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In collaboration with Retro Report

Future of Water

The world’s supply of cheap and clean water will likely plummet as the climate warms and populations boom. Can we find ways to conserve, cut waste, and find new sources before it’s too late?

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Retro Report
Future of Water

Where We Thought We’d Be

Think you can predict the future? These experts thought they could—and they were often magnificently wrong.

  • 1790

    Boiling point

    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.

  • 1916

    Post-modern meteorology

    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.”

  • 1950

    Water cannons

    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.

  • 1991


    "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.

  • 2000 (for 2015)
    A dry pipe drips water on Gless Ranch in Kern County, California.

    Squeezed dry

    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.