Future uncertainty about how we will meet water needs throughout the globe has lead to concern in the public and private sector over water resource security and strategic planning for meeting water resource need. Experts have looked at supply and demand; water quality, ecosystems, and public health; water for agriculture, industry and municipal use. It doesn’t matter which experts have examined the problem, the general conclusions are the same: if we follow a business-as-usual approach, by 2030, the gap between water supply and water demand will exceed 40% globally, with areas that have even higher water deficits. Any solution to this impending cliff requires two things: reducing water consumption, and finding ways to creatively and flexibly produce more value out of the water we have through improved reuse and production technology.

photograph mash-up showing a water treatment facility, water collection containers, irrigation canal, and large damThere is no single pathway to solutions: government regulations, private sector products and services, or simple market forces could not reach these goals on their own. The challenge is identifying how governments, stakeholders, financial players, and end users ranging from industry to individuals will work together to shape a better water future locally, nationally and globally and initiating these actions.

Charting our water future (2030 Water Resources Group (WRG), 2009) attempts to provide strategy and guidance for meeting these water challenges. The WRG report looks specifically at how to meet competing demands for water in a sustainable way with opportunities for both government and private sector to jointly participate in this necessary endeavor.

Findings and Impacts

The WRG report points out that while resource constraints are typically associated with new investments and policy implementation focused on increasing productivity, our collective response to water has been very different, and we need to look to integrating government, private sector, and the public in closing the supply-demand gap. The authors state:

“this outcome will not emerge naturally from existing market dynamics, but will require a concerted effort by all stakeholders, the willingness to adopt a total resource view where water is seen as a key, cross-sectoral input for development and growth, a mix of technical approaches, and the courage to undertake and fund water sector reforms.” (WRG, p5)

WRG uses 4 case studies to illustrate that a different blend of existing solutions can be used to address the base-case water gap scenario for many regions, but while technical solutions can address the bulk of the demand-supply gap, conversations about water planning must integrate with the direction of an entire economy; as agricultural policies and products, industrial production of goods, energy production, and import and export of food, goods and services are integral to a  country’s economy, but also impact water resources now, in 2030, and beyond. They suggest scenario planning that incorporates “impacts of water policies on growth and jobs” and “implications for trade and geopolitics.” We may find solutions that are technically feasible, but may face barriers to implementation, such as cultural barriers or limitations of institutional capacity.

WRG demonstrates tools for policy makers to design cost curves, payback curves, and scenarios to communicate how courses of action may impact water resources, economy, potential investors, and end users. While admitting that they are not providing a comprehensive guide to action, they reiterate that they are providing guidance for creating tools that provide quantitative vision for how water use may look in 2030, tools to identify potential failures of current economic policy reside and identify key stakeholders. “Addressing the water gap requires an institutional, cross-sectoral vehicle with enough clout to inform broader economic policy on the basis of a key constrained resource. Policymakers need not wait until water scarcity becomes so severe as to become an emergency” (p 119).

Implications and more information

Water problems manifest in hyperlocal ways: the natural, societal and political components of each problem interact to both frame the problem and provide specific acceptable pathways that may lead to problem resolution. While these specific problems will require individualized resolution strategies, some of the same enabling conditions must be present to allow any of these solutions to take hold: financial support and investment, economic and regulatory conditions conducive to supporting innovative change, stakeholder support and the will of the people.

Both the base-case example for the 2030 water demand-supply gap and the worst case scenarios for what this gap may be for regions significantly impacted by climate change require the same enabling conditions outlined in these reports and discussed in other literature. Nailing down the science of uncertainty will not address how we create the enabling conditions at the national, basin, and global level to solve these problems for 2030 and beyond.

These challenges require that individuals at the highest levels of government, agriculture and industry, and the financial sector are committed to co-developing this future through increased transparency, cooperation and co-development of programs and incentives to enable innovative change. Agriculture and food production, mining and extraction, other producers of goods, providers of water and infrastructure services, and the range of groups that advocate for the environment, development, and consumers all play into this future. While we’ve established that “[innovation] in a space like water is ultimately a private-public partnership in which the government sets the rules, supports basic research, and facilitates private sector development and deployment” (WRG, p. 124), there are still numerous questions about how we will make water management innovation happen.

This report does not explicitly address how to incorporate the resilience and room for continual adaptation that must be built into the structure of decisions. While the report discusses identifying barriers to adoption and which barriers may be overcome, there isn’t much guidance on actions to overcome these barriers.

Planning for resources such as water requires a long view. By 2030, reports addressing “water 2050″ will have been published, with new recommendations on how to change what we’ve managed to put into place. The foundation for future decisions must be designed at a time scale that is beyond what most people find manageable.  The goals for “water 2030″, which may be met largely with technical solutions, will exceeded considerably by the time of “water 2100.”

The Water Resources Group conclude their report stating:

“We have seen that the challenges that lie ahead are considerable for many countries. But we have also provided evidence that none are insurmountable… We hope the information presented… enriches the global debate and gives policymakers, business executives, and civil society leaders the tools they need to unlock the full potential of water.” (ibid.)

We know what needs to be done. This is one of many strategic reports regarding which and where changes need to take place to ensure a sustainable water future. However:  how do we catalyze these actions? How do we identify, prioritize and fund the right basic research to support this? How can we get applied research to align with realistic goals and outcomes while promoting radical innovation?

To address the water gap in 2030 and beyond, we will have to change how we value water and the goods and services that rely upon it. These conversations will need to take place at the highest level with support and trust from the rest of society. The level and source for enacting solutions have been identified by independent groups, but providing the catalyst and enabling conditions for these pathways to comprehensive solutions remains elusive.


The WRG report  Charting our water future is available to the public as a .pdf download. More recent publications, such as McKinsey & Company’s Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs (2011) and Water Security: the water-food-energy-climate nexus (World Economic Forum Initiative, Island Press, 2011) incorporate information from this report in attempts to deliver the next steps in a way forward. Individuals interested in private sector investment opportunities and strategies for meeting 2030 water needs may be interested in Water Cultivation: The Path to Profit in Meeting Water Needs (Lux Research, Inc. 2008).

Amanda Repella

Amanda C. Repella was the Water Diplomacy Global Network Coordinator at Tufts University from 2012 – 2016.