Skip to content

Illustration by Michael Waraksa

Resilience Trends

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” poet W.H. Auden famously said. In many countries, enjoying a safe and secure water supply is something most take for granted. The United States, for example, has had an “unrivalled tradition” of low-cost, universal access to drinking water, says Robert Glennon, a water policy expert at the University of Arizona and author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It. In actuality, a safe and secure water supply is never a given, and there are signs that the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan (covered in Security Management’s May issue), may be a canary in the coal mine for the future of America’s water. The U.S. water and wastewater system is in urgent need of repair and replacement; some of the piping dates back to the Civil War era, experts say. But federal and state funding appropriations have been insufficient for keeping water supply infrastructure in good repair.

“For years, there’s been a general inadequacy in funding,” Glennon says.  As recent proof, Glennon cites the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. “A small fraction of that, less than 1 percent, was devoted to water and wastewater,” he explains.

The American Water Works Association has estimated that repairing the million-plus miles of water mains across the country, and expanding that infrastructure so that it can adequately serve the country’s growing population, could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 25 years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a lower estimate: roughly $330 billion over 20 years.

Both of these estimates dwarf the existing $1.38 billion that state and local governments are spending annually on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, according to statistics from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). (Using a comparable 20-year time frame, the ASCE estimate comes to roughly $28 billion, or only about 8 percent of the EPA’s estimate of needed funding.) 

 Besides inadequate funding for repair, demand is growing, not only from an increasing population but from high-tech industries. Large corporations with cloud computing operations occupy enormous industrial facilities that are air conditioned. “This requires a heck of a lot of water,” Glennon says. 

In addition, environmental factors pose challenges to a secure U.S. water supply. In states like Florida, rising sea levels are pushing into coastal aquifers and causing saltwater intrusion, making the aquifers more saline and problematic for human consumption. 

Worldwide, a possible future water crisis is a problem alarming many, in part because of its potentially disastrous cascading effects on the global economy. A survey released by the 2016 Global Economic Forum found that a water crisis is the top concern for business leaders over the next 10 years. Further in the future, the global water situation continues to look grim, by several measures. By 2030, a stable supply of good quality fresh water can no longer be guaranteed in many regions, and a 40 percent global shortfall in supply is expected, according to the Carbon Disclosure Program’s (CDP) Water Program.

By 2050, an inadequate supply of water could reduce economic growth in some countries by as much as 6 percent of GDP, “sending them into sustained negative growth,” says a recent World Bank report, High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy. Regions facing this risk include India, China, the Middle East, and much of Africa. Water insecurity could also ramp up the risk of conflict and instability—droughts can spur a spike in food prices, which can in turn cause civil unrest and increase migration. While 2050 might seem quite far in the future, water-related challenges are happening right now. The World Bank report also found that 1.6 billion people currently live in nations that are subject to water scarcity, and that number could double over the next two decades.

Moreover, a water crisis can have a devastating effect on the global economy. The CDP’s Water Program estimates that, if current status quo water management policies are sustained worldwide, $63 trillion in assets will be put at risk. Such economic challenges are highlighting the importance of improved water governance, which includes an emphasis on positioning the water supply so that it is more resilient in the face of challenges due to demand, the environment, and other factors, says Hart Brown, who leads the organizational resilience practice at HUB International and is a member of the ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council.

“In light of the case in Flint, as well as droughts, floods, and the potential competition for water resources, improved water governance is being brought to the forefront of many conversations,” Brown says. When resilience enters the conversation, the challenge becomes creating an “adaptive capacity,” or “diversification of the water and sanitation systems.” 

However, there is no one resilience model that can be successfully replicated for all water supply and treatment plants, because each system is a unique combination of human, technological, and environmental factors, Brown explains. In the United States, a wide range of water systems could potentially benefit from resiliency upgrades, he says. Those include conventional utility piped water supply systems; dug wells and tube wells (wells in which a long pipe is bored into an underground aquifer); rainwater harvesting operations; unprotected water sources such as rivers and streams; and cooperative developments in areas that share transboundary water resources.

 Improving the resiliency of any water system takes investment, but just as important, it takes sound science, Brown says. 

“Water managers need access to the best available scientific information and water risk assessments to support these long-term water-related decisions, including the ability to forecast and plan for important capital expenditures,” he explains.  Businesses also have a role to play, especially those that rely on water for production, manufacturing, agriculture, and power generation purposes, he adds. Some businesses are already being strategic in this area; they consider shared responsibility and sustainability of water systems a core function. 

“Partnerships with local communities are important in the ability to overcome shared water risks,” Brown says. 

Globally, improved resiliency and water management practices, if given sufficient investment, have the potential to pay tremendous dividends, the World Bank report argues. It calls for a three-point approach: improving resiliency to extreme weather events by improving storage capacities, reusing facilities, and other tools; optimizing the use of water through better planning and incentives; and expansion of the water supply, where appropriate, through recycling, desalination, and damns.

“While adopting policy reforms and investments will be demanding, the costs of inaction are far higher. The future will be thirsty and uncertain,” the report says.