In the guide below, we discuss whether we will have enough usable freshwater in the future.
We do this by looking at how much freshwater we currently have, what the demand for freshwater currently is, what the forecast for future freshwater demand might be, how having enough water in the future might be a local issue that needs local solutions, and other aspects of this topic.
Summary – Will We Have Enough Fresh Water In The Future?
We’ve broken this guide down into three main sections:
1. The Earth’s Water Resources & Supplies, How They Are Being Used, & Future Forecasts For Freshwater Demand
In order to begin answering this question, we’ve first provided a summary of Earth’s freshwater resources and their usage right now.
In the guide below, we link to guide on the following points:
– The specific type of water we need
– How much total water there is on Earth
– The Earth’s freshwater supplies and resources
– Recent and current global freshwater usage trends, and forecasts for future global freshwater demand
2. Addressing Freshwater Resource & Supply Management On The Local Level (i.e. At The City & Town Level)
Secondly, we point out how the sustainable management of freshwater resources and supplies, which significantly impacts whether individual cities and towns run out of water or not, might be best addressed on the local level, rather than the global level
Individual cities and towns are best placed to manage freshwater resources and supplies for their local population (for a range of reasons), to prevent them from running out of water
In the guide below, we list and discuss a range of factors that might impact whether cities and towns can sustainably manage their freshwater resources and supplies into the future, and not run out of water.
3. Future Considerations For Freshwater Resources & Supplies
In addition to the above considerations, we also discuss the following speculative points about freshwater resources and supplies in the future:
– Will We Run Out Of Water In The Future By 2050 Or 2100?
– When Will We Run Out Of Water?
– What Will Happen If We Don’t Have Enough Water In The Future?
– How Can We Keep Track Of, & Monitor Fresh Water Resources?
– Potential Solutions To Global Freshwater Problems, & Ways To Sustainably Use & Manage Fresh Water Resources
What Types Of Water Do We Need In The Future?
We specifically need fresh water
The two main types of freshwater that cities and towns need are:
– Drinking water (potable water)
– Non potable water (for uses like irrigation, industrial use, municipal use, and so on)
How Much Total Water Is There Currently On Earth?
We previously put together this guide where we outline how much total water there is on Earth.
Majority of the water on Earth is in the ocean (about 96% to 97% of it), and is saltwater. There’s also some salt water underground.
Only 2% to 3% of water on Earth is freshwater, and a reasonable % of that is locked up in ice, snow and glaciers (i.e. it’s not accessible)
It’s worth noting though – apart from these natural sources of freshwater, there’s other man made sources that we can get freshwater from
Earth’s Freshwater Resources & Supplies
We’ve put together a separate guide where we specifically discuss Earth’s freshwater resources and supplies.
We outline the different sources of freshwater, where most of the world’s freshwater resources are located (they are distributed unequally in terms of volume and accessibility across different regions of the world), how they are used and by whom, and other relevant points about freshwater resources and supplies.
Recent & Current Global Freshwater Usage Trends, & Forecasts For Future Global Freshwater Demand
A summary of some important points from that guide are:
– Past Global Freshwater Usage Trends
Since the year 1900, global freshwater use might have increased six fold
And, global freshwater withdrawals might have tripled over the last three years
– Current Global Freshwater Demand Trends
Freshwater demand might currently be increasing at a rate of 64 billion cubic metres a year
– Forecasts For Future Global Freshwater Demand
Aside from freshwater demand growing at a rate of 64 billion cubic metres a year into the future, both energy generation freshwater withdrawals, and agricultural freshwater withdrawals, could increase by 15% to the years 2035 and 2050 respectively
This may not take into account increases in water efficiency or energy efficiency (as well as increases in the efficient generation and use of electricity) in the future though, which may impact the total amount of water used alongside these withdrawal increases
– Why Might Global Freshwater Demand Increase In The Future?
There might be a range of reasons, including but limited to:
Increased demand for food (and therefore increased demand for water for irrigation in agriculture)
Increased demand for energy (and therefore increased demand for water in energy generation activities)
Increased consumption of water intensive products like meat, and also fossil fuels, or, a general increase in total consumption
Greater levels of consumption specifically in developing countries as quality of life and disposable income increases
Addressing Freshwater Resource Management On A Local Level – Cities & Towns
Ultimately, whether there is enough freshwater in the future (and whether it runs out) might differ between individual cities and towns, rather than the world running out of water (i.e. some cities and towns may experience water stress and scarcity problems, whilst others may not)
This is because freshwater resources and supplies are managed on the local level for local populations living in individual cities and towns, and this has a big impact on whether these freshwater resources deplete or not.
Additionally, each city or town has a set of water related factors, variables, issues and solutions relevant only to them.
Different States and cities have different financial means, and abilities to plan, implement and maintain effective water management strategies (underdeveloped and lower income cities and towns for example have far less financial means and more significant challenges in improving and managing their water resources and supplies – which is the case with regions that currently don’t have basic water services)
So, freshwater supply and resource management will differ between individual cities and towns in the future
Factors That Might Impact Whether Individual Cities & Towns Have Enough Freshwater In The Future
But, some of the factors that might impact whether individual cities and towns have enough water in the future, might include but aren’t limited to:
– Whether The Basic Requirements For Water Supply Are Met
Some of the basic requirements for a city or town’s water supply might be:
Having an adequate quantity of water (the volume or capacity of freshwater resources available and accessible at any one time – this capacity may stay the same, or it may increase as cities and towns add to their water supply capacity as things like population size and water demand increases)
Replenishment of water supplies being equal to, or greater than consumption or withdrawal from those supplies (so supplies aren’t at risk of depleting)
Having adequate quality of water (whether freshwater resources are of an adequate quality for their end use – both potable, and non-potable water)
– Whether They Currently Lack Access To Safe & Clean Drinking Water, & Basic Water Services
These regions need to address these basic water issues before being able to attain, and maintain a water supply into the future.
– The Abundance Of Natural Freshwater Resources They Have
Some countries have much more abundant natural freshwater resources, and this impacts the resources they have to use and withdraw from
– What Sources They Get Their Water From, & How Reliant/Dependent They Are On Certain Sources
There are a range of water sources (natural and man made) that cities and towns may get their water from.
As just one illustration of this, if a city or town is too dependent on a water source that relies on rainfall to provide a majority of their water supplies, that city or town might be exposed to water risk when there is a drought.
– Whether They Can Augment Their Water Supply
If a city can augment their supply, they can increase their supply, or at least replace a part of it.
Generally, augmenting a water supply involves man made sources of freshwater that can add to what natural sources of freshwater already provide.
Having said this, options to augment water supplies with modern technology like desalination and water recycling can have their own potential drawbacks, such as being expensive, and also energy intensive (in the case of desalination)
So, some augmentation solutions aren’t necessarily perfect solutions
– What Their Climate Is Like (Temperature & Also Rainfall)
Climate is important to water supplies, because the local temperature and rainfall impacts things such as the hydrological cycle, which natural water sources (like surface water and groundwater) depend upon for replenishment/recharge
Hotter, drier climates may experience more water issues than climates that have abundant rainfall
Changing climates in different regions may also have an impact in the future
– Frequency & Severity Of Natural Events
Droughts for example can significantly impact water supplies in cities that are heavily dependent on rainfall to replenish their resources
– Whether They Experience Water Stress Or Water Scarcity
Water scarcity and water stress issues impact the quantity/volume of freshwater that a city has to withdraw from, as withdrawal rates are usually outpacing replenishment rates (leading to declining freshwater supplies)
In cases where a city is water stressed or water scarce, it can sometimes just be non potable water that they are running out of, but drinking water (potable water) is always a consideration too
– Whether The Water Replenishment Rate Is Equal To Or Greater Than The Water Consumption Rate (Or Withdrawal Rate)
This is one of the key requirements for ensuring a city’s water supply is secure.
Unless a city has abundant water resources, the rate that water resources replenish usually has to be the same as or greater than the rate the population is withdrawing from those resources (to ensure they don’t deplete)
Obviously this can change from year to year with factors like population size and water demand changing though
– Whether They Experience Water Pollution & Water Contamination
Water pollution and contamination impacts water quality, and adequate water quality is required to drink and use water
We’ve previously outlined the countries who might have issues with tap water contamination in this guide
We’ve also previously outlined the countries and cities who might have the highest rates of general water pollution and contamination in this guide
– Whether They Experience Other Water Quality Issues
But, there can be a number of water quality issues that can impact whether water is suitable for it’s end use
For drinking water for example, water has to be safe and clean to drink
We’ve previously outlined the countries who might have some of the best water supplies and tap water in this guide
– Whether They Experience Water Access Or Availability Issues
We wrote about water access and water availability in this guide
Water access involves both being able to physically access water resources, and also economically access them. Lower income regions may not have the financial means to provide themselves access to an adequate water supply
Water availability is having water that is immediately available to withdraw water from
– How Effectively & Sustainably Water Supplies & Resources Are Managed By Local Water Authorities
The more effective and sustainably a local water authority manages a city or town’s water resources and supply, the greater their water security, and the lower their water risk might be in the future
The management of water resources and a city’s water supply involves managing aspects like water capacity, withdrawal rates (which may involve water restrictions for various sectors, and also individuals), replenishment rates, water augmentation such as desalination and water recycling, building new water storage capacity (such as new dams), and so on
The sustainable management (or stewardship) of a city’s water resources and supplies can also be measured by different studies according to a number of indicators
Additionally, we might analyse how water supplies were managed in two similarly water scarce cities, and what the effects of the two approaches were.
Perth and Cape Town arguably had different approaches to being water scarce cities.
We outline the situations, approaches and effects of the approaches in these two guides:
– Looking At Key Water Resource & Supply Indicators, Data & Trends
Very generally, it may help to look at the recent trends for supply capacity, withdrawals (in particular looking at the withdrawal trends of the major sectors like agriculture and irrigation, industry and thermo electric power plants and their cooling systems, and municipal use), and renewal rates.
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.
– Whether They Have Sufficient Finances
Money is required for water infrastructure, building new water storage and water generation plants, maintenance, and other aspects of a water supply strategy
So, cities with more financial capacity may have greater ability to manage their water supply and/or protect against future water risk
– Whether They Experience Other Water Related Issues
There’s a range of global water issues that may affect individual cities and towns (& their water supplies and resources) across the world differently
– Whether They Experience Other Water Related Limitations & Challenges
There can be any number of other limitations or challenges that cities and towns might encounter in securing a water supply
A few examples (of many potential examples) might be:
Some cities engage in water trading and transfers between regions, or even importing some of their water footprint, and, external sourcing of water may be at risk of disruption in the future. Unless cities develop more internal freshwater resources, this could be an issue in the future for them. So, each city needs to assess their internal vs external water resources
– Other Potential Factors & Variables That Can Change Over Time
Including but not limited to:
New technology, technological developments, and improvements in processes
Economic growth (and how developed a country or region is). Although, some reports indicate water use may be decoupled from economic growth in some ways
Increased rate of consumption, or consumption of water intensive products (like some meats, and some fossil fuels). This relates to lifestyle choices of individuals, and the overall quality of life/standard of living of a city or town and it’s population
A changing or variable climate, in terms of temperature, rainfall, and the frequency and intensity of natural events (like droughts)
*It’s worth pointing out that the factors above can have some level of uncertainty, and be challenging to fully plan for.
What Might Make A City Or Town More Likely To Have Enough Water In The Future?
Some key factors might be:
Having the financial means and capacity to implement and operate a sustainable water supply strategy
Having sustainable short term and long term water resource and supply management (managing withdrawals vs replenishment, restrictions if necessary, augmentation if necessary, etc.)
Other factors that may be:
Having a diverse water sources to draw from for the water supply, or, the major water sources not being reliant on the climate for replenishment
Having abundant natural freshwater resources
Having good rainfall
Trying to manage natural water resources in a sustainable way first, instead of being overly reliant on desalination and/or water recycling (some experts suggest this might be a smarter approach). So, water conservation practices and sustainable use of natural fresh water resources might be a priority.
What Might Make A City Or Town More Less Likely To Have Enough Water In The Future?
Some key factors might be:
Not having the financial means and capacity to implement and operate a sustainable water supply strategy
Having poor short term and long term water resource and supply management (poor management of withdrawals vs replenishment, not diversifying water sources or augmenting supply if necessary, etc.)
Other factors may be:
Already being a water stressed or water scarce region – 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.
Not having diverse water sources to draw from for the water supply, or, the major water sources being reliant on the climate for replenishment
Having low natural freshwater resources
Having poor rainfall, or having a dry climate
Being overly reliant on desalination and/or water recycling, as this may have issues in the future with the drawbacks they might each have.
So, Will We Run Out Of Water In The Future In 2050 Or 2100?
Obviously there might be not definitive answer to this question
It may depend on the city or town in question, and the factors and variables they face in managing their water resources and supplies (which have been listed in the guide above)
But, some commentary about this question on both a global level and local level might be:
On A Global Level
Global water resources, along with average global water withdrawals and demand might be important to consider.
If withdrawals and demand keeps increasing without increasing supply or replenishment rates, there may be issues.
As just one example of this, if one estimate is that freshwater demand might currently be increasing at a rate of 64 billion cubic metres a year, we can compare that to the replenishment rate of freshwater, or how quickly freshwater supply capacity is being increased (with additional water storage, water generation technology like desalination or water recycling, and so on)
We can then get a general idea of whether water resources might be increasing or depleting, and what year depletion may start to be an issue (if it does become one).
wikipedia.org also provides this information specifically about natural freshwater resources, which might be worth some consideration:
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.
Obviously though, what this information doesn’t consider is adding to this natural freshwater supply (with water generation technology, new water storage capacity like dams, new water harvesting like increased rainfall harvesting, and other methods).
On A Local Level
It obviously depends on the individual city or town, and we’ve listed potential considerations for individual cities and towns in the guide above.
It’s worth noting that some cities that have already experienced water stress, water scarcity, and water shortage issues in particular, may be at more risk of running out of water in the future if they don’t take appropriate action.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a difference between running out of potable water and running out of non potable water.
A city or town can be running out of non potable water, and not necessarily drinking water
According to nltimes.nl (paraphrased), this also happened for 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
When Will We Run Out Of Water?
There may be no definitive answer to this question.
Current resources and withdrawal vs replenishment rates might be a key consideration.
But, it also depends on the individual city or town in question, the factors and variables applicable to them, and how sustainably they manage their water resources and supplies.
So, answers may be location specific i.e. there’s a different answer for each individual city or region.
What Happens If We Run Out Of Water In The Future?
What happens if cities start to run out of water (become more water stressed and water scarce) depends on several factors
And, it’s worth pointing out that the effects might be different if it’s drinking water we run out of, or non-potable water.
Having said that, there might be examples of the general effects of not having enough fresh water in the future in the moderate, serious and extreme ranges that we can look to.
Potential Sliding Scale Of Impact When Cities Or Towns Run Out Of Water
Some potential examples of what the moderate, serious and extreme effects of running out of water might be, might include:
Perth experienced water scarcity issues being in a dry climate, but, they were able to diversify their water sources, avert a major water crisis, and now rely mainly on desalination and ground water for their water supply.
There was a financial cost to desalination and other technology, but potentially no ‘serious’ or ‘extreme’ effects of water scarcity.
This was in part because unlike Perth, Cape Town did not diversify away from their dam water supplies (which relied on rain water to refill) quickly enough.
Cape Town faced severe water restrictions, and there were a range of other potentially ‘serious’ side effects for Cape Town across the city at the time.
We see in these regions there can be a range of extreme effects, such as serious health issues and mortality issues (even for young children).
General Importance Of Water To Society
Other Potential Effects Of Running Out Of Water
How We Keep Track Of, & Monitor Fresh Water Resources & Supplies Across Cities In The Future
Some cities provide (via government or water supplier websites) updated data on key indicators of their water supply (both potable, and non potable supplies), such as:
Total water capacity
Total water levels (as a % of total capacity)
Water withdrawal volume (over a certain time period)
Water renewal volume (over a certain time period)
This data can be helpful in assessing how sustainably a city is managing their water supplies, and whether supplies might be trending up, trending down, or maintaining a stable level.
The data may also indicate whether water supplies are reaching levels of high water stress, or even water scarcity.
Water restrictions may be imposed at higher levels of water stress and scarcity.
Other potentially important aspects of the data to consider might be:
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?
Pay attention to whether augmented water supplies like water desalination, water recycling, etc. are included or counted separately from this data. Augmented water supplies ultimately add to the natural water supply of surface water and groundwater
Rainwater harvesting and private sources of water are also a consideration
Example Of A City That Provides Water Supplies Data
They also provide data on rainfall catchment and flow into water storages.
Potential Solutions To Global Freshwater Problems, & Ways To Sustainably Use & Manage Fresh Water Resources In The Future
A few resources which may contain more information on potential solutions might be:
– Global Freshwater Problems, & Potential Solutions
– Ways To Potentially Manage Freshwater Resources More Sustainably In The Future
– Ways To Use Water More Efficiently & Sustainably Across The Different Major Sectors In Society
Some reports indicate that it’s easier and more cost efficient to be more efficient with water use rather than increase or augment water supplies – so, this may be a point to consider strongly.