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Rapid water technology innovation predicted to ease supply shortage

A US university is predicting rapid innovation of new water technologies in coming decades to overcome increased demand for water. The prediction comes as a study by Duke University suggests population growth will mean global demand for water could outpace supply by mid-century if current levels of consumption continue.

A new phase of change is likely in the global water supply system by the mid-21st centuryA new phase of change is likely in the global water supply system by the mid-21st century

However, the university claims this would not be the first time that this has happened. Researchers have identified a regularly recurring pattern of global water use in recent centuries by using a delayed-feedback mathematical model that analyses historic data to help project future trends.

Periods of increased demand for water, often coinciding with population growth or other major demographic and social changes, were followed by periods of rapid innovation of new water technologies that helped end or ease any shortages.

Anthony Parolari, postdoctoral research associate in civil and environmental engineering at Duke, who led the new study, said: “Researchers in other fields have previously used this model to predict earthquakes and other complex processes, including events like the boom and bust of the stock market during financial crises, but this is the first time it’s been applied to water use. What the model shows us is that there will likely be a new phase of change in the global water supply system by the mid-21st century.”

Parolari continued: “This could take the form of a gradual move toward new policies that encourage a sustainable rate of water use, or it could be a technological advancement that provides a new source of water for us to tap into. There’s a range of possibilities.”

Global water use data shows we are currently in a period of relatively stagnant growth, he said. Per-capita water use has been declining since 1980, largely due to improved efficiency measures and heightened public awareness of the importance of conserving Earth’s limited supply of freshwater. This has helped offset the impacts of recent population growth.

“But if population growth trends continue, per-capita water use will have to decline even more sharply for there to be enough water to meet demand,” Parolari said. The world’s population is projected to surge to 9.6 billion by 2050, up from an estimated seven billion today.  

“For every new person who is born, how much more water can we supply? The model suggests we may reach a tipping point where efficiency measures are no longer sufficient and water scarcity either impacts population growth or pushes us to find new water supplies,” Parolari said.

Water recycling, and finding new and better ways to remove salt from seawater, are among the more likely technological advances that could help alleviate or avoid future water shortages, he said. 

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