Water is the essence of agriculture and life. Water security, whether it be dealing with the challenge of too little water over long periods or too much water all at once, is one of the most tangible and fastest-growing social, political and economic issues facing the world today. Countries that control water, in essence, control economies.

Given the world’s population growth and subsequent pressures for an increase in goods and services – not to mention issues such as climate change and pollution – it comes as no surprise that the demand for water is rising rapidly. The World Economic Forum warns that the world will face a 40% global water shortfall between forecast demand and available supply by 2030.

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A political splash

Water knows no boundary. Canada has more water underground in aquifers than on the surface, which is used for agricultural irrigation in both Canada and the US.

Water can also impact politics. In the US, the High Plains aquifer system – the primary water source for agricultural irrigation across eight states from North Dakota to Texas – is under threat by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. If built, the project will transport 900,000 barrels a day of synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from upper Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, raising fears among environmentalists that a leak in the pipeline would poison this vital water supply. Since it is an international issue, the decision is in the hands of US president Barack Obama.

Water is particularly predominant in the politics of the Middle East. The Attaturk dam in Turkey, for example, contributes 88% of the water flow of the Euphrates river and 43% of the Tigris, effectively making both Syria and Iraq heavily dependent on an external supply of water.

National interests aside, the increased interlinking global economy is placing extra stress on the world’s water supply and affecting food and energy systems. The World Economic Forum claims that within the next 15 to 20 years, the worsening water security situation could trigger a global food crisis, with shortfalls of up to 30% in cereal production.

The severe drought in the US this year alone is causing corn and wheat futures to skyrocket. There is also uncertainly regarding how much wheat will be harvested in the Black Sea region.

Wave of opportunity

How water is managed is critical and opening myriad opportunities for economic development and foreign direct investment. For example, high-resolution satellite imagery (HRSI) supplied by companies such as GeoEye, Spot Image, and RapidEye, along with a wide array of aerial imagery businesses that provide aircraft and aerial mapping services and products, are critical to identifying the status of water supplies.

GeoEye, for example, recently announced an expansion to set up operations in the Amsterdam World Trade Center, where the Virginia-headquartered company plans to grow its HRSI business in western and eastern Europe.

HRSI and aerial imagery is particularly useful in creating a bio-vegetative index, which provides a measure of how much photosynthetically active vegetation is present in any given area. “This is turned into maps that can tell individual farmers which areas of a field are strong or weak and make decisions as to which part to apply resources such as fertilisers,” says Robert Saik, CEO of Agri-Trend, a group of Canadian companies committed to supporting and developing agriculture. “These maps can be incorporated into self-guide GPS sprayers.”

Other tools include indices such as those compiled by ECPI, an independent firm founded by a group of professors in Milan, Italy. Its ECPI Global Blue Gold Equity Index gives investors equity exposure to publicly traded firms active in water-related industries.  

Water is not just one of the world's most critical resources, it provides big business opportunities, too.