In this guide, we discuss the answers to some commonly asked questions about the future of fresh water resources and supplies i.e. how much we have, and whether we will run out or have enough in the future.
In this guide we have specifically looked at:
- How much fresh water is left on Earth
- Whether we will run out of water, and when that might happen
- What might happen if we don’t have enough water
- How we can keep track of and monitor fresh water resources
- Whether we will have enough usable water in the future, to 2050 and beyond
- Forecasts for demand of water in the future
- Solutions to global fresh water problems, and ways to sustainably manage and use fresh water resources
Summary – The Future Of Fresh Water Resources & Supplies, To 2050 & Beyond
- There’s still a large amount of fresh water left on the Earth’s surface
- But, natural fresh water resources are distributed unequally (in terms of volume and accessibility) across the different regions of the world
- Different States and cities also have different resources available, and abilities to plan, implement and maintain effective water management strategies
- Distribution of fresh water resources (in terms of available volume in each area), water supply capacity, effective management of water supplies, finances, local climate and rainfall, frequency and intensity of natural events like droughts, population growth, fresh water demand and withdrawal rates (from the agricultural, industry and municipal sectors), renewal rates, use of man made fresh water generation technology like desalination, and many other factors, have an impact on a city or town’s water supplies
- Because of this, each city and town ultimately faces a different situation and different challenges in providing fresh water supplies to their population now, and going into the future i.e. having adequate supplies of fresh water resources are a localized issue, and not as much a global one
- Some countries have far more abundant natural water resources and supplies than others. Other countries have far more wetter and cooler climates than others (which impacts renewal rates, and the hydrologic cycle)
- Some cities and towns are far more water scarce and water stressed than others. This is particularly a problem in population dense cities, or places with higher levels of economic activity
- For example, Perth in Western Australia is a dry climate that depends on primarily on desalination and groundwater, whereas other parts of Australia rely heavily on surface water.
- Cape Town is city with similar water scarcity issues to Perth, and a reliance on dam water supplies, as well as a severe drought and lack of rain fall forced them into a water shortage situation with severe water restrictions put in place
- But, Perth and Cape Town are perhaps good cities to compare in terms of their water management strategies. Perth diversified to desalination and other water sources and up to this point has avoided a severe water shortage, whilst much of Cape Town’s water shortage was caused by a reliance on dams and rainfall to maintain an adequate water supply (some sources claim that desalination and water recycling presented financial and logistical problems for Cape Town)
- Some underdeveloped and developing regions have long faced severe socio economic consequences as a result of not having access to even safe and clean drinking water, and not having access to basic sanitation and hygiene services
- Some cities keep live updates on monthly or annual fresh water supply levels, withdrawal rates, and renewal rates. These updates and this data can be used to get an idea of how close to running out of water a city it, or for identifying trends with water supplies for that city
- These updates and this data though could be even more nuanced in the future by dividing it into both drinking water, and non potable water
- Whether there is enough water in the future will depend on how individual cities and towns manage the quantity, quality and access to their fresh water supplies. Balancing renewal rates against withdrawal and consumption rates is important in this regard.
- Cities and towns might compare and learn from the water strategies of water scarce cities like Cape Town and Perth – they might pay attention to what water strategies and investment lead to secure/stable freshwater and drinking water supplies
- Cities and towns might look at how we can use water more efficiently and sustainably across the major water using sectors in society – agriculture (and irrigation), industry (and power generation), and municipal (including public water supply pipes and infrastructure). It makes sense to know the agricultural producers and farms that are using the most water, and also the industries and businesses that are using the most water
- They may also look at how we are wasting and losing water
- Individuals might pay attention to how they can can use water more efficiently and sustainably (water footprints from the food we eat and waste is a big factor)
- There is also a list of different ways to sustainably manage and use water resources to be aware of
- Government, water utility companies and suppliers, farmers, businesses, and individuals at the national, State/province and local level all must work together
- Developing or underdeveloped countries and regions face far different challenges to developed and wealthy regions. They simply don’t have funding or even access to clean and safe water, or sanitation – let alone think about sustainably managing water resources
- Water demand and usage is expected to increase at the very least in irrigation in agriculture and food production, and for energy and electricity production in the future as populations grow, and there is also more demand for energy and water intensive products like meat and fossil fuels. Increases in general energy efficiency could balance some of this out, as well as increases in irrigation water efficiency
- Some sources indicate that it’s easier and most cost efficient to be more efficient with water use rather than increase or augment water supplies – so, this is a point to explore further (e.g. whether we are better off investing in desalination plants and water recycling, or more water efficient irrigation and power generation systems)
- There is some evidence from some sources that water usage may be able to be decoupled from economic growth and population growth – which is a positive in some ways
How Much Fresh Water Is Left On Earth?
- About 96.5 to 97% of the Earth’s water is saltwater
- About 2-3% of the Earth’s water is fresh water, and about 70% of that fresh water is locked up in ice caps, snow and glaciers
- So, about 0.4% to 1.4% of the Earth’s total water resources is fresh water that is found in accessible natural fresh water sources such as surface water (lakes and rivers), and ground water aquifers and wells
This is only the natural fresh water available though.
It should be noted that there are various ways that fresh water can be created with modern technology – with two examples being desalination (turning salt water or brackish water into fresh water), and capturing water from the Earth’s atmosphere (via an atmospheric water generator for example). Additional rain water harvesting is another.
Fresh water can also be recycled and re-used via water recycling. Recycling waste water from industry is one example of this, as well as recycling or re-using run off water from agriculture.
New fresh water storage can even be created when new dams and rainwater catchment areas are built.
So, natural fresh water resources aren’t the only fresh water resources available.
Wikipedia.org has this to say about fresh water supplies on Earth:
- The total amount of easily accessible freshwater on Earth, in the form of surface water (rivers and lakes) or groundwater (in aquifers, for example), is 14.000 cubic kilometres (nearly 3359 cubic miles). Of this total amount, ‘just’ 5.000 cubic kilometres are being used and reused by humanity. Hence, in theory, there is more than enough freshwater available to meet the demands of the current world population of 7 billion people, and even support population growth to 9 billion or more. Due to the unequal geographical distribution and especially the unequal consumption of water, however, it is a scarce resource in some parts of the world and for some parts of the population.
- … Fresh and unpolluted water accounts for 0.003% of total water available globally
- … The atmosphere contains 0.04% water
When Will We Run Out Of Water? (How Many Years Of Fresh Water Do We Have Left?)
Water supplies and resources, and the management of those supplies and resources differ in each geographic location. There’s different factors and variables to consider in each place.
So, the answer to the question of when we will run out of fresh water supplies is a location specific one i.e. there’s a different answer for each individual city or region.
We outline some of those factors and variables in these guides:
- Biggest Global Fresh Water Issues & Problems, & Solutions
- Causes & Effects Of Water Quantity Related Problems
- Solutions To Water Quantity Related Problems
Ultimately, it comes down to quantity, quality (water pollution and contamination is an important consideration, along with water being adequate quality for it’s end use) and access to water, as well as local conditions and factors such as climate, natural distribution of water resources, how effectively water resources are managed by governments and water companies (when water withdrawals and consumption outpaces renewal rates, water supplies tend to decrease and become more scarce … so balancing withdrawals against supply levels is important with water restrictions, and so on), finances available to spend on water technology and infrastructure, and so on.
A good example of this is how water supplies were managed in two similarly water scarce cities – Perth and Cape Town. There were different implications to come from the water management strategies of each city. Going a step further, some low income regions in the world don’t even have the finances for the most basic of water supply and water sanitation infrastructure.
Something that should be noted when a city or country is running out of water is what type of water they are running out of. It is possible for example for drinking water supplies to be secure and abundant, but non potable water supplies to be stressed or running out. A good example of this could be seen in the Netherlands in 2018, where drinking water supplies were secure, but non potable water supplies were in shortage, and the water shortage main impacted agriculture, nature, industry and shipping (nltimes.nl)
It’s difficult to say how many years of water a city, town or region has left, because variables like further restricting withdrawals, the easing of a drought, the construction and operation of a desalination plant, a growing population, a growing and uncertain demand for water in sectors like agriculture and power generation, and so on, can all change that.
But, one very rough way might be to look at the recent trends for supply capacity, withdrawals, and renewal rates – we talk about this in the section below.
[Note – when looking at trends of water supplies such as whether they are trending upwards or downwards – this could also be plotted against forecasted future water demand, population growth, and economic growth. Although future forecasts admittedly can be hard to project]
How To Track/Monitor Water Supplies For A City Or Region
Some cities provide updated water withdrawal, supply and renewal numbers and data – and these numbers and data can be helpful in assessing how well a city is managing their water supplies.
To get an idea of when a city will run out of water you might consider the following (information can be obtained off water supplier or government websites):
- Look at the current available water supply levels (volume of adequate quality water)
- Look at maximum water supply capacity
- Look at how the water supply levels have been trending over the last few years and last few decades – is it consistently decreasing, increasing, or plateauing?
- Look at the demand on that water supply (the usage rate) by the residential, industrial/commercial and agricultural sectors – should be given as an amount per day
- Look at the factors that determine whether the water supply levels stay at a suitable level to meet demand
- Look at projections going forward for that area with water supply variables and population growth factored in. Do re-fill rates outstrip withdrawal rates?
These things should give you an idea of whether an area will run out of water, and by when.
But, the main indicators are total supply levels or volume, replenishment rates, and withdrawal rates from that supply.
As an example, the city of Melbourne in Australia provides water storage and usage data, which is viewable here. They also provide data on rainfall catchment and flow into water storages.
Additionally, pay attention to whether augmented water supplies like water desalination, water recycling, etc. are included or counted separately from this data – as augmented water supplies ultimately can be drawn from for freshwater.
There’s also rainwater harvesting to add on and consider.
Which Countries & Cities Are The Most Water Stressed & Water Scarce?
We wrote in this guide about the most water stressed and water scarce cities and countries in the world, now, and forecast into the future. The Middle East, North Africa, and India, all feature heavily in that guide.
Additionally, we’ve put together two case studies of cities facing water scarcity issues, and how they have each addressed those issues:
- Water Scarcity Case Study: Perth, Western Australia
- Water Scarcity Case Study: Cape Town, South Africa
What Happens If We Don’t Have Enough Water?
As mentioned above, it depends if you are talking about drinking water, or non potable water running out.
The results/effects of not having enough available fresh water can be viewed on a sliding scale from moderate consequences, to extreme.
A few rough examples are:
- Moderate – we saw with Perth that there was water scarcity issues, but they were able to diversify their water sources to desalination and ground water replenishment schemes.
- Serious – Cape Town has water scarcity issues, but unlike Perth, they did not diversify away from their dam water supplies (which relied on rain water to refill) quickly enough. There was a drought, and in addition to severe water restrictions, there were several other effects for Cape Town across the economy, public health and safety, and so on.
- Extreme – we see in regions where there is a lack of even basic access to safe and clean drinking water, and basic hygiene and sanitation, there can be major/extreme issues and problems society wide.
Water is important to society as it serves many critical uses. So, when it is restricted or runs low, there can be critical consequences.
It should be noted though that modern water technology such as desalination has it’s own problems, and is certainly not cheap. So, conservation and sustainable use of natural fresh water resources certainly should be a priority.
Water Usage & Demand Over The Last 50 to 100 Years
Forecast For Water Demand (Usage & Withdrawals) In The Future (To 2050 & Beyond)
Specifically with forecasted agricultural and energy related water usage in the future:
- By 2050, the global water demand of agriculture is estimated to increase by a further 19% due to irrigation needs (globalagriculture.org)
- As the world’s population reaches 9 billion, demand will require a 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in already-strained water withdrawals. By 2035, the world’s energy consumption will increase by 35 percent, which in turn will increase water use by 15 percent and consumption by 85 percent (worldbank.org)
The above may not take into consideration water efficiency increases in agricultural irrigation, or energy efficiency increases in energy and electricity generation.
Will We Have Enough Usable Water In The Future – To 2050 & Beyond?
This question has to be asked, and there should be an assessment done (for both drinking water and non potable water) for every individual city, town and region across the world.
There will be a different answer for each depending on the local factors and variables relevant to each’s water resources and supplies.
Some factors may be hard to plan for or predict, such as a changing climate, the frequency and intensity of natural events like droughts, population growth, economic growth, technological advancements, levels of water pollution and contamination, and so on.
Generally though, as long as cities and towns have the finances, have good water managers in place (government, water supply companies, and so on), and implement sustainable short and long term strategies … there should be enough usable water in the future.
Similar to having enough food, there might be enough water in some parts of the world but not in others. Geographical distribution inequality comes into play here.
Solutions To Global Fresh Water Problems