A more important resource than oil

Oil may seem like the most important resource in the world, but it's not. It runs a distant second to a liquid that may seem far more abundant, but is in fact running out rapidly...

We had barely hit February this year when the mutterings about hosepipe bans began. The south of the UK is apparently in the middle of its driest period for decades, and as a result our reservoirs are running dry. This would be bad news in itself, but the much, much worse news is that the UK is not the only country where water is fast becoming a luxury.

Last summer there were droughts all over southern Europe; in the US, several states are bickering about access to the supply of fresh water in the Great Lakes; in Kenya drought is devastating rural communities; and in China millions are living with water supplies near what the UN calls danger levels'.

The fact is that, as the world develops and urbanises, we need more and more water (the water usage of a Chinese family doubles if it moves to a city) and there isn't enough to meet the need.

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This problem is not getting enough attention on any level. Ask any fund manager what the most important liquid in the world is and, while he may stop to take a swig of his Badoit before he answers, when he does answer he isn't going to think of water for a second. No, he's going to tell you that oil is the most important liquid in the world.

But he's wrong. Oil is vital to the way we live now, but not only is it replaceable (wind, water, solar, nuclear), but we can also survive without it. Water isn't replaceable and we can't survive without it (you wouldn't last a week). So what's the solution?

One answer is that we should just try and use less (note that running a garden sprinkler for an hour uses up 540 litres of water and if you leave the tap running while you brush your teeth you will waste around five litres in the process). In the UK it is thought that nearly a third of our water is lost via leaking pipes with this rising to 60% in London where many pipes haven't been upgraded since Victorian days.

Things are little better in the rest of the world. All this infrastructure is going to have to be upgraded and soon. This is where we come to the silver lining of a miserable story: given the ongoing need for desalination, for filtration and for new pipelines, transportation and pumps all over the world, there are huge investment opportunities. You can read more about it here: How to profit from the world's most important resource


Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.