The future of water – what will water in our world look like in 2050?

Water may be something that many of us take for granted now, but this may not be the case by the middle of the century.

Water may be something that many of us take for granted now, but this may not be the case by the middle of the century. According to reliable estimates, by then, forty percent of the world’s population will be living in ‘severe water stress’ conditions which will place almost half of global GDP at risk. While matters like drought, rising sea levels and freshwater shortages are not things making governments and policy makers push the panic button just yet, if nothing is done to alleviate these pressures now, what at present are worrying yet distant estimates, have the potential to become the biggest challenge mankind has ever faced.

Undoubtedly, the biggest limiting factor on the future of our water is demand. Between now and 2050, the world’s population is set to grow from around seven billion, to almost ten billion, most of whom will live in urban areas. This translates to a virtual city of nearly one million inhabitants every week for the next thirty-five to forty years.

An essential question that we should all be asking, then, is what does the future hold for our planet and its water? The answer is a complex one and is not easy to predict. However, essentially, if nothing is done to improve the likes of flood defenses, desalination and the way we manage wastewater, we face a seriously uncertain future. It is quite possible that we could see floodwaters regularly displacing populations across the world, droughts spreading to areas now considered immune from such events, and food shortages driving prices a to such an extent that malnutrition becomes a considerable threat to future generations.

If we are to avoid this fate we need to act now. A good place to start is how we actually view the world’s finite water supplies. Water is a renewable resource to be cherished, cared for, and responsibly managed by absolutely everybody. Put simply, we need to work together, smartly, to safeguard our future.

All in all, there are thousands of things that we need to concentrate on to secure our water future, but three areas that are in desperate need of attention are the cities in which we live, energy production, and our industrial/agricultural production.

I would hope that by 2050 all of our cities are much more attuned to allocating (efficiently using and reusing) their “one water” efficiently. We need to see water protected with limits on what a population or business can consume to ensure consumption does not jeopardize available supply. We also need to protect ‘delta cities’ where urban coastal areas are prepared from extreme weather events. Lastly, we also need to create much more green space in towns and cities that mitigate heavy rain, provide large drainage catchment systems, and aesthetically pleasing places for people to live, with higher densities.

When it comes to industrial/agriculture production – presently the biggest consumers of water globally – our needs are somewhat more basic. We absolutely have to manage our irrigation, industrial users, and energy networks better. A real food-water-energy nexus, which holistically manages the entire water cycle and minimizes loss and wastage, is needed. It would count on the participation and contribution of key high-volume users such as farmers, energy companies, and manufacturers. This is truly the only way to ensure we use water to maximum effect and spread its benefits across the production of all of our essential outputs as well as nature.

All told, it is fair to say that there are some challenging times ahead. If, as expected, by 2050 the number of people living on planet earth does reach ten billion, it will have quadrupled in the space of a century. This means we’ll have to be four times as resourceful, four times as efficient, and four times more careful with our water as we were sixty years ago. More than anything, we need to ensure that our fragmented water worlds come together as one world of water linked by the common goal of sustaining life on our wonderful, but fragile, planet.

John Batten

Global Cities Director Ask me a question
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