Explained | World's Water Crisis


Turn on a faucet and clean water rushes out, as much as we want, anytime we want. It's easy to forget that the quest for this has been one of the defining struggles of human history. Civilizations that harnessed water, thrived. The ones that failed, fell.

Today, seven in ten people on Earth can count on having running water in their homes.

[In the news] Cape Town. It could become the first major city in the world to run out of water. Cape Town, South Africa, is inching closer now to Day Zero. Just 92 days away from having to shut off most water taps because of a severe drought.

Cape Town is the first major city in the world to plan to indefinitely shut off its water supply. Four million people would stop getting running water. They'd get water rations, and they'd need to line up at city water stations to get it.

And it's not just Cape Town. São Paulo, Melbourne, Jakarta, London, Beijing, Istanbul, Tokyo, Bangalore, Barcelona and Mexico City will all face their own Day Zero in the next few decades, unless their water use radically changes.

[Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General, United Nations] There are perceptions that it is there in bountiful amounts and everyone has access to it because you can turn a tap, and that's a big problem.

In fact, by 2040 most of the world won't have enough water to meet demand year-round.


[Betsy Otto, Water Resources Analyst] We're facing a global water crisis and it's getting worse. We're at a real inflection point where, if we're not careful, we may actually get out ahead of our ability to manage it.

There's no substitute for water. Each of us will die in just a few days without it. How have we built a world where we don't have enough of its most valuable resource? And as this crisis grows, what will the new world look like?

[In the news] Waterways, built by the people to free the land of the tyranny of nature. For some investors, what they see in this glass is liquid gold. Clean water. Now.

Earth is the blue planet. There's no shortage of water. We have 326 million trillion gallons of it. Always have, always will. Water may freeze into ice or evaporate into air, but it doesn't leave our planet.

If you sucked up all the water on Earth, it would fit into this sphere. But 97% of it is salty and 2% is trapped in ice at the poles, so all of humankind relies on just 1% of that water to survive.

[Betsy Otto] When people talk about running out of water, what they really mean is, do they have access to that very small percentage?

And the answer depends a lot on where you live. Kuwait is one of the poorest countries in terms of water per capita, and Canada, one of the richest, doesn't have twice as much or even ten times as much. It has 10,000 times as much. 

But it also matters where the water is. That 1% of Earth's water that we all rely on, most of it is underground and really difficult and expensive to get to, so humans have mostly settled close to surface water, like rivers and lakes. Around 90% of the world's population lives less than ten kilometers from a freshwater source. 

Hundreds of years ago, when the Aztecs settled on what is now Mexico City, they saw a giant lake. These are the last remnants of the canals they made. 

When the Spanish came in the 16th century, one soldier marveled at the Aztec city rising from the water that seemed like an enchanted vision. But then the Spanish started draining the lake, and over the next few centuries that space was filled by people.


Like in most places, surface water in Mexico was treated as a public resource, key to development. And since 1950, Mexico City's population has exploded. It's now home to 22 million people.

[Arnoldo Matus Kramer, Chief Resilience Officer,  Mexico City] I would say some of the most important threats for Mexico City are related to water.

Mexico City gets more rain than notoriously rainy London. But the lakes that would have collected that water are long gone, so the city floods. But they still need to pipe in most of their water from other parts of Mexico. Or they pump it from underground. We've gotten a lot better at accessing groundwater. But there's a catch. Those water deposits, called aquifers, have accumulated over millennia and they'll take millennia to fill back up.

[Betsy Otto] Groundwater is sort of like the savings account, which it's fine to draw on sometimes, especially when you have a drought.

That's not what Mexico City's been doing.

[Arnoldo Matus Kramer] We take out from the local aquifer around 50% of our water supply. That means that probably we'll lose half of our supply of water in the next 30-50 years.

Sucking up that groundwater has another side effect. It compresses the soil. Mexico City is literally sinking. In some places, as much as nine inches a year. 

NASA satellite data shows aquifers in northern India decreasing by 29 trillion gallons in just a decade. There are simply more people on Earth consuming more water. This century, water consumption has increased sevenfold. And the rain and snow that we count on to water crops and refill lakes and rivers is getting less reliable.


[Betsy Otto] Climate change is making available water much more erratic. We're seeing areas around the world that are experiencing much more extended dry periods.

But the problem isn't just that there's more people on Earth using water, it's how we're using water. Humans need to drink almost a gallon of water per day. Brushing your teeth, washing your hands typically uses about a gallon. Ups, there goes three gallons (for toilet flushing). But the drinking, washing and toilet flushing of every person on Earth only accounts for 8% of our freshwater use each year. Most of the water goes to agriculture and industry, and into the food and products we use.

[Betsy Otto] Let's take a bottle of Coca-Cola. 98% of the water in that bottle is not what you see in that bottle. 98% of the water is actually embedded in all the ingredients that were grown to make that bottle of Coca-Cola.

Seventy four liters of water goes into every glass of beer. A cup of coffee? 130 liters. Each of your cotton shirts - 2,500 liters. 

But nothing has as much embedded water as meat. Alfalfa is a common ingredient in cattle feed, and growing a kilogram of it takes 510 liters of water. An average cow consumes about 12 kilograms of feed a day. Divided up, just one quarter-pound hamburger takes around 1,650 liters of water to produce.

The world is eating more and more like Americans. Higher calorie diets with more meat. But everyone can't eat like Americans. There actually isn't enough water in the world.

Water doesn't abide by some of the basic rules of capitalism. Farmers hardly pay anything for it. So the true cost of water doesn't end up in the cost of the burger. Which is why those fast food places can offer you bargain burgers.

In most places in the world, water is treated and priced like there will always be enough of it. So we end up using it in absurdly wasteful ways. Arid Southern California uses over two trillion gallons of water a year to grow alfalfa, which they get from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away. The amount they pay for it doesn't even cover the cost of delivery.

Just a fraction of the water used by South Africa's wine industry would be enough for Cape Town's taps. India and China both grow their most water-intensive crops in some of their driest regions. But as water gets more scarce, that may change.


The bank Goldman Sachs predicted that water would be the petroleum of the 21st century. And private interests, like hedge funds, have started buying up water, prompting fears that they'll take advantage of scarcity to turn a profit. And if that sounds like a villain's plot in a James Bond movie, that's because it was.

[Movie scene] As of this moment, my organization owns more than 60% of Bolivia's water supply. This contract states that your new government will use us as utilities provider.

[narrator] But putting a higher price on water might have benefits.

[Betsy Otto] The benefit of valuing water as we should and sending, you know, a price signal, is that we wouldn't be growing alfalfa in the desert.

Remember that point. It'll be important later.

[Betsy Otto] We wouldn't be growing crops that don't make sense in really arid places. Because the economics of it wouldn't make sense.

And 95% of the irrigated farmland in the world probably wouldn't use the most inefficient irrigation method, just flooding the fields. And if water had a higher price, governments might decide it's worth the money to repair our water infrastructure.

[Arnoldo Matus Kramer] We are not investing the financial resources needed to make a good maintenance of the system. One critical result of this is that we have 42% of leakages in the water network.

Mexico City, which is facing an existential water crisis, loses close to half of its drinking water to leaky pipes. We value water so little, we dump two million tons of sewage and agricultural and industrial waste into it every day.

[Betsy Otto] There's no sense of value to what is really an incredibly invaluable resource in water. But then when we run out, we find what the cost of water truly is.

In 2017, the city of Mexicali finalized a deal with Constellation Brands, the maker of Modelo and Corona beers, to construct a brewery. It would be the biggest investment the region had seen in years, creating 750 permanent jobs. And, in exchange, the brewery was guaranteed a lot of water.

But Mexicali doesn't have a lot of water to spare. Its main water source is the Colorado River, which starts in Colorado, in the U.S. Fed by melting snow in the Rocky Mountains, warmer temperatures in recent years have meant less snow, which means less river. You can tell how much less by that big bathtub ring.

The river flows south, quenching a few American cities along the way, like Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Oh, and almost six million acres of farmland. By the time the Colorado River reaches Mexicali, it looks like this, no water anymore.

[Man] It's been a long time since we've had enough water. If the brewery settles in and starts producing, in a few years, we'll run out of underground water.

[Woman] The farmers are the ones who get the worst of it.

[Leon Fierro Resendiz, Water Activist] They need 20 million cubic meters per year. If we compare that to, say, cities such as Ensenada, which need nine million cubic meters, it's more than double. More than double of a city.

The more scarce water gets, more access to it becomes a competition, with winners and losers, often with governments picking. In July 2018, the federal government of Mexico issued a decree making it easier for businesses like Constellation Brands to extract surface water all around the country.

[Leon Fierro Resendiz] We see this as a stick-up. It's also a warning not only for the Mexican people but the entire world. We know that many other parts of the world are fighting against these privatization projects that line the companies' pockets.

In January 2018, protesters tried to physically block the construction of the brewery's aqueduct.

[Man] The entire group of policemen came through that road in the front. They came here with their protective shields, in a single file. She's the lady that shows up in the video holding a pipe.

[Woman] But we have to defend our water. Because it's a vital liquid. It's the most important thing we have right now.

Water scarcity is increasingly driving violent conflict around the world.

[Amina Mohammed] My personal experiences of where this has been dire have been in northeast Nigeria. As we saw over the years of the drying up of Lake Chad so did livelihoods dry up. And that tension really did erupt in a way in which governments could no longer contain it.

Water scarcity is at the heart of the ongoing conflict in Darfur which, since 2003, has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. And some analysts say the Syrian civil war was caused in large part by a severe drought in 2006.

As tensions rise over freshwater, governments are increasingly eyeing an idea that was once far-fetched. Creating more of it.

Desalination of ocean water has more than doubled over the last decade but the amount we make a year still adds up to less than 1% of the water we use.

[Betsy Otto] We've been waiting for the holy grail of breakthrough in how expensive it is to desalinate water, that is to take ocean or brackish water that has a lot of salts in it, from underground, and treat it to drinking-water standards. That takes a lot of money and it takes a huge amount of energy right now.

That would make more sense if water was more valuable. But that would also mean the water in everything would cost more. The price of consumer goods would skyrocket. Some industries might collapse. Companies like Constellation Brands might make different decisions about where they set up their operations. Because remember...

[Betsy Otto] The benefit of valuing water as we should and sending, you know, a price signal, is that we wouldn't be growing alfalfa in the desert.

Growing cattle feed in the desert. That's what the Mena family does. And if water suddenly became the next petroleum, they'd be out of a living, too. The thing is, water isn't like petroleum. Or any other commodity on Earth, for that matter. Because without water, we die.

In 2010, the UN recognized access to water and sanitation as a human right. And that's the challenge of our water crisis. How are you supposed to value an invaluable resource while ensuring everybody has it? When the price of water is raised, to fix pipes or encourage conservation, it has the greatest impact on the poor.

[In the news] Sydney Water is pushing for a 15% hike over four years, putting more pressure on family budgets.

[Woman] This drive for water conservation, water saving, is now a burden that poor people must carry. Living on a fixed income, I cannot afford any of this.

It might be that we don't end up treating all water equally.

[Arnoldo Matus Kramer] We know that there is a certain percentage of water, it's around 60 liters per day per person, that is associated with human rights issues, but above that, people should pay for water. In 2017, Philadelphia started experimenting with tying water prices to income.

[Betsy Otto] We need to price it in such a way that we protect basic human needs.

The fact that we all need water makes this crisis exceptionally hard. But it can also inspire people to act in exceptional ways to solve it. Cape Town's Day Zero was first scheduled for March 18. Then people started conserving.

[In the news] The water restrictions are clearly having some effect. Day Zero has been pushed back by a month. Cape Town announced it pushed back Day Zero until July 9th. Authorities expect Day Zero, as it's been dubbed, to take place at the end of August instead of July. Now, that's since been pushed back to next year, thanks to extraordinary efforts of residents and authorities.

By early 2018, the city's water consumption was less than half what it had been just four years earlier, and the Day Zero countdown clock was paused indefinitely.

[Betsy Otto] Not enough action was taken until they started talking about Day Zero. That really got people's attention. And it was remarkable, between the time that the city started to talk about Day Zero and, a month later, how much people cut back their water use. And it goes to show what we can do.

But Cape Town also got lucky. It rained. The trick is recognizing how valuable water is before there isn't enough of it, and remembering that our fates are tied to what rushes out of our taps.

[Arnoldo Matus Kramer] Mexico City was founded within a lake. But today our relation with water is very distant. It's very important to recover our historical consciousness with water. There are many actions individuals can take in order to save water, but also to be aware that water has a value.

Transcript provided by Netflix.

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