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Water, water, everywhere…

And not a drop to drink, as the Ancient Mariner once said. Hopefully by now you know that Blue Gold is a thriller set in the near future during a world war for water. Articles about water shortages are becoming more common. I’ve been thinking about this for the past seven years or so as I tried to craft a setting for my novel. So, what’s the problem and why is it getting worse?

Many of you may know that only 2.5% of the world’s water is drinkable, the rest being seawater. And two-thirds of the freshwater is locked up in polar icecaps or glaciers. That in itself is scary but not a problem; our ecosystem has always been like that.

The problem is a combination of three factors: demographics, economics and climate change. The demographics part is quite easy to follow. Over the next twenty years the global population is expected to rise by 20%, that’s 1½ billion people who need food and water. Unfortunately, most of those extra people are likely to be born in regions of the world already stressed by water shortages: Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Many of the countries with the biggest populations are showing economic success, raising families out of poverty towards better incomes. That, of course, is fantastic news – and an oft forgotten aspect of the global inequality debate – but richer families tend to consume more water. Their diets shift away from vegetarian to meat-based. Cattle require ten times as much water as crops do to grow. And when a family can afford its own apartment, with their own bathroom, they use more water.

So, it’s obvious that demographics and economics will boost the demand for water significantly over the next 20-30 years. The effects of climate change are more subtle. A hotter atmosphere doesn’t change the amount of water in the ecosystem. But extreme weather events – droughts and floods – are becoming more common. California just went through its worst drought in over a thousand years. Floods, oddly, are unhelpful for water supplies too because rivers and drains can’t cope with the deluge; the excess water is often contaminated and can’t be stored. The effective supply of rainwater is declining with weather extremes.

What can we do about this problem? In the first instance, we simply tap into the underground stores of water known as aquifers. But these take millennium to refill, and the rate of depletion in most suggests a looming problem.

People often assume that desalination – removing salt from seawater – can solve the problem, but even with technological improvements it’s still expensive. It leaves behind a concentration of salt that can be devastating for the local environment. Water is very heavy. If the city you are trying to supply is miles from the sea, or as in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, 7000 feet up an escarpment, you can forget about desalination as a practical source of freshwater. And desalination uses a lot of energy. It will be hard enough for us to meet the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions without the extra burden of powering desalination plants and transporting water inland.

The real solution lies in using our freshwater more carefully. Educating households and businesses on the importance of looking after this precious commodity. Reducing pollution in our rivers. Building homes that catch rainwater and use that to flush our toilets. Modernising our sewage systems. Inevitably, all of this will require a helping hand from Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. The price of water will have to rise significantly to persuade people to take the issue seriously and to reward the innovators.

What will happen in the poorest parts of the world then? It was probably no coincidence that the Arab Spring of 2010-12 occurred during a period of rapid increases in the price of flour and bread. People like to grumble when luxury items become more expensive. People riot when basic, essential items becomes unaffordable. I hope it doesn’t come to that. It’s one prediction I’ll gladly get wrong.

This post originally appeared on A Lover of Books website during my blog tour.