Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Is Potable Water the ‘Petroleum of the Next Century’?

Freshwater is surprisingly rare and may be about to become rarer. The result could be global hydro inequality and even armed conflict.
Water faucet

Water is powerful. Over millennia it can wear down a rock into sand, and over even just decades, it can change the fates of nations. Water power is twofold: water as a potable resource to grow food, drink, produce energy, and power the industrial economy; and water as the medium by which nations can project naval power.

Numerous historians and anthropologists have noted how the earliest civilizations grew up and flourished close to sources of water, with a few obvious examples being ancient Egypt along the Nile, Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Mayan Empire on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (which faded away due to a prolonged drought). The examples continue to this day, with many of the globe’s most economically and geopolitically powerful cities located proximate to large sources of freshwater.

Access to water-powered agriculture enables trade at increased volume and fortifies the populations that depended on it. Despite modern desalination technology, making saltwater potable through a lengthy and pricey process, a large amount of the world still depends to some extent on access to groundwater or freshwater—or at least to infrastructure that can reliably transport it to their homes and businesses.

In terms of its value as a resource, water is the ultimate prize. Although it covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface, only about 1 percent of it is freshwater, ready for humans and animals to consume and use. The remainder is 97 percent saltwater and 2 percent ice. Furthermore, two thirds of the usable water is groundwater under the soil. Already by 2008, Goldman Sachs—which knows how to latch on to a valuable resource—was calling water “petroleum for the next century.”

As Alok Jha writes in the Water Book, water is—relatively speaking—extremely rare in the natural world and “we should properly think of ourselves and those of every living thing on earth as bubbles of water that contain tiny amounts of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur suspended or dissolved inside them. Life, its processes and structures occur in its solution.”

Generally, around 70 percent of an average country’s water goes to agriculture, with the rest going to cooling energy production facilities and for human consumption. Countries like Saudi Arabia have no significant sources of freshwater and have to rely on scant sources of groundwater, a situation faced by many Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia uses groundwater aquifers to pipe water to its fields, but groundwater is a non-renewable resource and it is running out. So Riyadh started buying up agricultural land in countries with more water, such as Argentina, the United States, and areas of Africa, as well as shipping in food instead of growing it.

Groundwater is also tapering off in many nations around the world, from South Korea and Japan to Mexico. This includes cities like Cape Town, South Africa, which had a major crisis when it simply ran out of water. The results: more poverty, inflation, and food scarcity. Other cities are projected to experience major shortages of water in the future, including Beijing, Jakarta, London, Tokyo, Mexico City, as well as in the Southwestern United States. Over the next 50 years, the U.S., China, and India are likely to all be faced with significant water shortages. That is not to mention the alarming contamination of much of America’s drinking water with potentially harmful “forever chemicals,” a subject tackled in the compelling 2019 film Dark Waters. Disturbing levels of lead are also still being found in the drinking water of many cities and towns, and not just Flint, Michigan.

Accordingly, it’s reasonable to posit that the water-poor of the future will be at the mercy and manipulation of the water-rich. Those with clean, potable water will rule the roost. Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Scandinavia, and Canada all have plenty of freshwater. The top three—Canada, Brazil, and Russia—have more freshwater than China, India, the United States, India, and the continent of Africa combined. This will give these countries enormous power and trade leverage over water-strapped nations that need food and are struggling to keep their economic engines running. Major infrastructure projects like massive pipelines from freshwater sources is one tactic, but the slowdown in agricultural output puts them at a deep disadvantage against countries that do have water and can make products much more easily.

One possible solution is technological innovation, including agriculture that isn’t done by flooding fields. Subsurface irrigation and vertical farming that cuts down water usage could help, as well as increasing desalination capacity, which is something Israel has put at the center of its water strategy (although the cost is extremely high and plants are not simple or straightforward, which makes it cheaper to pipe in freshwater than desalinate in many cases).

Water is also a key to military power. As historian Arthur Herman noted in his 2004 book To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, the rise of the British Empire can in many ways be linked to its surging naval power and shipbuilding and focus on controlling the high seas worldwide. Controlling and having access to coastal and open waters from the times of the American Revolution to the present day and free passage through economic chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and the Panama Canal was of paramount importance. Blockades are also still a significant tool of economic strangulation. The era of major naval confrontation is not necessarily over. Tensions are currently at all-time highs in the South China Sea, with a real possibility of war in the near future.

To combine the two concepts somewhat, having a tight grip on water as an actual resource is likely to become an increasingly singular key to geopolitical and diplomatic leverage in the coming century. Having command over and access to the world’s main maritime trade channels and navally important hotspots will also rise in importance. The U.S. Navy is already looking far ahead to ensure full spectrum dominance. Mountains of money are being pumped into naval research and development. Even as the world’s economies and militaries move into more high-tech endeavors, physical control over bodies of water, coasts, and key channels and water systems is likely to remain important.

As former Navy chief of naval operations Admiral Gary Roughead put it, “so much of what moves on the world today in trade and commerce and the resources that flow moves on the oceans. About 90 per cent of everything that moves, moves on the oceans. So how we protect the sea lanes, how confident we are that goods can move from one point to the other and not be interfered with is extremely important.”

Control of the seas is still crucially relevant to states. As the locus of aero-naval combat, aircraft carriers are a staple of geopolitical power, serving as a launch pad for attacks hundreds of miles into enemy territory and long-range missile strikes. Add powerful blue water navies into the mix and you have a recipe for real naval confrontation. In the future, as freshwater becomes an increasingly scarce resource, it’s not implausible that there could be wars arising entirely over potable water. And it’s perfectly plausible that those wars may be fought partly on the water too.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.