Questions & Answers

Will we run out of water?

Hi, I'm Jayson Childs, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Brock University, and I'll be answering the question, "Will we run out of water?"

Clean, safe water is critically important to all life on Earth. Humans are mostly water; it is the foundation of modern civilization and the basis of healthy ecosystems.  So the question, “Will we run out of water?” is a very important and timely question.  


One way to think about this question is at the macro-scale - Will Earth run out of water?  Earth has had liquid water for several billion years has been very good at holding onto and circulating it.  The total amount of water on Earth has not changed significantly since well before the dinosaurs roamed the planet.  So from this perspective, the volume of water can be expected to remain the same well into the future.


However, a second way to consider the question is, will humans run out of clean fresh water? This is a considerably more complicated and complex question. Clean freshwater, suitable for human consumption is a rare resource. The entire population of Earth - all 7 Billion of us - rely on a very miniscule amount (<1%) of the total available water.  Despite its importance, water is not always available where, when or in the quantities that people need or want.  Natural factors (e.g. climate and geography) and human factors (e.g. level of economic development, technological capacity, pollution, and political forces) combine to influence availability and access. To date, the unequal distribution and access has been countered through the damming, diversion and transportation of water to places where it is needed. Meeting those needs however is a growing challenge as global population continues to increase and becomes wealthier.  And despite our successes there is a ‘water crisis’ because globally there are over one billion people without access to clean, safe drinking water and that number is growing.


For Canadians, it is hard to think about a water crisis because water is readily accessible and prevalent across our nation and in our society.  A large number of people in this country take water for granted and believe that we will always have a clean, safe and plentiful supply. Unfortunately, this perceived reality may not be completely accurate because Canada does have its own set of water issues including the reduction of river flows in Western Canada, pollution in the Great Lakes and the limited access to clean, safe water in First Nations communities. 


In other countries, the problem is much more severe as people struggle to find enough clean safe water to live as a result of increased demand, a changing climate, pollution and political tensions. The issue shouldn’t be viewed as ‘someone else’s’ problem because as globalization continues, the lack of water in one country will have consequences for others due to political, economic, agricultural, environmental or social linkages.  So although the planet may never run out of water, the potential does exist for many locations to experience increasing water stress and scarcity.


Reducing the number of people without access, improving our use, conservation and management as well as ensuring an equitable distribution will be important issues of the 21st century. There will not be a simple resolution but rather a range of multifaceted solutions with environmental, political, social, cultural, economic, technological and ethical components.  To meet these goals new technologies need to be developed, new governance policies need to be advanced and many people will need to change their perceptions so that water can be used fairly, equitably, efficiently.  Can it be done? Absolutely it can. Science and human ingenuity can develop sustainable solutions and policies to meet the challenge.


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