scarcity of where its increased freshwater supply will come from. Societies have been responding in four general ways, often simultaneously. The first response has been to do little or nothing and await the development of some magic-bullet innovation for extracting more water supply from nature, with the impact of twentieth-century multipurpose dams, and commonly represented by such intriguing processes as seawater desalinization or genetically modified crops that can grow using less water. The second response, most evolved in the mainly water-sufficient industrialized first world, has been to increase effective supply by improving the productivity of existing water use through regulatory and market-oriented methods. The final two responses, while proactive, are mainly expedient postponements by distressed countries of their day of water reckoning. Long-distance water transfer projects that reroute entire rivers and lakes from wet regions to landscapes that are drying up from overuse are prevalent in distressed large countries with severe regional water imbalances. Similarly, many overpump shallow groundwater faster than it naturally replenishes, and if available, drill deeper at great expense and technical difficulty to mine accessible parts of the rocky, geological aquifer reservoirs accumulated by nature over the millennia inside Earth, but that once consumed are gone forever.

The Water Have–Have-Not continuum can be usefully subdivided into four main types of societies. At the abject bottom of mankind’s water poor are the masses of destitute souls, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, who live without effective infrastructure to buffer them against the tyrannical caprices of water’s destructive shocks and without reliable access to adequate clean freshwater to meet their basic domestic and sanitary needs. For the two-fifths of mankind living in such medieval conditions, water represents less of an opportunity for economic development than a daily struggle of life and death. Next are more-modern societies that exist in conditions of such severe scarcity, or water famine, that they typically lack enough freshwater to grow the crops needed to feed themselves, have less than 700 gallons per person each day for all their water needs, and utilize at least one-fifth of their natural runoff. Distressed countries cannot comfortably manage their own food and water needs, average 700 to 1,400 gallons daily per capita, and utilize about 10 to 20 percent of their runoff. Although such borderline nations usually can feed themselves, many are trending toward becoming chronic food importers and face other manifestations of water scarcity as well. Societies that enjoy availability of over 1,400 gallons and have to tap less than 10 percent of their national runoff are typically the world’s major food exporters. Their water shortages, in the main, are manageable through relatively modest improvements in existing water productivity alone.

Yet as world population soars by 50 percent and world resource demand increases by a far-greater factor because of those nations transitioning from third world to first world living standards, the entire continuum is lurching sharply toward the Have-Not side of the water spectrum—a massive dry shift—that adds to the stress on everyone. Water famines are worsening in countries already in crisis, and more societies, including some of the world’s largest, are joining them. Water scarcity requires nothing less than a comprehensive reevaluation of water’s vital importance as the new oil—a precious resource that has to be consciously conserved, efficiently used, and properly accounted for on the balance sheets across the breadth of human activity, great and mundane: from public health, food and energy production to national security, foreign policy and the environmental sustainability of human civilization. In the age of water scarcity, water’s always paramount, but its usually discreet role in world history is visibly taking its place at center stage.