If you’ve read anything about the global water crisis, you’ve likely read a quote from Dr. Peter Gleick, founder and president of the Pacific Institute, and one of the world’s leading water experts. His name has become as ubiquitous as drought itself, which is suddenly making major headlines. A report from the World Economic Forum warned that in only twenty years our civilization may be facing “water bankruptcy”–shortfalls of fresh water so large and pervasive that global food production could crater, meaning that we’d lose the equivalent of the entire grain production of the US and India combined.
But we don’t have to wait twenty years to see what this would look like. Australia, reeling from twelve years of drought in the Murray-Darling River Basin, has seen agriculture grind to a halt, with tens of billions of dollars in losses. The region has been rendered a tinderbox, with the deadliest fires in the country’s history claiming over 160 lives so far. And all this may begin to hit closer to home soon. California’s water manager said that the state is bracing for its worst drought in modern history. Stephen Chu, the new US secretary of energy, warns that the effects of climate change on California’s water supplies could put an end to agriculture in the state by 2100 and imperil major cities.
The bad news is that these droughts are not just characteristic of a few hot spots around the world. Climate change is liable to affect already stressed drinking water in countless places, including much of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and parts of the Americas and Europe. Water is the essence of life, vital not just for drinking and sanitation but for agriculture and industry. If we don’t change our ways, and fast, we are courting global economic collapse, the World Economic Forum warned.
But there is good news, according to Gleick. For years he has advocated for a fundamental change in policy, infrastructure and thinking that he calls the “soft path” for water. I first met Gleick when I edited Water Consciousness, the newest book from AlterNet, which takes a comprehensive look at solutions to the global water crisis. With the flurry of drought related headlines recently and the release of Gleick’s newest edition of his biennial book, The World’s Water, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch up with him again and see how we can begin to put his thinking into practice–before it’s too late.
From what I’ve read in the newest edition of your book, The World’s Water 2008-2009, (Island Press, 2008) it seems that China faces some of the most difficult water challenges on earth, and the trends are only growing worse as climate change intensifies. For example, the glaciers that supply much of China’s (and other Asian nations’) drinking and irrigation water are melting fast and some portion of them will be lost forever. What is China doing to prepare for the impacts of these and other developments?
Nothing. The glaciers are melting. In China, and in general, nobody is doing anything different.