Global water availability to 2050

Posted 30 April 2011

Water stress index 2011. Source: Maplecroft.

Gary Kleyn
Manager, FDI Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


On 6 October 2010 FDI's Global Food and Water Research Crisis Programme held its second roundtable, which considered global fresh water requirements between now and 2050. The roundtable involved participants from Canberra, Perth and Sri Lanka. The first roundtable, held in August, considered population issues and how they might impact on global food and water security over the next forty years. From that roundtable three Strategic Analysis Papers have already been published, dealing with the main points identified by the roundtable participants.

This paper provides an overview of the discussion that took place at the water roundtable. In particular, it will seek to provide some answers to the following questions:

  1. How will the quantity of water required change between now and 2050, recognising the implications of population increase, urbanisation, reduction in arable land and climate change?
  2. What existing and new water sources are likely to be available over the next 40 years, where are they located and what is needed to exploit them?
  3. What role, if any, is science and technology likely to play in developing and managing new sources?
  4. What are the implications of water shortfalls? Are there any potential sources of intra- or inter-state conflict?


By 2050 water forecasters are expecting global water shortages or a 'gap' between the supply and demand for water, driven, in a macro sense, by the increase in population. However, as David Molden, Deputy Director-General for Research, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), put it at the FDI Roundtable, increased demand for water will also result from an increase in demand for milk, meat and other high water-usage agricultural products. In addition, increasing affluence in many parts of the developing world will also increase demand for these high water use foods.

How large the gap will be, however, is open to debate.

In a global sense, speaking of a water gap is somewhat simplistic. The gap will clearly be large in some regions than others, while in other parts of the globe water surpluses will continue to exist. Nor does the predicted gap take into consideration the possibility of finding new underground aquifers. Nevertheless, water security is already shaping up as the greatest challenge facing many nations, with Australia being no exception, over the next century.

FDI Associate and water expert, Dr Munir A. Hanjra, made it clear at the Water Roundtable, that the gap would be about 3,000 cubic kilometres of water a year. To put this in some perspective, this is the equivalent of the annual flow of three Nile Rivers. Equivalent sources would need to be found to cover the shortfall. FDI Associate and author of The Coming Famine, Julian Cribb, believes that in forty years the annual shortfall will be more like 6,000 cubic kilometres. While the amount of shortfall is disputed, the view held by many water futurists is that a gap will exist in some parts of the globe.

Where are we going to find that water?

Dr Hanjra believes that humans will have to go through a transformation in the way that they make use of water. To do that, however, the incentives have to be in place.

"We simply don't know how humans, technology and markets will respond to the kind of challenges that we face around the globe," he said.

While water supply for human consumption will be challenged in future years, it will really be the agricultural sector that faces the greatest difficulty in expanding its water use - a necessity to feed a growing population with higher demands.

Maplecroft released in November 2010 a global risk assessment. It indicates that the Middle East and North Africa are the regions at the highest overall risk. As the global map on the previous page indicates, however, Australia, South Africa and parts of India and the United States, also have high water-stress levels. The map makes it clear that there are significant disparities between regions, with some areas not facing a water deficit gap.

Mr Molden says that the water hotspots, where water stress is likely to be the highest, are in Mexico and the USA, as well as in North Africa, the Middle East and the North China Plain. Other critical areas are Australia, West and South India, and Pakistan. They are all major breadbaskets and that creates serious problems. Yet, in other parts of the world, ground water provides major opportunities that have not yet been tapped, for example in Sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly, there is an opportunity for better exploitation and management of ground water.


If water is to be the significant concern of the 21st Century, as is being suggested in many quarters, then the energy devoted to education in this area will increasingly need to reflect that importance. Education about water usage can take two forms; one that is linked to water demand and the other to water supply.

On the demand side, education needs to be channelled towards the end users, the consumers; whether industrial, agricultural or domestic household consumers.

On the water supply side of the equation, education could be important for engineers and non-government organisations.

Mr Molden says that there is a need to change practices and to keep the water demand down to an additional 20 per cent above current demand levels by 2050 (20 per cent additional evapotranspiration from agriculture). This will be a hard task, particularly with increasing agricultural production and the need to grow more food with less water.

Part of the education process involves ensuring methods are adopted to reduce the wastage. For example, agricultural practices in Pakistan and other countries lead to a huge amount of wastage. Professor James Trevelyan believes about two-thirds of food produced in India and Pakistan is lost due to wastage, because excess food cannot be stored without reliable electricity supplies for refrigeration. If this wastage could be reduced, there would be more than enough capacity to meet the growing demand for water and food.

Productivity differences already exist between food that is grown on agricultural research stations and food grown by normal farmers. So there is potential for improved productivity and an increase in agricultural output, if the technology that we have today is put into the hands of the people that are growing the food. The available technology provides enormous capacity to meet the increasing demand.

Education is the key.

Professor Trevelyan believes that the education system is inefficient and does not seem capable of producing people that can join the dots when dealing with water issues. The graduates required need the ability to work across disciplines and not to be confined to specialisations. Technological breakthroughs can then be adopted, but only if technologists have the breadth of understanding to see how social, economic, environmental, safety, health and governance issues shape effective solutions.

However, while much can be done to improve water security, Dr Hanjra believes a water gap will continue to exist despite increased efficiencies. He has considered a number of scenarios that could be applied in future planning, but found none that would overcome the water gap. Every increase in productivity will be putting more pressure on ground water resources.

While water availability is determined by the climate, there is scope to change people's behaviour. For example, in Brisbane an education campaign reduced demand for household water use by 30 per cent. Mr Pascoe believes that this indicates that the social, behavioural and attitudinal behaviours need to merge with the technical solutions.


In dealing with water security, a more unified approach is required, not only in international cooperation but also in the level of our understanding between government departments. Professor Hanjra believes that the traditional method of treating water and food security, environment and climate change, as separate issues dealt with by separate ministries has had its draw backs.

Mr Pascoe believes that the complex nature of water management needs to be understood by government. Getting the right political will is also important, as is having farmers who have the expertise for dealing with water issues.

Water governance remains a major issue which many countries need to overcome. Mr Molden cited an example where, in South East Asia, there has been a trend towards private pump use, to avoid government interference. However, this is having a negative impact on water tables in the region, so that governments need to stay in tune and ahead of such private entrepreneurial initiatives to ensure long term sustainability of water usage.

As with the private pumps, there are many ways in which people can get access to water or energy without paying, particularly in countries with limited government control.

It is important to think of ways to provide cheap, reliable and fraud-resistant technology for payment collection, which can handle many small payments efficiently, according to Professor Trevelyan. An example could be the use of smart metering technology. This will also encourage private investment in the sector, because the free-loaders can no longer have a presence in the market and undermine the cost recovery from providing such technology.

By-passing the government, or having the ability to work in regions where the government is ineffective, is also important. Systems need to be able to work also in ‘failed' states, independent of the need for government support. Actionable goals are required, that are achievable and that can be scaled up once the initial goal has been reached.

If this is done correctly, there is enormous potential for the development of water resources in areas such as Pakistan, India and Africa. Further investment in exploration for water resources could pay handsome dividends, if new sources of water can be found.

People working for non-government organisations need training in dealing with local power structures, when the government does not have a strong presence.


Urbanisation will create further challenges for water supply and delivery to the urban population. In 2010 more than 50 per cent of the global population lives in urban centres. Members of these urban populations are going to demand more lifestyle products, such as swimming pools and better food, which means the per capita water footprint is likely to continue to increase.

The growth of mega cities, with populations exceeding 10 million people, often in developing countries, will create a considerable challenge. New expertise in water delivery will be needed to supply these mega cities, for example in Jakarta half the city does not have a water supply. Two options exist for water engineers. Either they learn to adapt their water supply infrastructure to the urban form, or the design of the urban centres will need to change to make greater allowances for sustainable water supply.

Professor Hanjra believes that one of the challenges is that poor people urbanise faster in developing countries. Urban centres and mega cities are like magnets because of their access to better services. While there is a pull factor, there is also a push factor. People are being pushed out of rural areas because of a lack of access to land or quality water. Professor Hanjra says that the result is that there are enormous demands on the urban water systems, often because the poor and new comers are not welcomed into the city and they are yet to be connected to the water supply system.

Mr Pascoe feels that it is understandable that some of the fastest growing urban areas are struggling to supply water to their inhabitants. He says that it has taken 150 years for the western world to develop its urban water systems. We do not have 150 years for the developing world to develop theirs, because of the significant health problems.

Potential for Conflict

Historically, very few serious conflicts between nations have occurred over water. There are indications, however, that water will be the resource that nations and communities will fight for in the 21st Century.

A paper produced by Future Directions International, entitled 'Water Crises: International areas at risk' (Gary Kleyn; 16 March 2010), made it clear that, historically at least, most disputes are handled diplomatically. In the past 50 years there have been 37 disputes involving some level of violence as a result of water conflict, whereas there were 150 treaties signed relating to water sharing during this period.

We have not seen water-inspired conflict in the Middle East despite the problems that they have there. It has always been managed.

Dr Hanjra says that if water scarcity penetrates down it will pitch community against community, farmer against farmer and State against State. It could mean that there are many little, or not so little, wars in the making. People will fight because, in many places, the option to migrate to other countries or regions is not available, particularly in poorer regions. He sees this particularly playing out in countries such as Pakistan and India.

Mr Molden said that while water has not been the source of major conflicts to date, there is a lot of local conflict over water. Also, water is often the target during a conflict.

Dr Hanjra believes that the globe is approaching the tipping point, where people are beginning to realise that water is becoming the constraint on wealth creation. It has not yet become a constraint on economic growth but it is moving that way. UN reports say clearly that, by 2050, it will not be the lack of land, but rather the lack of water that will be the major constraint on food security.

Are we ready to guard against such a risk?

Roundtable participants

  • Jim Geltch, CEO Nuffield Australia Scholarships
  • Simon Gould, Planning Coordinator, Regenerating Our Landscape Program, Outcomes Australia.
  • Munir A. Hanjra, Senior Research Scientist (Water and Food Policy Specialist) with the International Centre of Water for Food Security (IC Water), Charles Sturt University.
  • John Hartley - FDI CEO and Institute Director
  • Gary Kleyn, Manager FDI Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
  • David Molden, Deputy Director General for Research, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
  • Mark Pascoe, CEO of the International WaterCentre Pty Ltd
  • Joseph Poprzeczny, Author and Journalist for WA Business News and News Weekly.
  • James Trevelyan, deputy head of the Mechanical and Chemical Engineering School for Teaching and Learning, UWA.

A Strategic Analysis Paper reproduced with permission from Future Directions International.

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