Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire, taking a serious as well as entertaining world of possibilities for the world and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book.”


RALEIGH – Imagine that one morning you wake up, you turn on your bathroom faucet, but no water comes out of the tap. You go down to the kitchen faucet and there is no water there either. Your house has no running water. You pull up a local news site on your phone and discover that the city’s water system has failed. There is no water coming through the pipes for anyone in your city.

Next to oxygen, the most important thing for a typical human being is water. Depending on the temperature and the level of exertion, a human being can only last a day or two without water. Lack of water causes dehydration, then delirium, then death.

We tend to take water for granted because it is usually so easy to obtain. In any developed country, water flows from our faucets nearly for free. It might only cost a penny or two per gallon. Public buildings contain free water fountains and public restrooms. A glass of water is free at most restaurants. Many areas are dotted with lakes, ponds, rivers and streams filled with water that comes from rain that falls for free from the sky. Even in a power failure, the water still works.

Photo courtesy of Marshall Brain

A place like Las Vegas, which is located in a desert (Death Valley is only an hour’s drive away), maximizes the illusion of plentiful water. It is easy to find green grass, lush golf courses, swimming pools and enormous fountains throughout the city.

Therefore, we tend to forget how essential water is; how we are a day away from death without access to water.

The day the water runs dry …

Just for a moment, imagine that the water system in your city suddenly runs out of water one day. What would you do? You might go to the store to buy water in bottles or jugs, but everyone else will do that too and the stores will be dry. Now what? In the Western United States, where rain may not fall for months at a time, you might be left with few options. You have any beverages and ice in your refrigerator, and then the water in your toilet tank, assuming you have had the presence of mind to avoid flushing.

This, by the way, is the reason why it is prudent to have several gallons of drinking water per person squirreled away somewhere in your house. It gives you a couple of days to avoid death in an emergency water situation.

Then what? Your best option might be to drive, perhaps for hundreds of miles, until you find a place that has water. A city with no water might still have gasoline. The only potential problem with this plan is that there may be millions of other people with the same idea, jamming the roads with traffic.

Westward woes

It seems crazy to be thinking about this kind of scenario, but certain cities in the western United States may find themselves here fairly soon if current trends continue. Just look at recent headlines:

  • Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which supply Las Vegas and other Southwestern cities with drinking water, are draining fast. There has been a persistent drought and climate change is exacerbating the situation because of higher temperatures. Tens of millions of people depend on these water sources. They also depend on two gigawatts of electricity from the Hoover Dam, and lake levels may soon be so low that power generation is no longer possible.
  • Many areas depend on underground aquifers for their water. Cities and farmers pump water from these aquifers for household use and agriculture. Kansas is one state that does this, using its underground Ogallala aquifer. Unfortunately, this aquifer’s level is falling fast because people are pumping too much water. There will come a day when the water is gone, affecting both households and food production. Parts of California are also dependent on aquifers, and an associated problem is ground subsidence. As water drains out of an aquifer, the ground settles irreversibly into the space that the water once filled.
  • There is a long-standing drought across the west. Climate change is an important factor because of rising temperatures and other weather effects. Snowfall is down significantly this year in parts of the western United States.

Another factor in here is population growth. In 1920, the population of Nevada – the whole state – was 78,000 people. One hundred years later, there are more than three million people in Nevada. California has gone from 3.5 million people in 1920 to 39 million today. Huge (and growing) populations of people plus low lake levels plus low aquifers plus low snowpack plus persistent drought conditions are all pointing toward the same uncomfortable fact: parts of the western United States may soon run out of water.

A global threat

The United States is not alone of course. Many other parts of the world are seeing water problems due to similar factors. One of the more interesting situations is happening in the Persian Gulf region. Pull up Google Maps and look at the Persian Gulf. Several of the adjacent countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia and UAE) have built huge desalination plants to create fresh water from the salt water in the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, these plants create concentrated brine which dumps back into the Persian Gulf. Soon there may be so much salt in the Persian Gulf that desalination is no longer economical. There are probably technological solutions to a problem like this, but what about countries or states that are landlocked and cannot desalinate?

Big parts of Africa are experiencing drought. Hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia and millions in other African countries will be dying soon because of hunger. Without water, farming is impossible.

We have oil pipelines and fuel pipelines lacing the United States. What about water pipelines? The problem is that people tend to use a lot more water than gasoline, and traditional agriculture needs massive amounts of water. A typical car might burn a gallon of gasoline a day. A typical human being in the United States uses 150 gallons per day or more. And a big farm field uses millions of gallons. It is said that the almond crop in California – just that single crop – needs more water than the city of Los Angeles per year. Why? Because it can take a gallon of water to make one almond. Where is this water going to come from once the lakes and aquifers run dry?

So we can see two problems:

1) without water people can die quickly due to thirst, and

2) without water there can be no crops, so people starve over a longer timeframe.

What to do?

What is the human species going to do about the water crisis that is coming to many parts of the world?

Let’s look at just the western United States. If humanity could behave in a rational way, we would be able to step back, assess the situation, and improve it. It is probably the case that tens of millions of people need to move out of the Southwest and we need to curtail agriculture there. We take these steps to move water demand back down to sustainable levels.

But how? As a thought experiment, imagine that we price water at a dollar per gallon throughout the region regardless of the source. At this price, people might switch from flush toilets to composting toilets and from showers to sponge baths. Or they might leave. Cities might start recycling wastewater. Farming practices would change dramatically or disappear if water were this expensive. In any case, water demand would fall because of the economic pressure. There are also lessons to learn from places like Israel, where they have taken significant steps to solve their water problems.

A video like this one – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQu6T3NtX3M – shows several ideas they use.

In the past, humanity has been able to kick the can down the road. We have done this for decades on things like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plastics in the oceans, overfishing, and rainforest destruction. We have done the same thing with water, where we postpone the big decisions that rationality demands in order to avoid a crisis. Unless we stop kicking the can and take concrete action, the crisis will be here soon enough.


More from Marshall Brain

Slap yourself and pay attention: The Doomsday Glacier is a global risk

Doomsday, shrinking rain forests and us – why we must turn the tide