First published in December 2002 as an editorial for Project Management World Today Web Magazine. Published here July 2003.


Musings Index

Two into One Won't Go

This is about the availability of fresh water for human consumption. An odd title perhaps for such a topic, but it is clear that many people have a problem with the associated simple arithmetic, because perception is reality. You might also ask what does all of that have to do with project management? Good question. A substantial proportion of project management people are involved in the construction business and a significant proportion of those are associated in one way or another with water supply infrastructure.

Now that we've made the connection, what's the problem? The problem is that more and more people are voicing concern about the diminishing supply of fresh water. Indeed, in many countries around the world, people are becoming desperate for water. Notwithstanding their plight, the reality is that in recent history the global potential for fresh water supply has been relatively constant. Not all water is "fresh" of course.

Here is a rough break down. More than 97% of all water on earth is "salt" water, and a large proportion of the remainder is stored in the world's ice caps at the north and south poles. As the ice caps melt, as they are doing in the face of global warming, the runoff runs to the sea and becomes "salt". So we should be concerned by global warming. Of the remainder, only a very small proportion, perhaps only .01%, is available as a "sustainable" resource and accessible for a variety of human uses. So much for the supply side.

On the demand side, the world's population has been ballooning exponentially over the past decades, and doing so principally in those parts of the world where water appears to be shortest. Indeed, the world's population is expected to increase by between two and three billion by 2025, with over 90% of that increase taking place in the so-called "developing" countries. We could digress here to rail at the lack of will by the World's politicians (who are but a reflection of ourselves), or the religious orders (who decry the notion of population control), or the Kyoto agreement (that will not solve the real environmental problem, but hide it.) But let's stick to the point.

As populations increase, so does competition for water for agriculture, industry, hydropower generation and personal use. The arithmetic is simple and the forecast bleak. It is estimated that about 70% of the World's fresh water is used for irrigation to grow food. Even using conservative assumptions, that could increase by 17% by 2025, and industrial and domestic demand increase by 50%. In many countries there simply is not enough to sustain that growth. Already, some 10% of the world's food production depends upon groundwater with the result that ground water tables are falling. Worse yet, they are becoming contaminated by industrial waste, chemical-intensive agriculture and animal farming and community runoff.

Unlike the availability of oil, where substitutes do exist, there is no substitute for water. Water is a precious commodity indeed. An interim technological solution would be better collection, processing and more efficient use of the water supplies that do exist. Indeed, it is estimated that less that 20% of the hydroelectric potential has been tapped in developing countries, so all of these should be a lucrative source of projects for project managers. But "big" water schemes are rife with controversy: hydropower against fisheries, upstream benefits versus downstream impacts, natural versus the unnatural environment, agriculture versus industrial use and so on. Moreover, all of these schemes require immense infusions of cash, mostly through taxes, or fees for a commodity that most people have been used to getting for free. So, don't count on a glut of these projects any time soon.

You can read more about "A Water Secure World, Visions for Water, Life and the Environment" at or "A New framework for Decision-Making" report of the World commission on dams at

Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page