What Happens Next
We’re wasting away our water reserves. These five global experts give their predictions for how companies and consumers will plug it back up.
Where We Thought We’d Be
Think you can predict the future? These experts thought they could—and they were often magnificently wrong.
- 2000 (for 2015)
Jacob Isaacks was an elderly resident of Rhode Island with an incredible secret. His technology, he wrote to George Washington, had the potential to be “highly beneficial to Mankind, and Particularly to those concerned in navigation.” Using a top-secret mixture of wood, Isaack evaporated seawater over a fire and distilled it into drinkable water. This, he said, was the only way to remove the salt from seawater—a particularly helpful trick for that era’s thirsty sailors sailing the globe.
San Diego, California had a drought problem, and former salesman Charles M. Hatfield thought he had the answer. The so-called “pluviculturist” (that’s “rainmaker” to the rest of us) used mysterious chemical formulas, wooden towers, and evaporating pans to bring rain to the city at a cost of $50 per inch. “My system is a purely scientific process,” he told the Los Angeles Evening Herald. “All I have to demand for success is that there shall be some humidity in the air.”
As Los Angeles’ population soared by nearly a third in the wake of World War II, its water supplies dwindled. Construction engineer Sidney Cornell had a splashy solution: hydro-cannons, shooting water into the air at 400 miles per hour. It was proposed that they would funnel water across the state via manmade geysers a mile apart, linking water-rich northern California to drier Los Angeles.
"The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics,” predicted former United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali. He was prompted by growing tensions over who had the rights to the waters of the Nile, where upstream countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania claimed Egypt was taking more than their fair share.
At the turn of the 21st century, a CIA report posited that “nearly half the world's population—more than 3 billion people—will live in countries that are 'water-stressed.'” The consequences of this scarcity would range across mental and physical health, hunger, and sanitation. The report foresaw people in countries across Africa, the Middle East, south Asia, and northern China struggling to cope, and predicted that an unsustainable 80% of water would be used for agriculture.
Illustration by Ksusha Itwazcool
More from What Happens Next
- Future of AgingBy 2020, people over age 65 will outnumber children under age 5. Humanity faces an urgent question on an unprecedented scale: How do we care for an aging population who can’t work, and harness the contributions of those who can?
- Future of CollegeWhile the internet has made online learning virtually free, the price of traditional teaching is still soaring. When the job market is transforming more quickly each year, how can we reinvent education to keep up?
- Future of GamingWith revenues topping $100 billion a year, the video game industry is poised to be this century’s dominant form of entertainment. As games become more addictive and expensive to play, how will they transform our social relationships as well as our leisure time?
- Future of HomeTechnology is transforming homes all over the world. In some places, cheap devices are powering and connecting homes long left off the grid. In others, newly automated and networked machines are reinventing convenience—but at what cost to privacy and human connection?
- Future of WorkIf automation continues at its current pace, 400 million workers around the globe will be displaced by 2030. In spite of the vast economic effects these changes will bring, will we seize the opportunity to reconceive the very meaning of work?
- Future of FoodAs global climate change worsens and the population expands, humanity must produce more food in the next 50 years than it has in the past 10,000. Are lab-made meat and automation the key to farming in the future, or must we tend to the soil we already have?
- Future of CitiesBy 2050, nearly 10 billion people will share our planet. As mega-cities rise and technology reshapes the urban landscape, how will these changes affect the vast majority of the world’s poor?
- Future of MoneyAnarchy reigns supreme in the future of finance, decentralizing the power of banks and, in some cases, the state. But will cryptocurrencies and the blockchains that underlie them solve our financial woes, or only worsen existing inequalities?
- Future of FactOnline manipulation and immersive media have begun to eradicate our shared notion of authenticity and trust. How will society change when we can no longer believe what we see, hear, or think?