The future of water: plenty or peril?

What will the future of water management look like?

A recent report titled Water Management 2040 – Future Scenarios brings together an influential panel of water experts around the world to discuss the possible futures that lie ahead of us in terms of clean water. It maps out different scenarios for the global water supply over the next two decades.

Commissioned by Kemira, a leading provider of chemistry for water treatment, the report examines how global trends could impact the future of water and what challenges and opportunities we might face.

According to the World Bank, population growth, increased water usage, pollution and more extreme weather makes water one of the greatest risks to economic progress, poverty eradication and sustainable development.

For years, activists and stakeholders from across the public and private sectors have sought to increase equitable access to safe water, protect reservoirs and natural waterways from contaminants, and increase the resilience of water-related infrastructure. Most recently, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have set a new target: clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. But there are significant challenges, not to mention emerging issues – some of which may be completely unforeseen.

Kemira’s goal is to shed light on issues that impact water quality and availability and to bring key actors in the sector together. The “what if” scenarios are hoped to inspire discussions, cooperation and problem-solving. The four scenarios posited by the Water Management 2040 report offer possible alternate futures based on present realities.

The report is based on a systematic inductive scenario development method and input from 17 water experts from around the world, including representatives from industry, academia and finance. In addition to considering current water industry and infrastructure trends, the experts analysed megatrends in politics, economics, climate and the environment, consumer behaviour, and technological development.

Scenario 1: nationalism leads to water conflicts

In the first scenario, experts envision a post-pandemic world where nationalism and protectionism prevail. We fail to learn from COVID-19. Countries turn inwards. Cooperation on global issues backslides. We neglect to combat climate change.

Population growth continues and economies rebound, driving overconsumption. As a result, there is significant strain on resources and natural ecosystems. Extreme weather conditions are increasingly common because of climate change, driving migration from water-stressed regions. Industry, energy companies, the agricultural sector and consumers wrestle for control over water, leading to more water trade marred by conflict.

Scenario 2: cities and corporations take the lead

The second scenario is based on a loss of public confidence in centralised governments, leading to a future in which city-level leaders and the private sector play more prominent roles.

Megacities and large corporations respond to public cries for a more sustainable society. Together, they form a powerful force, setting ambitious sustainability targets and collaborating on decarbonisation.

In this scenario, companies move from linear to circular business models. Water reuse becomes common practice. There could be swift advances in renewable energy and energy storage technologies.

The private sector pursues ownership of urban water and energy infrastructure and controls it through technology, data and service deals.

Scenario 3: digitalisation drives equitable access

In the third scenario mapped out by Water Management 2040, experts imagine a future in which digitalisation drives global development. Open-source software, online platforms, internet access and free data are widely available, challenging the traditional global order. Political systems are overshadowed by online platforms, where citizens directly engage in decision-making. Digitalisation stimulates free markets and new growth, especially in emerging economies.

Financial growth and better economic conditions encourage increased investment in water infrastructure, which improves water availability and affordability worldwide. However, as living standards increase, overconsumption becomes a key challenge for the environment.

In this scenario, too, renewable energy matures quickly, and electricity prices drop, allowing energy-intensive water solutions such as desalination to develop and scale. Local water companies and utilities develop and deliver creative solutions for urban and rural areas thanks to fresh investment and external expertise.

Scenario 4: circularity and regulated water

The fourth and final scenario is based on the idea of a renaissance for international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. There could be restored faith in multilateral agreements and development schemes. There might also be more strictly enforced emissions targets, which would successfully slow down global warming.

This scenario is depicting a post-pandemic world in which economic growth is no longer the only measure of success. People recognise the interconnected nature of society and the importance of protecting public health.

With sustainability and health high on the global agenda, experts believe there would be strong public pressure to improve water quality. Ageing water treatment utilities in Europe and North America would receive investments, boosting public confidence in centrally managed water systems.

Not a foregone conclusion

None of these visions are foregone conclusions and no single scenario is more likely to come true than another. Rather, they are a way of exploring the possible outcomes of developments that are already recognisable today.

Evocative of the butterfly effect, Kemira’s Water Management 2040 report suggests the future holds many alternate realities, each dependent on a confluence of factors already in motion.

To discover more about each of the above scenarios, download the Water Management 2040 – Future Scenarios report here.

by Marikka Nevamäki, Director, Customer Communications, Kemira.

Image provided by Kemira