Who gets it? Living in a world of water scarcity

Martin Shouler, Arup

California’s almond exacerbated drought is one example of the developing issue of competition for water.  Arup’s Martin Shouler says professionals can work together to solve the problem.

Almonds provoke fierce debate in California. And no wonder. Soaking up around 10% of the State’s water, in an era of four consecutive years of drought and mandatory usage restrictions, California’s almonds are very much in the eye of a public storm.

"The World Economic Forum (WEF) put the failure of climate-change of adaption, interstate conflict and water crises top of the list of the most significant long-term risks worldwide."

California’s almonds represent not only a $6.5 billion crop for the state but also the latest touchstone for a fundamental argument about who should get access to an increasingly scarce resource.

Yet the almonds are also emblematic of a wider global problem that is becoming increasingly fractious and urgent.

The fact is that more regions around the globe face similar dilemmas. A rise in extreme weather events – floods, storms and droughts – is prompting more debates like the one raging in California today. Farmers need water for their crops and animals. Industry needs water to grow and develop jobs. People need water for drinking and washing.

The result is that in many parts of the world today, people – and especially poorer citizens – are in a real competition with farmers and industry for an increasingly scarce resource. At the same time, others worry about the long-term environmental implications of trying to make the water they have go further.

Recently, the World Economic Forum (WEF) put the failure of climate-change of adaption, interstate conflict and water crises top of the list of the most significant long-term risks worldwide.

This is hardly surprising. Global water use is growing at twice the pace of population growth, which is  leading to increasing gap between the availability and demand of safe, fresh water in developing and fast-growing economies around the world.

Indeed, there could be a 40% gap between fresh water supply and demand by 2030. The results were published as part of a report – Managing Water Use in Scarce Environments – by the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030WRG), an organisation created in 2009 via a collaboration between the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Economic Forum (WEF), multilateral and bilateral agencies (Swiss Development Corporation), private sector companies (Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company), and organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The report analysed more than 40 projects to tackle water scarcity worldwide, with each project becoming a tool for communities around the globe to share ideas and seek financial and political support for tackling similar problems.

This is important work. We know that water crises are quite different across continents, countries and water basins, as such there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Sharing ideas and success stories is critical to easing the growing global challenge.

That’s why Arup is now working again with 2030WRG to update the report and showcase more projects that demonstrate innovative solutions to enhance scarce water supplies.

This is vital as we are likely to see many more stories similar to the California almond dilemma in the future.

Many civic leaders around the world are going to have to grapple with the delicate task of balancing population growth, industrial development, affordability for citizens and the sustainability of long-term supply.

The good news is that working together there is much we can do to take on the challenge in cities, in towns and in the wider environment. Ultimately we need to better manage the most valuable resource all of us rely on for our very existence – water.

By working together, we can make a major impact.  If you know of an initiative that might help shape a better water future, please get in touch with the author at

(Share your water stress story at and visit for more information).

Martin Shouler is the global environmental services engineering skills leader at Arup. He is Immediate past chairman of the UK’s Society of Public Health Engineers.