Water is, by far, the single most important working resource for civilization. Wherever humanity may travel in our universe – water will remain first ingredient for life. Containing hydrogen and oxygen, H2O will also likely be a primary source of propellants and reaction mass for deep space transportation. Understanding this, an international race to secure lunar water resources is quietly underway. Governmental and commercial actors are working to grab strategic resources in the Moon’s southern polar region, where the existence of water ice has been demonstrated. Establishing any sort of ongoing science or commercial operations in high value locations like Shackleton Crater could allow these entities to claim exclusion zones founded on the nebulous non-interference language in Article IX the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). Based on their history of aggressive terrestrial claims, we should expect to see some very aggressive lunar line drawing from China in particular. As on Earth, water is very likely to be the primary source of conflict in space, a story line well developed in the excellent Apple TV+ Series For All Mankind

While a space war over water is frightening, we should be even more concerned about the coming disputes over our freshwater supply on Earth. Where water demand exceeds supply regions face water scarcity. When their water supply vanishes communities face water bankruptcy. Right now, both conditions are rapidly advancing across the world. Human suffering is inevitable, and conflict is likely. Researchers from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre developed a model of “hydro-political risk”. Their research forecasts an “increase in water-related interactions in transboundary river basins by up to 95%” during this century.  

Water scarcity can be hard to imagine on a blue planet. Yet, only 1 percent of Earth’s water supply is fresh and outside the icecaps, only about half a percent is available in liquid form for humans, animals and plants share. Demand on that available half-percent is rising at an unprecedented rate. 

Most water demands are not driven by parched human beings but by their thirsty economies. While the average U.S. home uses 300 gallons a day, it takes 700-800 gallons to manufacture a shirt! While I’m pleased to drive an emissions free, Tesla, building it consumed more than 10,000 gallons of precious H2O! Average water rates in the U.S. have increased more than 50 percent over the last seven years, according to CircleofBlue.Org. As California residents, our family is mindful about water. We no longer wash our cars at home, we don’t let facets run and don’t even flush the toilets until necessary. But taking into account the agricultural and manufacturing inputs to our lives, our household water footprint (calculator available at waterfootprint.org) is over a million gallons a year!

Of course, as with most statistics, it isn’t the current state that counts as much as the vector we are on. Where we are headed with water isn’t pretty. “Water demand is projected to increase,” according to Global Water Forum, “by 55% globally between 2000 and 2050. The increase in demand will come mainly from manufacturing (+400%), electricity (+140%) and domestic use (+130%). In the face of these competing demands, there will be little scope for increasing water for irrigation.” That’s a serious problem, because according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world will need to produce about 70 percent more food by mid-century. A bottle of clean water already costs a day’s wages in some African locales.

The management of our world’s freshwater resources is well-beyond a supply-side crisis. There are nations that have virtually no domestic supply of freshwater. History’s entrepreneurial change agents: Edison, Ford, von Braun, and Musk have driven global technological transformations through genius and sheer willpower. While their visions naturally clashed with convention, they disrupted industries and changed policies. They created the world we live in. We need that same level of transformative thinking about water. There are real technological options. 

Energy rich nations in the dry Middle East already produce desalinated water to support entire populations and that is promising. Still, that process consumes massive amounts of fossil fuel generated power. Moving desalination to nuclear power would be a step in the right direction and might be good choice in areas, such as California, bordered by deep, open oceans. However, desalination is not a sustainable solution where it is currently used the most, in areas surrounded by closed, shallow seas. The average depth of the Persian Gulf is only about 100 feet! The Red Sea and Gulf of Oman are not much deeper. Water is consumed in the desalination process and much of the final output is lost as evaporation. Consequently, concentrated salt brine from the desalination plants is dumped back into the local water supply, increasing the salinity of these constrained seas and raising heat retention capacity of their waters. This process will eventually unbalance the ecology of the region, raise local temperatures, and potentially impact our global climate. When the salinity reaches a level of 27%, the desalination process itself will fail. What to do?

This week, I hosted a modern water change leader in my class on Global Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Business at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Management. Dr. David Stuckenberg is a young Post-Doctoral Fellow at John’s Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. As a U.S. Air Force pilot, then Major Stuckenberg personally witnessed an aquifer dying. He recalled, “From the air, I watched the last native water supply in Qatar being pumped dry as I flew over.” The Major knew that something had to be done. 

Retired from the Air Force, Stuckenberg is doing something about the Earth’s water crisis, cofounding Genesis Systems LLC. Last week the Tampa, Florida firm launched WaterCube, a transportable atmospheric freshwater generation system that can be deployed wherever it is needed. WaterCube uses a proprietary liquid discant which can extract thousands of gallons of water from the atmosphere in a day, even in relatively dry climates. This “solution in a box” promises to be a game changer for water starved villages, disaster rescue operations and forward operating bases for the U.S. military. While WaterCube is designed to use a variety of energy sources its process also captures CO2, allowing it to balance its emissions footprint. Scaled to industrial size applications, it could address the water needs of cities without the downside of brine accumulation. Earth’s atmosphere circulates water vapor quickly and local densities are speedily renewed, unlike the water in those constrained seas. Further, water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas and reducing it globally could be a net benefit versus increasing the salinity of our seas. 

While our future water challenges are daunting, let us hope that mindful leaders will listen to brilliant minds and that we will choose the right technologies to address the reality of water scarcity wherever humans live and work.