The myth of peak water

The eco-worriers excitably claiming the world is running dry should take a cold shower.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

You may have heard of ‘peak oil’, the notion that the world has a finite supply of oil and at some point the amount coming out of the ground will start to decline. Then, we are assured by gloomy prognosticators, our oil-addicted civilisation will come to an end and we will need to create a new, low-impact society based on using less energy, exclusively generated from renewable sources like wind or solar. The party will soon be over, we’re told, with disastrous consequences – though it seems there are quite a few activists and commentators who would pop the cork on a bottle of sparkling elderflower wine if oil ran out and the shit really did hit the fan.

The trouble with the ‘peak oil’ hypothesis is that events keep proving it wrong. New, untapped fields are found, as happened recently off the coast of Brazil. More importantly, as oil prices rise, there’s a greater incentive to develop new technology. For example, in the US there are both shale gas and shale oil ‘revolutions’ in progress, where fracking techniques allow gas and oil trapped in rocks to be released. As Matt Ridley noted recently: ‘After falling for 30 years, US oil production rocketed upwards in the past three years. In 1995, the Bakken field was reckoned by the US Geological Survey to hold a trivial 151million barrels of recoverable oil. In 2008, this was revised upwards to nearly four billion barrels; two months ago that number was doubled. It is a safe bet that it will be revised upwards again.’

We also get better at using the resources we’ve got. So cars have become more fuel-efficient, with the best diesel engines now requiring less fuel than trendy hybrid vehicles, like the Toyota Prius. When a resource is free or very cheap, we have little incentive to think about how best to use it; as it becomes more expensive, we either find more of it, use it more smartly, or replace it with something else – or, more likely, we do a combination of those three things.

Disappointed by the failure of the peak-oil disaster to come to fruition, our doom-mongering, Malthusian friends have alighted on other scary narratives to confirm their suspicions of humanity as a rapacious blight on the planet. Their latest is ‘peak water’.

On the face of it, peak water is a boneheaded concept on a planet where two thirds of the surface is covered in, er, water. According to the US Geological Survey, there are 332million cubic miles of water on Earth. What we tend to need, however, is not sea water but fresh water, of which there is much less: nearer 2.5million cubic miles. And much of that is too deep underground to be accessed. Surface water in rivers and lakes is a small fraction of overall fresh water: 22,339 cubic miles. Handily, though, natural processes cause sea water to evaporate and form clouds, which then dump their contents on to land – so in most populated parts of the world there is currently sufficient water to supply our needs in an endlessly renewable way. As for the future, it is clear there is no shortage of H2O on the planet. What we really have is a shortage of cheap energy and the necessary technology to take advantage of the salinated stuff.

The ‘peak water’ theorists focus on groundwater supplies that are either being used faster than they are replenished, or supplies that are not replenished at all: so-called ‘fossil water’. According to leading environmentalist Lester Brown, writing in the Guardian last weekend, the rapid exhaustion of these supplies in some parts of the world is leading to the decline of food production. And at a time of fast-growing populations, this apparently promises disaster for these countries.

But often, the problem is a political rather than a practical one. For example, according to Brown, after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia made a strategic decision to become self-sufficient in wheat to avoid being the victim of a tit-for-tat grain embargo. This largely desert country ‘developed a heavily subsidised irrigated agriculture based largely from fossil aquifers’, says Brown. Unsurprisingly, those supplies are now running out. Is this a portent of a coming global problem, or just a realisation that growing masses of wheat in a very hot, very dry country is actually impractical, especially when far cheaper supplies of wheat are available from so many sources as to make a successful embargo against Saudi Arabia unlikely?

In reality, all of the fixes that apply to peak oil also apply to peak water. New technology may make water desalination far cheaper than it is now, a claim being made for new water filtration methods based on nanotechnology. Better use of water in irrigation, through careful management of when and how water is applied to crops, could cut usage dramatically – something that is already happening in dry countries such as Israel and Australia and in parts of the US. Current uses of water, like flush toilets, may be superseded in places where water is in high demand. Through civil engineering projects, water can be shifted from places where it is plentiful to places where it is needed most, something societies have been doing for thousands of years.

In other words, what we have is a practical problem, to which people around the world will evolve various solutions that suit their particular circumstances. But such a problem-solving outlook is anathema to environmentalists. Ignore their claim that we are constantly butting up against insuperable problems; it is better to see a natural limit simply as a problem we haven’t solved yet. And humanity has an inspiring record of solving problems.

Faith in the future doesn’t mean thinking we won’t face any serious challenges in that future. Feeding the world when it has an extra two or three billion people won’t be straightforward. But experience gives us every reason to believe we have the capacity to accommodate more people living longer, healthier and wealthier lives.

One of the biggest barriers to reaching that goal today is the closed thinking of eco-miserabilists, and the downbeat, green-leaning outlook held by too many political leaders and campaigners. The aim of anyone with the interests of humanity at heart should be to achieve a decline in the influence of such doom-mongers. Peak green, anyone?

Rob Lyons is commissioning editor at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today