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Does water scarcity make people consider the future?

About the blog

Graham Mann
I have been in the Water & Waste Water industry for 30 years and formed a Water Consultancy business called H2o Building Services both myself and my team have built a wealth of knowledge and expertise Saving companies money on their Water bi
  • Does water scarcity make people consider the future?

People have a wide variety of needs that must be fulfilled in order to survive, and most people in a crisis situation where the resources needed to fill those needs become scarce can see their behaviour and even their personality change.

It is part of the reason why people care so much about crisis management, both in terms of potential future concerns and changes, as well as a fascination with considering how we would survive an apocalyptic scenario.

For businesses, this is where water consultants would come in to ensure that the most vital resource for preserving the continuing operations of a business and the human beings that make that continued function possible.

However, when it comes to water, perhaps because it is so incomparably vital for life, a lot of conventional human instincts when it comes to scarcity are changed, even reversed, compared to the scarcity of other resources, and understanding why is important for future crisis management.

Survival instincts

If someone pictures what they would do if they didn’t have enough resources to meet all of their needs, whilst the exact nature of their response would be slightly different, they would tend to focus on attending to needs in the immediate or short-term rather than planning for the future.

This is known as a scarcity mindset and is especially common for people in poverty; people who are in situations where they do not have enough tend to focus on solutions that will fix immediate issues rather than planning ahead, often in ways that lead to even more resources being used.

After all, as the Vimes Boots Theory posits, whilst it is cheaper in the long run to plan and be responsible (in this case by buying quality shoes built to last), solving immediate needs with whatever you have available does not often allow this.

Once scarcity reaches a point that no matter what a person does they do not feel they can meet their needs in perpetuity, they will prioritise the short term, focus only on what cannot be ignored and give benefits that come immediately far more weight than smaller, future-thinking issues.

The taxing weight this puts on mental health also can lead to impulsive decisions, particularly when connected to other aspects of a scarcity mindset.

If someone doesn’t have enough time, they might procrastinate more because of the anxiety, and if there is a lack of food, there might be a sense that it no longer makes sense to save, indulge now and leave the worry for the future.

In business, this is often known as firefighting, and is just as problematic, consuming far more resources fixing what is in front of them rather than looking at the bigger picture.

The ramifications of this short-termism are obvious on a macro level; constantly delaying large endeavours to address fossil fuel dependency, carbon emissions and climate change has meant that bigger and more dramatic changes are needed to avoid potentially cataclysmic changes to the planet.

This is true with food, with overall health and many other basic needs such as shelter and sleep. However, this scarcity mindset manifests very differently when it comes to water.

Why is water different?

Aside from the ability to breathe, water is the most essential ingredient for human life, and whilst a person could survive, albeit barely, for over a month without food, a human being will die within a week, often within three days, without water.

Exactly how long you can survive without water depends on other conditions. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Andreas Mihavecz survived 18 days without food or water aside from the condensation of the cold cell walls, nearly dying in the process.

In a cold, sheltered place, people can survive longer without water, but in extreme heat, where sweat and dehydration are issues even with a supply of water, people may not even survive a matter of hours, let alone days.

Because of this immediate risk of death and the consequent collapse of human society, if there is widespread water scarcity, people tend to react to situations of water scarcity in the opposite way they would to food shortages or economic poverty.

In several studies on the subject of future water surplus, people who live in places where water scarcity is a problem now or has been in the recent past consider the long-term implications of water use and water infrastructure far more than people in places with a water surplus.

There is a correlation between places with water scarcity and plans to save for the future, which can be seen in the measures countries such as Spain take to manage and mitigate potential drought conditions compared to countries in Northern Europe, as well as the United Kingdom.

One particular study by Hamidrea Harati and Thomas Talhelm published in May 2023 in Psychological Science compared two regions of the country of Iran, the winemaking region of Shiraz and the more arid region of Yazd, corroborating the findings of other studies.

The reason for this, as well as why the issue of water pollution is so emotionally resonant as has been seen with reports of illegal sewage dumping in the UK is that water is so immediately essential for human life, and everyone alive knows it.

Without water, humanity simply cannot exist, and so whilst other needs can be indulged with the expectation that going without other basic needs for a few days is far from desirable but can be survived, going without water will cause problems almost immediately, and lead to death not long after.

Whilst some people may fill up any receptacle they can with water at the start of an emergency to ensure they have enough water to survive the first few days, the first step towards long-term survival is figuring out a safe, clean, plentiful source of water.

As climate change increases the risk, effects and scale of water scarcity, this resourcefulness and human instinct will become crucial to our survival as a species and our ability to continue to function as a society.

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