The controversy of water….

Curious Rascal
4 min readMay 29, 2024


In one of the early X-men movies, a character crossed paths with the baddie Magneto and was painfully refashioned into water. It was not very far from the truth because we are c60% water (babies 78%!) with our brain, blood, liver, kidneys composed of a higher percentage. It is difficult to fathom given our substantiveness. But there are many aspects of water that are surprising; contentious even.

It is superficially unclear as to why something as nondescript as water can give rise to complications. It seems copious and through internationally agreed country borders, we assuredly cannot dispute ownership of its various pooling and flowing? Water cannot be destroyed (because of the water cycle we could be drinking the ‘same’ water dinosaurs once did). We know how to create it (the world’s most renowned chemical symbol?) and most of us never give a single thought to accessing it in a clean drinkable form.

But this is where evidence might counsel it isn’t that simple. Ignorance could be blinding us to the nature and politics of water as a resource for our various needs.

It is true c70% of the earths surface is covered by water of which more than 95% is held in the oceans. The remainder is found in ice caps, lakes, rivers, the ground. But even with this abundance, the vast majority of water on earth is salt water and therefore unfit for our sustenance. A mere 2.5% is freshwater acceptable for agriculture and industry. An even smaller fraction is suitable for human consumption. And the story becomes more complex as only one third of this drinkable fresh water is obtainable in some way (the remainder being trapped in glaciers and ice caps). This suggests less than 1% of the water available on and in earth is reachable and unadulterated.

But perhaps that proportion is as its always been? Surely this minuscule percentage of potable water has prevailed since human life began? Research I have read advocates for this. But the UN’s World Water report 2023 offers interesting thinking points on water scarcity which is essentially the balance between demand and supply of water. Although data availability and verification is difficult to secure so bear that in mind. Water consumption has increased globally by 1% pa over the last 40years. Drivers include a growing global population and socio economic development (agricultural and industry needs, as well as our ability to guzzle more water because we can). Intuitively if these are the factors propelling the draining, it doesn’t seem far fetched to propose the trend of increased water usage has been established for hundreds of years. Still — small in the context of the life of Earth, but it may be relevant to our lifetimes.

Other data speaks to this ‘water scarcity’. It is suggested water scarcity is rising not only from escalating usage but also from mounting contamination of our accessible water from pollution — toxic substances including sewage and chemicals. The UN report mentions c2bn people lack safe drinking water and more suffer poor access to carefully managed sanitation. Currently 3.6bn people live in areas that endure water scarcity at least one month in a year. Due to the aforementioned drivers of demand they expect this figure to keep rising as a proportion of the global population with the impact varying by locale.

Then there is ownership. Of the global population of 8 billion people, more than 3 billion depend on water that crosses national borders via rivers and lakes. Why this causes angst between countries is obvious when you consider the impact on water availability from dam building, river flow lessening as it meanders, the passing on of contaminated water for various reasons including one country’s industrial policy or uncontrolled sewage flows. Only 24 countries have cooperation agreements for shared water. According to the Pacific Institute (a global water think tank), in 2022 to the first half of 2023, there were 344 instances of water related disputes world wide targeting dams, water systems and people. But context — water related conflict is not new. It has been a feature of our history over thousands of years; we have probably not recorded it as such.

But as ever, innovation is not idle. To help mitigate water scarcity, we have developed systems to capture water trapped in the air; embraced desalination (removal of salt from seawater which is then filtered to create drinking water), improved sanitation — particularly in utilising less water. Scientists are probing cloud seeding which entails sowing clouds with silver iodide to impel rain or snow. The efficiency of irrigation for agriculture has advanced. Clever bods have fabricated sophisticated leak detection technologies employing satellite, robots, drones and AI tools. We have originated know how in adding enzymes to treat waste water — thereby eradicating pollutants and are scrutinising the nature of nanotech to manipulate atoms in water in order to purify.

For all the talk about scarcity here on Earth, I have been intrigued to learn water exists in substantive quantities throughout our Universe. (What that means for life out there, i’m not sure). Scientists have located ice in our Milky Way for example and recently stumbled upon the largest body of water in the Universe. It is equivalent to 140trillion times the water in our oceans and is thought to be 12 billion years old (for context Earth is believed to be c4.5bn years of age). I’ve yet to hear if a tech titan or nation state has shouted out ‘bagsie’!

So where does that leave us. I confess a bit nonplussed. Water as a resource is indubitably more flummoxing than I originally considered though it sparks my curiosity about water and sanitation innovation (I realise this is not my first toilet blog post but I assure you no fetish exists!) It also struck me perhaps I’ve been a touch unkind in my portrayal of Magneto. He was ahead of his time in worrying about water scarcity and pulverising a mortal into water was really his way of being a humanitarian…



Curious Rascal

I'm keen to understand more of the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random because it helps me in life and improves my thinking.