A Glimpse at a Water-Scarce Future in "Dune"
Will water be scarce in the future? Perhaps. In the latest rendition of the sci-fi saga Dune, released a few weeks ago, it's worth keeping an eye on what the characters are wearing 8,000 years into the future on a desert planet and the story it tells. Pay attention to the functionality of the "stillsuits," which were designed just as Frank Herbert described in his 1965 titular novel, because access to water meant people "had to recycle their body moisture." In other words, still suits were named for their distilling functionality, designed to catch and recycle water lost through sweat, urine, and feces; the suit uses the body's movements to transform the water into a gas that is both breathed in through a tube in the mouth, and circulated through the suit as a coolant.
"...water is not equally distributed across continents. Just a few countries account for half of the world's renewable fresh water: Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Indonesia, and Russia."
Before we start gulping sweat and other fluids, let's think about what we're up against when it comes to water scarcity -- a common factor and consequence of many environmental stressors. For example, it threatens global food production because agriculture is extraordinarily water-intensive. Without enough water to produce food, farmers can't subsist, let alone grow surplus to sell or trade. As we add a few billion more people to the 7.9 billion already on this planet over the next 80 years, Earth's carrying capacity will be pushed to (and perhaps beyond) its limit by the year 2100. This rapid increase to the world's population will require sufficient resources to sustain it, and the most fundamental of all of our natural resources is water.
"While often taken for granted in the highly-developed Western nations not included in the report, water is not as reliable of a resource as we treat it to be."
Even so, water is not equally distributed across continents. Just a few countries account for half of the world's renewable fresh water: Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Indonesia, and Russia. This sets the stage for water wars -- between and within nations -- as dwindling supplies will shift statuses from "water insecure" to experiencing "severe water stress." Attempts to privatize and profit from public water utilities are already exacerbating water disparities. For example, people living in the slums of Nairobi, Jakarta, and Manila are forced to directly or indirectly pay 5-10 times more than their affluent neighbors for the same water. Meanwhile, when we map humanitys water use, it seems to follow the same pattern of distribution of our carbon footprints: a few nations are disproportionately causing the greatest impact and guzzling the most water.
According to the World Bank's Groundswell report released in September, water scarcity and related food scarcity is a chief concern of the near future as people "...will migrate from areas with lower water availability and crop productivity and from areas affected by sea-level rise and storm surges." Although people will leave these areas, drylands are not necessarily wastelands; they can also be carbon sinks that trap carbon and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere.
"We may be able to avoid a 'Dune'-esque future of wearing stillsuits that recycle our bodily waste to survive, but we should expect to be drinking toilet water in the near future."
While often taken for granted in the highly-developed Western nations not included in the report, water is not as reliable of a resource as we treat it to be. The depletion of aquifers (water-storage reservoirs) will intensify as groundwater is utilized faster than it's naturally replaced. This isn't just a concern for the arid regions of the US like the Southwest or the High Plains; it's an issue facing the entire nation, especially coastal cities like Tampa-St. Petersburg (FL), Baton Rouge (LA), and Savannah (GA), where depleted aquifers have resulted in the intrusion of saltwater, which cannot be consumed or used for irrigation.
Another rising challenge is waste disposal, which can pollute water tables, thus depleting reserves of fresh water. On top of this, urbanization has led to the diversion of water away from rural areas that need it for agriculture, to cities in order to sustain their large populations. As the value of water increases, rural farmers in states like California and Colorado participate in a process known as "buy and dry" -- that is, they sell their irrigation rights to allow their water to be diverted to big cities, causing their own land to dry up.
"The premise of 'Dune' is that one individual is 'entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.' But in reality, we all are."
We may be able to avoid a Dune-esque future of wearing stillsuits that recycle our bodily waste to survive, but we should expect to be drinking toilet water in the near future. Orange County, California has been recycling wastewater for over a decade in processes commonly referred to as "toilet to tap." As repulsive as that sounds, their treated sewage is purified so well that it exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards.
While that's quite the engineering feat, I'm not ready to put my full faith in science and technology to ensure water security in our future. You shouldn't either. If scientists could slam a few hydrogen molecules with oxygen in a lab to create fresh water, then why haven't they done it yet? It seems that the closest thing we've got is Enrique Vega's machine that literally pulls water out of thin air by condensing water vapor. While Vega's invention is still being refined and further developed, additional scientific improvements in water filtration and desalination would be great contributions to ensuring water security. Non-scientists have a role to play too.
"Water is necessary for the production of everything we eat, buy, and wear... Water is Life"
The premise of Dune is that one individual is "entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy." But in reality, we all are. Every day we can make big and small choices that save water and protect waterways. Individual water stewardship aside, as a society we should collectively push for more sustainable agricultural, industrial, and energetic practices as alternatives to current operations that use massive amounts of water. The Biden-Harris administration's plan to address the contamination of water by PFAS and other "forever chemicals" is a step in the right direction.
We must remember that although renewable, water is finite. Water is necessary for the production of everything we eat, buy, and wear. It is essential to sustain all types of life both now and in the distant (albeit fictional) future. Water is life.
Our Changing Climate: Our Global Water Crisis, Explained, August 28, 2020.