The industrial revolution and modern capitalism were powered by water, the sustainability revolution we are entering will depend on it. Water will define our future as clearly as it has our past. How we manage this scarce resource, the choices we make – and those that are made for us as a result of our actions – will define the 21st century for individuals, businesses, and nations alike. Let me explain.
There is as much water now as when time began, you can’t make more and you can’t throw it away – water just is. It is one of the few substances on earth that is endlessly recycled. Indeed, the drop of water in your morning coffee could have been in the heart of a whale, or the sweat of a slave.
When the industrial revolution kicked off there were 1 billion people depending on that water – today there are 7 billion. Just as we have mined the earth for ancient sunlight in the form of coal and oil, so we have drained our aquifers for water to drive manufacturing and our industrial farming operations.
One hundred cities in northern China already ration water – Beijing’s future growth is under review as its population has already far outstripped its water resources. Twenty-four countries in Africa will not have enough water to meet their needs by 2025 as their populations continue to grow, not to mention Cape Town’s ongoing water crisis.
Our modern corporations are defined by, and use, unimaginable amounts of water. I would argue that The Coca Cola Company is not in the business of manufacturing soft drinks but rather the business of procuring more clean water than almost any other enterprise on earth. Intel Corporation has a water recycling programme that claims to have conserved 174 billion litres of water in 2017 and spent $234 million in water management initiatives to date.
However, we continue to waste water on a monumental scale both in open canal agriculture in the developing world, wasteful manufacturing processes, as well as for pleasure. In the US there are now 17,000 golf courses up from 4,000 in the 1950’s. It is estimated that there are 32 million acres of irrigated lawn in the US – more than three times the amount of irrigated corn fields. China is following the same development trend. Our children may well question our sanity in using our precious water to irrigate our lawns – then drilling for oil so that we can make fuel – and spend our weekends mowing them.
The first modern war over water has already taken place. The seven-day war between Israel and Jordan to take the Golan Heights was as much about controlling the headwaters of the Jordan River as anything else.
We need to get busy making some hard choices. We need to move to water-wise agriculture, which will require a transfer of technology and funding to developing nations. We need to reduce our waste of water for pleasure and move to water-wise gardening and civic spaces. Our leading companies already understand that water is no longer cheap or its supply a given – and managing this increasingly scarce resource like any other business input. Those companies that ignore their water footprint will fail their shareholders and employees as the sustainability revolution takes hold. The real issue is what we decide to do with the poor – many of whom have limited access to water. During the industrial revolution the rich have become overweight whilst the poor go hungry. In this sustainability revolution will we continue to water our lawns whilst the poor lack access to water thirst as we take it to make our consumer goods and grow our food?
If we do not make better choices in the 21st century than we have in our past, we risk nothing less than the collapse of civilisation, as the environmental migrations we are starting to see will dwarf the economic migrations of the past. People can put up with hunger and political repression– but not with a lack of water.
Let’s get busy repairing the future.