Our future in a warming, water-stressed, COVID world

We are in a global water crisis. That’s the worrying assessment of water policy and law expert Professor Robert Glennon, who recently presented a public lecture at ANU titled ‘Our Future in a Warming, Water-Stressed, COVID World’.

In his address, Professor Glennon said that currently, 1.1 billion people across the world do not have access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion people do not have adequate sanitation, and 1.8 million people die every year from waterborne disease. With our growing global population and the impacts of climate change increasing, there is, he said, no end to the crisis in sight.

To simplify the complexity of the global water situation, Professor Glennon described it in terms of supply and demand.


First, there is the demand from basic requirements.

  • Energy: it takes 9463 litres of water to produce just 3.8 litres of ethanol.
  • Internet: every time you Google something, a server is generating heat which requires water to cool it
  • Agriculture: as temperatures increase, demand for water to irrigate crops and for livestock to drink is increasing too

Then there is demand from frivolous consumption.

There is no lack of water in the Mojave Desert unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.

Edward Abbey – American author and environmental activist

Which is exactly what we’ve done time and time again. An example of this frivolous consumption of precious water can be found in Cathedral City, California, where the perfectly manicured green lawns and sparkling blue pools directly abut dry empty desert.

In addition to homely comfort and display, we use water to create grandeur and show. One of the more obvious examples of this is in Las Vegas. This city is equipped with what Professor Glennon describes as ‘the best water evaporating machine you could design’: the Bellagio Fountain.


To meet demand, we dam rivers and extract water from lakes. But lake water levels have dropped hundreds of feet, and our dams were designed with the hydrology of a smaller world, without the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, the rate of water dropping only increases as the basin becomes narrower at the base. Simultaneously, the energy produced through the dams decreases as the water becomes shallower. Desalination plants are running, but are expensive, energy-hungry, and brine disposal is an ongoing issue. Ground water has compacted and dropped the surface of the earth, such as in San Joaquin Valley in California, and irreversibly damaged it.

Our future

Our current methods for acquiring and using water in a sustainable way are not working. So Professor Glennon proposed five ways to improve global water systems.


This is where ruling out frivolous consumption comes in. Simple individual choices, such as saving energy by turning off lights, upgrading to efficient energy, harvesting rainwater, and not irrigating gardens, can supplement community level efforts.


Waste water systems need to be redesigned so that waste can be treated and reused, and fresh drinking water isn’t wasted in waste systems. Professor Glennon also described decentralised plants upgradient (near ground water source), so that water can be reused and upgraded across the gradient (as it flows downstream).

Price signals

Most Americans pay less for water than they do for their mobile phone, in fact, the main cost of water isn’t the water, rather, it’s the cost of service. Professor Glennon suggests putting a cost on water which is adjusted seasonally, making it expensive to maintain a rose garden in summer, for example.

Market forces

There should be incentives to move water and share access. Prof. Glennon described this as a big glass with ten straws, and if you want to put your straw in, you must persuade someone to take theirs out. This is also where agriculture comes in. A four per cent reduction in agricultural water use is approximately 50 per cent of the water consumed by local government and industrial uses. He says farmers must be able to reduce their water consumption by just four per cent, especially if the city pays for it.

‘Our Future in a Warming, Water-Stressed, COVID World’ was an impressive summary of the flaws of our current water systems and ways we can better use and conserve water for the future. CEAT would like to thank the Institute for Water Futures and the Fenner School of Environment and Society for hosting such an insightful and topical lecture.

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