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Without sustainability, 'severe' water scarcity by 2050

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World Water Day: Unless sustainable water resource management practices are implemented, more than half of the world's population will be exposed to severe water scarcity by 2050, according to a new report.

Unless sustainable water resource management practices are implemented, more than half of the world's population will be exposed to severe water scarcity by 2050, according to a new report.

According to research by Veolia Water -- a Chicago-based firm that specializes in water and wastewater services, naturally -- and the International Food Policy Research Institute, water scarcity is as much an economic issue as it is an environmental one.

The authors write:

The efficiency of water management and our ability to sustain population and economic growth are inextricably linked. [...]

Today, 36% of the global population — approximately 2.4 billion people — already live in water-scarce regions and 22% of the world’s GDP ($9.4 trillion at 2000 prices) is produced in water-short areas. Moreover, 39% of current global grain production is not sustainable in terms of water use.

According to IFPRI’s analysis, current “business as usual” water management practices and levels of water productivity will put at risk approximately $63 trillion, or 45 percent of the projected 2050 global GDP (at 2000 prices), equivalent to 1.5 times the size of today’s entire global economy. Moreover, 4.8 billion people (52 percent of the world population) will be exposed to severe water scarcity by 2050.

This dire scenario will, in turn, have a significant impact on investment decisions, increase economic and operational costs, and affect the competitiveness of certain regions.

It's not just a warning, either: in China, India and other emerging economic powerhouses, water scarcity has already started to "materially risk growth." More than 1.4 billion people live in areas of high water stress in those two countries, the authors write.

But sustainable practices can help. Worldwide, more than 1 billion people -- and about $17 trillion of grodd domestic product, or GDP -- could benefit from smarter water utilization. To boot, the number of children projected to suffer from malnourishment would drop 21 percent, according to the study.

More data points:

  • "Business as usual" water management practices will put about $63 trillion of global GDP at risk by 2050. That's 45 percent of the total.
  • "Business as usual" practices would put 4.8 billion people -- 52 percent of the world population -- in water-stressed areas by 2050.

The authors outlined four strategies with varying degrees of predicted water efficiency.

Those are, in order of efficiency from least to greatest:

  • Grey. No water productivity improvements; minor energy efficiency gains. Energy and water demand grows by 20 percent in OECD and 130 percent in non-OECD countries. Energy mix: nuclear and thermo electrical power generation.
  • Low-carbon. That is, the water scenario as a result of adopting low-carbon energy. Surprisingly, the water impacts of biomass (some irrigation) and hydropower (evaporation from reservoirs) outweigh water savings from efficiency gains. Better than "grey," but less productive than "business as usual."
  • Business as usual. Moderate improvements in leakage reduction; about 50 percent of water productivity gains realized. Energy and water demand increases by 10 percent in OECD and 110 percent in non-OECD countries. Energy mix: high share of conventional thermal electric generation, some renewable energy.
  • Blue. Major improvements in leakage reduction and water efficiency gains. Energy demand grows at 19 percent in OECD and 110 percent in non-OECD countries. Energy mix: renewable energy increases from 19 percent in 2008 to 29 percent in 2030.

The big lesson here: water conservation is increasingly a business decision, even for those businesses that don't directly deal with it, such as the food and beverage industry. (You can read the entire report here, as a .pdf.)

So what's the answer? The authors suggest campaigns for greater public awareness; higher levels of water reuse; improvements in water technology; upgrades to water and wastewater infrastructure; services for rural and urban poor populations; and greater energy efficiency and increased use of renewable energy.

Great ideas, all of them. But how will we get there?

More from World Water Day on SmartPlanet:

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure