Depending on where you live, clean water feels like the easiest thing on earth to get hold of... or the hardest. In the next 20 years, as climate change causes erratic weather patterns, water demand rises by an estimated 50 percent, and hyper-nationalism destabilises diplomatic cooperation, it's easy to see how water could become "the next oil".


Picture the scene 20 years from now… fresh water is more precious than ever. Have water wars replaced oil wars? Are previously powerful countries beholden to those who embraced water reuse? Have we set new agricultural limits to reduce our global consumption?

From the Nile to the Amazon river, water is the source of a country’s culture, power, trade, and way of life. From the late Bronze age to the current day, water-related conflicts have peppered the history books.

Freshwater constitutes only three percent of all water on earth, and of that, more than two thirds is stored frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. Almost all the remaining unfrozen freshwater occurs as groundwater, which is present beneath the earth’s surface in rocks and soil.

In the coming decades we have a convergence of issues that are set to explode: a growing population with increased mass consumption, water misuse and pollution, as well as climate change and environmental degradation.

Today, multiple countries and organisations have declared a water crisis. Water’s value as a global resource has never been more precious. With this comes the need for a sensitive balance across our worldwide water usage, cross-boundary agreements, and sector innovation.

OECD countries predict that by 2050, the global demand for water will increase by 55%.

Two thirds of freshwater is frozen in glaciers and polar icecaps.

The remaining one third is groundwater and minimal surface water.

World peace hinges on hydro-politics.

In light of all this, it’s no surprise that hydropolitics – ‘the systematic study of conflict and cooperation between states over water resources that transcend international borders’ – is a growing area of focus and study. In fact, hydrodiplomacy is one of the great silent heroes in maintaining global stability.

Michael Jones, who specialises in public health for Hoare Lea in the Middle East, notes: “In many areas of the world, bodies of water run through several countries or dip in and out of a country’s borders. The current potential flash points are the Congo Basin – where a huge number of countries are sharing the same resource; the Nile (Egypt has threatened military action if any of the water-scarce countries the river passes through attempt to manage the water resource); and the Gulf – where the use of desalination has resulted in a rise in salinity and temperature.”

Experts have theorised that the worst drought in close to a millennium in Syria contributed to the civil war that we now understand led to the formation of the so-called Islamic State. This kind of unprecedented water scarcity causes ‘climate refugees’, who are forced to move to nearby countries that have more water, and often results in rising political tensions.

These issues of international diplomacy stand side by side with domestic and regional politics. As Michael notes: “In the Middle East for example, water is becoming the top strategic resource and political issue. With fresh water more precious than ever, due to its use in agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, energy production and so on, there’s definitely a growing understanding of water being a resource that needs better management and sustainable use.”

There have been many agreements set in place to try and avoid inequality and conflict over the use of water, with more than 300 water treaties signed internationally. Yet the management and allocation of water is still unresolved. In the decades to come, countries like Canada, Chile, Norway, Colombia and Peru that have water in abundance, will likely hold a great deal more power at the global negotiation table. As such, there is increasing demand from campaign groups and countries for the United Nations to set out a policy, with rules and boundaries on water sharing/allocation.

“While the UK as a whole doesn’t have a water scarcity issue, there are areas that suffer more than most… we have big issues to address, such as allocation, scarcity, and water pollution,” explains Mike Best, Associate Director for Public Health at Hoare Lea. “There has been some discussion about breaking down the ‘borders’ between water companies – creating a sort of ‘National Grid of water’ – but this will take major Government pressure. Simply put, the UK has water, but it is not as effectively managed as it could be, in terms of it being a national resource. We have more than we need in the winter months, but when there’s an extreme event or prolonged dry spell, our reservoirs and aquifers can suffer. You also have areas like Cornwall for example. It has a population that expands and contracts on a massive scale between summer and winter, and the demand in summer is becoming increasingly hard to meet.”

Domiz refugees camp, Duhok, Iraq, 2013.

Photo: Francesco Gustincich/Alamy Live News

Stone Towers (pictured below)

Image: Zaha Hadid Architects

Flip the conversation.

Globally, food production and consumer industries use water at an unprecedented rate, with 70 percent of usage coming from the agriculture sector. A mere eight percent comes from direct human use. However, when it comes to the built environment, this individual usage is significant and it’s led to the growth of something called hydropsychology... Typically, discussions around water scarcity take a top-down approach; hydropsychology takes the opposite view and considers the individual themselves. Based on the premise that water usage starts with people, it focuses on how much of the world’s water supply is being used at the micro-level. This school of thought champions policies created by communities to address how people think about – and therefore consume – water.

…And there are some real success stories from this approach. Uganda, for example, now has a thriving water industry, which is completely run by the same women who used to carry the water from the rivers. Meanwhile, in 2018, when Cape Town was days away from running out of water, a campaign that encouraged households to compete against each other to save the most water brought the city back from the brink of drought. People traded tips on social media, were given access to real-time dam levels, and consumption data was gathered on each household. Homes that cut water usage by more than 10 percent were celebrated online. This ‘gamification’ of resource use is an interesting example of tapping into human psychology to create a complete change in behaviour.

It’s also a pertinent example of how important information is. Leveraging data and technology can establish an accurate understanding of water demand and usage, drive efficient and sustainable operations, and – ultimately – inform effective investment planning.

70% of the world’s freshwater resources are used for agricultural purposes.

One water.

There is also another important paradigm shift taking place in our thinking – and it’s happening within the water sector itself. John Albert, Chief Research Officer of The Water Research Foundation, notes: “Traditionally, water treatment is separated by treatment type rather than thinking of it as a whole system. But that style of thought is changing with reduced water supplies and as water demands continue to grow. A ‘one water’ approach to water management takes a holistic, systemic view of waste water, drinking water, and storm water infrastructure.”

“On the whole, when it comes to building projects, everyone is encouraged to use and waste less, and this is always a good principle to design for,” explains Mike Best. “As Public Health engineers, we strive to design sustainable water systems, such as grey-water recycling and rainwater harvesting. However, we are faced with these being viewed as ‘options’, as they’re aren’t yet UK statutory requirements. There are forward-looking schemes, such as BREEAM, which encourage them to be included, but they’re not compulsory currently. As designers we can champion the cause, but where finance is the driving force and there is a need to control spending, we find these systems are often quickly removed from the build.”

In addition to the design of systems, there’s also the all-important aspect of whether water can even be supplied to a site in the first place… Laurence Johnson, Head of Utilities & Energy Infrastructure at Hoare Lea, explains: “When it comes to connecting a project to water utility services, we are starting to find that there just isn’t enough infrastructure. In the past, it was mostly just a case of connecting to water pipelines, but now, in certain areas, costly and time-consuming micro reservoirs need to be built in order to provide water to a new development.

“As a country, we don’t collect a lot of water, despite having high levels of rain. We’re having to plan for water droughts and flooding. Rather than the relatively regular weather patterns we’ve seen in decades past, we’re now looking at solutions that can handle much more extreme patterns. The climate and biodiversity issues we’re seeing across the globe have to be addressed in everything we do. Pollutants, flooding, SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems), aquifers (underground water brought to the surface through natural springs or by pumping), and blue greening all need to be considered. It’s about managing water in a holistic way so that it becomes a sustainable asset.”

‘The Dublin Principles’.

Integrated water resources management (IWRM).

Set out in 1992, these are the basic principles that dictate modern hydrology and water management.

1. Social equity.

Ensuring equal access for all users (particularly marginalised and poorer user groups) to an adequate quantity and quality of water necessary to sustain human wellbeing.

2. Economic efficiency.

Bringing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users possible with the available financial and water resources.

3. Ecological sustainability.

Requiring aquatic ecosystems to be acknowledged as users and that adequate allocation is made to sustain their natural functioning.

Circular thinking and carbon benefits.

In the Middle East, these kinds of holistic water systems are much more prevalent. When a development is in the middle of arid desert then regenerating waste or grey water is vital. “We find many projects just can’t get utility connections because they’re non-existent,” explains Michael Jones. “As such, there’s a much stronger appetite for circular solutions, especially those that emulate the natural water cycle. There’s certainly a growing need for comprehensive and sustainable water strategies... and they should consider the management, storage, treatment, and usage design solutions needed.”

There’s also an important, but often overlooked, link between energy consumption and efficient water usage – the water-energy nexus. Addressing efficient water management can actually significantly reduce energy consumption in domestic, commercial and industrial systems, saving money and tonnes of carbon. It’s arguably a relatively easy step towards zero carbon… and it also points towards a new paradigm for design: system thinking – where the whole system is considered rather than just the individual parts.

The challenge lies with encouraging and educating changemakers, and individuals, to view holistic self-sufficient systems as the most attractive option – the default solution.

Indeed, in our globalised world, success won’t just come from countries cooperating to share the earth’s most vital resource. It also needs us to view it as part of a whole ecosystem where resource use is prioritised from the outset. If we manage both? We might just be able to forge a harmonious kinship with the lifeblood of our planet.