TOPIC GUIDE: Water scarcity

"Solutions to water scarcity in the UK are technological, not environmental "

PUBLISHED: 27 Jan 2017

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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According to a report published by Water UK [Ref: Water UK] and headlined by the Guardian newspaper as: “Increased drought could see Londoners queueing for water” [Ref: Guardian], the capital potentially faces a “one in five probability of queuing in the street at standpipes for their water for days or weeks during a sweltering summer in the coming 25 years, owing to drought brought about by climate change and a lack of water infrastructure” [Ref: Guardian]. Many European countries were hit by severe drought in 2015 [Ref: Guardian] and worldwide there is concern that: “As fresh water reservoirs dry up across the world, a billion people have no access to safe drinking water. Rationing and a battle to control supplies will follow” [Ref: Guardian]. In the UK there are many suggestions about how to ensure the water supply meets our needs, including the redirection of river water to areas of high need such as London and the south east [Ref: Telegraph], the building of new reservoirs [Ref: Guardian], and desalination [Ref: BBC News]. But those critical of the idea that we should rely on technical solutions to environmental problems, including water shortages, note that this amounts to “an alibi for excess” [Ref: Guardian]. They note that such solutions are “misguided, and a retrograde step in UK environmental policy”, and suggest instead that people should be encouraged, “to use less water, not more.” [Ref: Wikipedia] However, opponents of the “hair-shirted, back-to-the-land, anti-industrial and de-growth prescriptions” [Ref: Guardian], argue that we need more radical thinking and new technological innovations to solve problems – not limits and restrictions. So, who is right? Should we embrace the promise of technological innovation to solve issues such as our water needs? Or should we accept that that behaviour change informed by not taking water for granted, is what’s required to ultimately tackle these issues?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Are we really running out of water?
“Water enables civilization. It is the magic stuff of life” argues one writer in a historical overview of its importance to us all [Ref: Atlantic]. Our planet is approximately 71% water and 29% land; 96.5% of that water is ocean salt water, and just 3.5% is the freshwater (much of that held within glaciers and icefields) which humanity relies on for life, including hydration, agriculture and farming, industrial and energy production [Ref:]. In seeming contradiction to the current debates about water shortages, it’s important to understand, argues a respected leader in water science and conservation, water isn’t in fact a diminishing resource, and that: “Today there is just as much water on the planet as there was when the first signs of life appeared” [Ref: National Geographic]. Brian Richter continues that we currently only use about 10% of rainfall for our needs, and that: “Every bit of the water that falls on land or in the ocean or is used for human endeavours, is eventually evaporated back up into the sky as water vapor, replenishing our planet’s never-ending freshwater cycle. No water is actually ‘lost’ in that global cycle” [Ref: National Geographic]. Therefore, the issue is not that there is a new shortage of freshwater through the natural rainfall cycle, but that it isn’t evenly distributed, and the nature of rainfall means it doesn’t necessarily fall where its most needed [Ref: National Geographic]. In the UK, for example, despite record rainfall in the winter of 2015, experts were still warning of water restrictions because “nearly all the rain, from a succession of storms, fell in the north of England where water supplies are largely drawn from rivers and reservoirs, and very little fell in the south where supplies come mainly from underground aquifers” [Ref: Guardian]. With an increasing demand on the quantity of the world’s freshwater some suggest that: “What is required…is integrated water resource management that takes into account who needs what kind of water, as well as where and how to use it most efficiently.” [Ref: Reuters

Can technology resolve an impending water crisis?
Water is a “vital resource that has long been poorly managed or taken for granted in much of the world….The search for solutions to uneven and inadequate water supply has already led to improvements in irrigation, desalination and wastewater recycling, and is spurring development of innovative technologies such as waterless fracking in the energy industry and water-saving devices at home” [Ref: Financial Times]. Advocates of technological solutions to issues such as water shortages argue that: “It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems with technology; we can. We must.” [Ref: MIT Technology Review] In this spirit, to deal with water shortages in the south east of England for example, it has been proposed that it might be possible for, “the River Severn and the River Thames (to) carry up to 65 million gallons of water per day to top up supplies to 14 million households in the region” [Ref: Telegraph]. According to estimates, in England and Wales, we are using between 1.1 billion, and 3.3 billion litres per day of water more than our infrastructure can deliver without being damaged. And even measures such as installing meters, and using less water – thus reducing consumption by an estimated 373m litres per day, would still leave a 727m litre shortfall at best [Ref: Guardian]. Due to this fact, as an Economist editorial argues, we need radical technological innovation to solve our environmental problems: “The climate is changing because of extraordinary inventions like the steam turbine and internal combustion engine. The best way to cope is to keep inventing.” [Ref: Economist] Small scale technology such as leak detection devices [Ref: Guardian], and almost waterless washing machines [Ref: Financial Times], allied with largescale ideas such as geoengineering [Ref: BBC News], and the building of ‘fake mountains’ to increase rainfall to combat drought [Ref: Independent] through cloud seeding [Ref: Wikipedia], are all cited by supporters as technological innovations which could make a real impact in the UK and beyond. Others argue that more broadly, the world’s water crisis, “is also a problem that can be decisively solved without anything remotely resembling the economic restructuring and political acrobatics required to address climate change. Fully effective solutions to the water crisis have already been found. They only need to be implemented.” [Ref: Tower]

Less is more? The environmental case
Opponents such as Professor Clive Hamilton, are sceptical of technological solutions, observing that: “Technofixes – technical solutions to social problems – are appealing when we are unwilling to change ourselves and our social institutions” [Ref: Scientific American], and argues that it is profound behavioural change that is needed. For instance, in the UK: “London is drier than Istanbul, and the South East of England has less available water per person than the Sudan and Syria” [Ref: Waterwise], and as such, some suggest that using less water should be seen as a key component of tackling scarcity [Ref: Daily Mail]. Moreover, they dismiss the technology put forward by advocates, and outline the damage that excessive water use, and our need to acquire water from alternative sources has on the environment. They note that rivers, wetlands and bays become degraded as we extract more from them to deal with the shortage of water, and argue that building reservoirs alters streamflows, destroys the wilderness, and is incredibly expensive [Ref: Waterwise]. Instead, as Thames Water advise: “People can save water with simple measures, such as turning off the tap while cleaning their teeth or taking shorter showers, fixing leaks and only washing full loads of laundry.” [Ref: Daily Mail] Environmentalist George Monbiot also notes that in this debate, technology is often used as a smokescreen for politicians to hide behind, when difficult decisions have to be made governments urge us to: “Consume more, conserve more” but that in reality “we just can’t do both” [Ref: Guardian]. With these arguments in mind, where does the balance lie?  Are critics right that the key to combatting water scarcity is behaviour change, and a commitment to using less? Or should we put our faith in new technologies, and innovation to provide solutions, because: “The end is not nigh, and we do not need to rein in industrial society. If anything, we must accelerate our modernity.” [Ref: Guardian]


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Are we running out of water?

Brian Richter National Geographic 14 March 2012


Clear thinking needed

Economist 28 November 2015

Why eco-austerity won’t save us from climate change

Leigh Phillips Guardian 4 November 2015

World without water: six solutions to a shortage

Pilita Clark Financial Times 8 December 2014

Why we can’t solve big problems

Jason Pontin MIT Technology Review 24 October 2012


Magical thinking about progress won’t save planet earth

Giles Fraser Guardian 17 December 2015

Consume more, conserve more: sorry, but we can’t do both

George Monbiot Guardian 24 November 2015

Geoengineering is not a solution to climate change

Clive Hamilton Scientific American 10 March 2015


Britain’s water crisis

Nick Davies Guardian 8 October 2015

How Israel is solving the global water crisis

David Hazony The Tower October 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Liquidity crisis

Economist 5 November 2016

Thames Water drought plan

Thames Water July 2016

The politics of drinking water

Anya Groner Atlantic 30 December 2014

Eight unbelievable solutions to future water shortages

Peter Moore Guardian 15 December 2014

What percent of Earth is water?

Matt Williams 2 December 2014

The coming global water crisis

Stewart M. Patrick Atlantic 9 May 2012

Does cloud seeding work?

Andrew Moseman Scientific American 19 February 2009

The water shortage myth

David Zetland Forbes 15 July 2008

Why save water?



Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Humanity’s big challenge: water wars

Battle of Ideas 23 October 2016

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