No, there won’t be water wars – climate activists are wrong again

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I was once told by a publisher that bad news sells books; good news does not. Several best-selling books have predicted future water shortages as nations and peoples compete for the allegedly soon-to-be scarce resource of drinkable and usable water. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre talks of “water wars,” claiming that nations might use military force to secure their supplies and stop others diverting it. One proposal has been for an international body to regulate supplies and prevent the rich nations from “hogging the available supplies.”

Water is by no means scarce since it covers approximately four-fifths of the Earth’s surface. The problem is that most of it is not of suitable quality, and much of it is not where it is needed. A great deal of valuable and useful work is being done by charities to help people in less developed countries with small-scale projects to dig new wells and purify water locally to prevent people having to walk miles daily to obtain disease-free drinking water.

The main source of future clean water will, however, be large-scale desalination by osmosis, using high-tech membranes to remove the unwanted salt and impurities. The technology for desalination is constantly being improved, but osmotic desalination is currently very energy-intensive, making it a high-cost process. The solution will be cheap energy, firstly from fracked gas, but then from renewables wind and solar, both coming down in price, and nuclear.

Within two decades, energy will be cheap enough to make huge osmotic desalination plants viable in coastal areas, pumping out large quantities of purified seawater, and powered by cheap energy from renewables. It will be pumped down huge pipelines, as oil and gas are pumped today, to where it is needed. It will enable currently infertile land to be available for agriculture, and will bring clean, usable water to settlements that have to carry water today.

The alarmists will be confounded, as so often, and there will be no water wars. Technology will provide the solution, enabling purified seawater to give the world the water it needs in the places where people need it. The cost will come down as economies of scale click in, and as energy falls in price. We will not need a world governing body to allocate scarce supplies, nor will we need to limit our lives in order to conserve supplies. Human resourcefulness and creativity and are already promising to solve the problem as they solve others.

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute and author of “Britain and the World in 2050.”

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