☔️ Water series: Future extreme dynamics of water use

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“Headwater” project poster for FoodCultureDays, initiated by The Soft Protest Digest.

The source of all our food which is also involved in most of the cooking techniques we use every day is, in fact, this basic molecule essential to life: water (H2O). It is also one of the major environmental concerns, when disputed as a ressource for humans or as a milieu for wild species. How water is the honorable “background” of every form of life on Earth, and how our relationship with it might change while facing global warming, are some of the questions that led us to this “☔️ Water series”, divided in 4 chapters:

  1. ☔️ Water series: The primordial soup of life: oceans water
  2. ☔️ Water series: Interactions of flora with water and climate
  3. ☔️ Water series: How mankind uses water? From food to energy
  4. ☔️ Water series: Future extreme dynamics of water use

Water stress

World water stress: freshwater withdrawals as a share of internal resources (Our World in Data).

What we call “water stress” is measured by considering the amount of water used by a given country as a share of the actual renewable water resources that are available in this country (called “internal” water). When this share reaches around 10% of the total resource, the water stress is low; but above 40% it is described as high to extremely high at 80%. As water stress rises, less water is available for wild ecosystems and risks of groundwater depletion increases. If water use exceed 100% of the resource, this means that this country is either extracting beyond the rate at which aquifers can be replenished, or has very high levels of desalinisation[1] water generation (conversion of sea water to freshwater with energy). Several countries across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia already have an extremely high water stress level. Among them, most of the Middle Eastern countries extract more than 100% of their internal water, the world highest being Egypt with 4100% extracted in 2014, while the Netherlands lies on top of the Western rank with 97.45%. Still, a few countries were able to decrease their overall water stress since the 80’s. Unfortunately, water stress does not include what we described earlier as “virtual water”, which can be “imported” in the form of food from foreign countries.[2]

Water markets

Murray Darling Basin with its two rivers, in Australia (Wikimedia).
Aerial view of Darling river in Australia (Wikimedia).
Almond orchards in blossom (Snappygoat).

Water markets and massive agricultural switches

So, what are the solutions experimented to answer water stress? Water market is the answer of most liberal nations, and to that end, Australia is an interesting case study. Although its water stress is considered low (3.14%), a vast part of aquifers in Australia are slightly saline water, thus unusable for most human activities. The South of the country, were climate is the driest, experiences regular droughts despite the presence of the Murray-Darling Basin. That is why Australia opened the way to localised water markets since 1983, when South Australia introduced a permanent water trading scheme.[3] In a way, Australian farmers already experience the “future world” where anyone can go bankrupt because of water cost. Water markets typically allow them to purchase water from a phone app before to pump it from the stream next door. Its price fluctuates on the water trading market and the State distributes water rights. That is done in the scope of the Water Act 2007, that provides the legislative framework to manage the vast basin, supposedly following the “national interest”. Indeed, the market is presented by its stakeholders as a way to promote water savings and respect towards the resource by giving it a capital value. As a result, some agricultural activities like almond orchards become more profitable, considering the water input,[4] than others like animal husbandry. One could state that it is just a way to accelerate the adaptation to climate change with the means of capitalism. Thus, the dairy and beef industry, also number one resources user, should naturally be pushed out of the game — to the benefit of almond producers.[5]

Buying water rights to maintain ecosystems

For cattle farmers, this is not a transition, just a violent crash happening while almond orchards invades Australia (7th global producer in 2017 (FAOSTAT)) following the path of the Central Valley in California (1st global producer). Here too, the Nasdaq, California’s stock market, opened up to a water market that relies on an algorithm developed to predict water price. Its designer is Clay Landry, who participated to the launch of carbon trading markets a few years before. He is convinced that this type of mechanisms would have a positive effect on water stress worldwide, and he is supported by environmentalists and NGOs. They are interested to buy water rights as a way to “save” water for ecosystems, so that this resource stays away from humans activities. This kind of transactions is said to represent a quarter of the market’s exchanges in California. This seems like a hopeless action, but environmentalists also managed to pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, that regulates groundwater use, which was not part of water trading. Thus, some localised markets are created to allow neighbours farmers to trade the groundwater that the law allocated to them. Of course, non-farmers with water rights from their lands (called “riparian” water rights) are gradually joining those market to speculate.[5] Even though the market increases competition between different farming activities, they might as well end up in the same side in the long run, when cities would eventually have to buy more water in time of droughts. Megalopoles’ purchasing power will certainly be higher that of the agriculture sector, and same goes for the industrial sector.[5]

Tap water and bottled water

Privatising municipal tap water

Freshwater reservoir for Eau de Paris, France (Wikimedia).

On the municipality level, when the public sector fails to answer the public demand for water, governments often take the slippery slope of water privatisation. 30 years ago the British water sector was privatised to Margaret Tatcher’s initiative. Massive water cuts followed, when people were not able to pay their bill. The situation was so catastrophic in the United Kingdom, that 10 years later this sort of cuts were forbidden by the law. Despite the regulation, London water company Thames Water was acquired by an Australian fund in 2006 and kept being criticised for its leakage issues and poor maintenance, year after year, while being notorious for “making” millionaires. After numerous trials, a fine of 20.3M £ was imposed to the company in 2017[6] for the leakage of 1.4B litre of untreated sewage in nature.[5] On the opposite side, Paris municipality in France managed to drive out the 2 French companies that were in charge of the city’s water network, namely Veolia and Suez. The municipality created a public company named “Eau de Paris”. This success allowed the city to escape from the urge of short term profit inherent to the private sector. According to Anne le Strat, former director of the public water management company, citizens’ activism to claim urban water management is on the rise and not giving up.[5]

Keeping private interests away from the tap-water network while increasing its quality worldwide is more urgent than ever, considering that 2.1B humans have no access to safe tap-water while 4B have been confronted to tap-water scarcity in 2019 (UNESCO). The most scandalous aspect of this is that rural poor populations confronted to water shortage have to rely on bottled water. Bottled water is 10 to 20 times more expensive than tap-water. Thus, they allocate even more money than rich citizens for water, while financing the unsustainable market of bottled water.[7]

Selling plastic bottles

Multinational companies owns most bottled water brands (The Soft Protest Digest).
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

4 companies are sharing this growing market: Swiss Nestlé, French Danone, and US Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Not only are plastic bottles and their transport a waste of energy and resource, but the water extraction management of these companies sometimes happen to be detrimental to local communities. Nestlé has often been targeted by citizens groups across North America for its bottling activities in Canada and the US, until the company announced that it would leave this market early in 2021.[7] Nevertheless, activist Franklin Frederick argues that this strategy is the same Nestlé used in Brazil to protect its reputation in Switzerland. Indeed, Nestlé must ensure the support of the Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation (SDC) when it comes to business in Southern countries. F. Frederick criticises the collusion between the public and private sector in his home country: 23% of the SDC public aids, financed by Swiss citizens, are given to projects directed by multinationals like Nestlé. For instance, 5.6M of Swiss Francs will be allocated to the Water Stewardship 2030 project. The project involves associations with friendly names like “Water Resources Group 2030”, gathering 3 of the bottled water giants, including Nestlé. As long as the brand’s activities in foreign countries doesn’t stains the prestige of Swiss institutions, the multinational stands its ground. Since 15 years, Brazilian citizens movements were fighting against Nestlé’s water bottling plants. In 2018, the company was displayed in the Swiss Pavillon of the World Water Forum in Brasilia, alongside Swiss NGOs and the SDC. 20 Brazilian NGOs, trade-unions and social movements sent a public letter about this public-private collusion to the Ambassador Manuel Sager, director of the SDC, asking for public-public partnership that would help countries to develop their own public water companies — as in Switzerland. As soon as the SDC was publicly involved, Nestlé announced the selling of its plants to a Brazilian company that keeps bottling water… Today, the “incestuous” relationship between Nestlé and the SDC is becoming a scandal in Switzerland, and the coalition between Canadian and Swiss NGOs might have motivate Nestlé’s sell of its bottled water brands in North America.[8]

As most multinationals, Nestlé is jumping on the train of “climate-friendly ingredients”, “replanting trees”, “alternative packaging material”, “100% renewable electricity” and “reach a net-zero future”.[9] Nothing forces companies to honour their promises, but for now Nestlé is committing for 100% recyclable and reusable packaging by 2025, which is a good news considering the brand uses more than 1.5M metric tons of plastic every year (which correspond to 1% of the single-use plastic produced worldwide[10]). When it comes to “planting trees”, the European Commission is clear: in the carbon market, “planting trees” cannot be considered as an offset to companies carbon footprint, since environmental threats and illegal logging make it impossible to measure carbon sequestration of forests over time.[11] What must be done is to stop extracting fossil fuels to make plastic bottles, which carbon will add to the natural cycle. Even when it pretends to be recycled, plastic is, in fact, “de-cycled” because this fossil material can’t be fully recycled: its quality diminish with time and new plastic must always be added to the cycle, unlike glass or steel.[3]


  1. Currently, 1% of the world drinking water comes from desalination, which is just a fraction of “blue water”. But this is growing every year. source: https://iwa-network.org/desalination-past-present-future/
  2. Our World in Data, “Water Use Stress” webpage. source: https://ourworldindata.org/water-use-stress
  3. 3.0 3.1 source: Wikipedia pages:
  4. That does not mean that almond trees call on the use of less water than other crops. In fact, their water footprint is higher that of other crops used for plant based milks. source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/28/what-plant-milk-should-i-drink-almond-killing-bees-aoe
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 (FR) Jérôme Fritel, Main Basse sur l’eau (Lords of Water), Arte, 2019. source: https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/082810-000-A/main-basse-sur-l-eau/
  6. source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/22/thames-water-hit-with-record-fine-for-huge-sewage-leaks
  7. 7.0 7.1 source: (FR) «Atlas de l’eau», Courrier International hors-série, septembre-octobre 2020. See «Droit universel, mais accès inégal» p.32.
  8. People Dispatch web article by Franklin Frederick, 2020, and its sources from Public Eye Swiss NGO. source: https://peoplesdispatch.org/2020/06/23/nestle-may-sell-its-bottled-water-brands-in-the-us-and-canada-what-is-behind-this-maneuver/ source: https://www.publiceye.ch/fr/des-subventions-de-la-ddc-pour-les-multinationales
  9. Nestlé’s website sources:
  10. Plastic Oceans NGO website: 300M tons of plastic is produced worldwide, with approx. 50% being single-used (like most packages from Nestlé), and knowing Nestlé produced 1.5M tons every year, this makes 1.5/150M, with equals to 1% of the single-used plastic. source: https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/
  11. “Will it be possible to use credits from carbon ‘sinks’ like forests?”, EU Action, Climate Action, on European Commission website. source: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/ets_en#tab-0-2 Explained in “What are the concrete effects of carbon pricing on climate?”. source: 🛢💸 The real deal about Carbon Pricing