Water Is The Next Oil

Oligarchs will once again control a precious commodity while we sit idly by.
Photo: Levi Xu

Even though oil prices are the highest they've ever been, there's another looming shortage that will be more devastating and far reaching. It's water. Yes, the stuff you get straight out of the tap (or plastic bottles if you live here). Like oil now, we're entering into a period where a relatively cheap commodity will suddenly become scarce. The worst part is that this affects our very means of survival. True life without oil would be almost impossible in our modern world, but life without water is not possible at all.

Given recent history (The Colorado River at its lowest point in recorded history, Lake Mead 100 feet below the high water mark etc.) and future predictions of increasing temperatures brought on by global warming and shifting climates, it's not hard to figure out areas once abundant in water will face increasing shortages. This means many parts of the US, particularly the Southwest, already deep in drought, will be chronically short of the water it needs to support its current population let alone estimated future growth. Makes you wonder why all those people thought moving to Vegas was a good idea.

So how are we going to get the water we need? Like any resource that can't be met by local production, we will have to start importing water to meet demand. That seems far-fetched to people like me, people that have grown up with water being as easy to get as turning on a tap. But right now that water comes from a nearby reservoir, reservoirs that are shrinking at a rapid clip with no future predictions for their replenishment. So, at some point in the near future, that water will have to come from somewhere not so near, somewhere where it actually rains more than two weeks a year.

Much like oil today, nations rich in water will build out the infrastructure necessary to export their excess water to water strapped nations, one of which will most assuredly be the US. No doubt this will create another set of formerly poor nations that all of a sudden control the world's most valuable resource. Sounds eerily familiar to what we have with today with OPEC and of course it is. Sure the faces and names will change but once again we will be directly dependent on and providing financial support to nations that may or may not be friendly to our country. Barring going in and stealing it like we did in Iraq, we'll have to come up with some different strategies to make sure we don't switch out one bad situation, OPEC, for another, the future OWEC.

The answer probably lies in something we've always put a lot of faith in: technology. Right now there are a slew of alternative technologies being developed that someday will replace completely or at least make us much less reliant on oil as an energy source. We need to start doing the same with water. From water recapture/purification technology for our homes to large scale desalinization plants to waste water technology for restrooms/sprinklers, we need to start developing the technologies that will allow us to meet our own needs for water without being dependent on other nations. Of course some of these technologies already exist, much like some of the current crop of alternative fuel technologies existed prior to the surge in popularity they're seeing now. That surge is being pushed by both economic and political motivations but also an increasing feeling that the backbone of our consumer driven economic structure, the ability to drive to work to earn money to spend on cars that get less than ten miles per gallon, is in dangerous peril of unraveling due to the continued high price of oil. Increasingly poor people are being priced out of the market, unable to afford to continue driving their cars.

Now imagine that same scenario with the very stuff that keeps you alive. Imagine a situation where a whole spectrum of people, and a large one at that, does not have the means to pay for their survival. Surely they won't just go off and die quietly like some rich people would most certainly prefer. I think they'd try and get what they needed by any means necessary, just like anyone in a life or death situation. I also think the people that controlled the water wouldn't give it up willingly. You can certainly imagine some nightmare Mad Max scenario developing, where warring tribes, split along the haves and have nots, fight each other over water resources. An Armageddon type scenario like that may be a bit alarmist but if we sit back and do nothing like we did with the current oil crisis, it might not be alarmist at all. Of course, we should continue to develop alternatives to oil but there is no alternative to water. We need to start developing technologies that will help us deal with a country with a lot less water than it has now, even if it seems like presently everything is still fine.

comments powered by Disqus