World Economy Collapses for Want of Water?

Commentary | October 12, 2011

In a 2008 study, Australian scientist Graham Turner compared the projections in the famous 1972 report, “Limits to Growth”, with the observed outcomes from 1970 to 2000. The news is not good. According to Turner, the data as observed in those 30 years supports the original hypothesis that the global system will collapse midway in the 21st century.   The data “does not compare well” with more optimistic scenarios in the 1972 report that show stabilization, in part through reliance on advanced technologies, instead of collapse.

Turner observes that the policy recommendations outlined in the “Limits to Growth” that might be able to avoid the collapse and provide sustainability have not been taken up. Turner was careful to also observe that the “Limits to Growth” study was not meant to be predictive but intended to show the linkages between patterns of behavior in global economic development and resource consumption.  The United States National Intelligence Committee and the European Union’s official Security Studies Institute appear to agree on the possible outcome though appear to put some stake in improved governance as a foundation for hope. In October 2010, they concluded that “the growing number of issues on the international agenda, and their complexity, is outpacing the ability of international organizations and national governments to cope.” They went on to say that “Global governance institutions ….probably are not going to be sufficient to keep pace with the looming number of transnational and global challenges absent extensive institutional reforms and innovations.”  

Accepting the assumption that the collapse of the global system would occur by the middle of this century, as suggested by the 1972 study, it is of no small importance to contemplate when we would see the last warning signs that the collapse would be inevitable. We would need to understand now at what point in the future it will be too late to pull back from the path of disaster and take up the policy recommendations advocated by the “Limits to Growth” and so many other studies since.

The first place I would look would be to water. Water, like the atmosphere, is the essence of life on which all else depends. (In fact, the two are parts of one system.) The picture is very grim. 
Here are two assessments. Over 1.4 billion people live in river basins where the use of water exceeds minimum recharge levels (UNDP Human Development Report 2006). By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stress conditions (FAO, undated).
This does not mean we should plan for inter-state war over water. It does however mean there is considerable urgency to the search for new solutions to water scarcity to prevent degradation of standards of living, political crises and possible large-scale violence emerging in various locations from shocks to supply. That search needs to bring together the technology providers, the consumers, other stakeholders and governments.
The stakeholders are not confined to the “water sector” (assuming one can even postulate that in isolation for a brief moment). The energy sector immediately comes into play, both in ensuring the provision of water and in acting as a competitive consumer. Moreover, the pricing of water is not stable in many economies for a number of reasons. We need to get to work. As suggested by the 2030 Water Resources Group, in its 2009 report “Charting our Water Future”, “policymakers, the private sector and civil society will need to come together to put into practice a transformation towards sustainability”. Do we need radically new, sustainable practices in water use as the world population edges to nine billion, all depending on finite fresh water resources?

Click here to read Dr. Austin's column in New Europe.