A World Without Water

A World Without Water

Dr. Peter Gleick, founder and president of the Pacific Institute, weighs in on the severity and urgency of the global water crisis.


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.

Since the Tibetan Plateau is a source of drinking and irrigation water for an estimated one billion people–one out of every six people on earth–how will this impact other Asian nations?

For China, the international ramifications of their water policies are vast and under-appreciated. Just about every major Asian river originates in the Tibetan plateau–the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra–there are almost no major rivers that don’t derive some of their flow from water that comes out of Tibet. That means whatever happens in Tibet doesn’t just affect China, or the Tibetans. And yet there is very little public discussion about the international nature of those water resources. With climate change it will be a growing source of tension in the future.

What should they be doing?

The same as everyone else. We need to do two things, broadly. We need first to slow the rate of climate change. The second thing is that we need to start adapting to the climate changes we can’t avoid. And the best way to say it is that we need to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable. We need to avoid the kinds of climate changes that will, in the long run, be catastrophic. And we need to start managing those climate changes that we know we aren’t going to be able to avoid because of the gases in the atmosphere and the inability of policy-makers to deal with the problem.

What China has done with water, seems to epitomize what you call the “hard path” for water. But you advocate for the “soft path.” Can you explain what that means?

The idea of a soft path for water is most simply to move toward a long-term, sustainable management of our water system. The old way, the “hard path,” was the way we managed water in the twentieth century–with centralized infrastructure, big construction projects, and narrow management by a small number of specialists. The hard path brought benefits, substantial benefits, to many parts of the planet. But the idea that infrastructure alone–and that style of management alone–is enough to solve our water problems is I think obviously wrong. We need to rethink demand for water and efficiency; and we need to rethink distributed water systems, rather than centralized systems; and we need far more transparent decision-making and institutions.

One of your points on the soft path is about matching the quality of water with its use so that we are no longer flushing our toilets or watering our lawns with potable water. How can we begin to make this transition?

We are making it. The places that are really water scarce are making that transition faster than other places. Water re-use has been going on for many years in Namibia. Singapore is moving very aggressively to something called NEWater, which is a state-of-the-art water treatment that is not used for direct potable re-use right away but for other demands for water. We can treat any quality water to potable standards. We have the technology. There is a psychological barrier and an education barrier and an expense barrier, but we are seeing it more and more. Another barrier is that we have one set of pipes that come into our homes. We don’t need potable water for flushing our toilets, but often that is the only water we have. So part of the challenge is changing our infrastructure, so we can use different qualities of water for different purposes. That takes investment: money, time and education.

So who should be doing this? Cities? States?

In general, we want our water to be managed and regulated at the lowest possible level: the most local. We want communities making decisions about water management, where appropriate. But there are things we want at the federal level–like efficiency standards and water-quality standards. One of the key points of the soft path is to manage water at the proper level.

You’ve mentioned that new technology like desalination should be used “where appropriate.” Since desal has some serious drawbacks in its use of energy, its impact on marine ecosystems, and hazardous brine waste, where would an appropriate place or use for it be?

Compared to most water alternatives facing us, desalination is very expensive, environmentally and economically. But, there are places where we are willing to pay a lot for water. It is also possible to build a bad desalination plant that harms marine systems–we’ve built plenty of them around the world. But it is possible to build them in ways that don’t harm them, and I just think it ought to be mandated. It makes the water more expensive, but so be it. Too much of the twentieth century was built while ignoring the environmental impacts. That’s why we have a climate problem–these externalities have been ignored.

Right now an enormous amount of attention is focused on energy issues. You mentioned at a recent talk in Berkeley that some of the cheapest ways to save energy are actually through water efficiency. Can you explain the interconnection?

It takes a lot of water to produce certain kinds of energy–oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear. Thermal plants, in general, all require a lot of water for cooling. And in the US probably the single largest use of water is for power plant cooling. Whereas, solar and wind and other energy systems require very little or no water. If energy is an issue and water is an issue, let’s think about the two together.

But conversely, it also takes a huge amount of energy to collect and treat and move water. There is a big energy cost in our water systems, but it turns out that some of the cheapest remaining energy efficiency options for us are not saving energy per se, but are saving water. So, a simple example is front-loading washing machines, which save water, detergent and energy. And so, that is a no-brainer. We should be seeing more of these kinds of things implemented to save both.

And maybe we’ll start rethinking a lot of the biofuels stuff, too.

Biofuels, like ethanol, are a great example of solving one problem and causing another–and in this case, solving one problem and causing a lot more problems.

We hear a lot these days about “peak oil,” but you write about “peak water.” What do you mean by this?

Discussion of peak oil got us thinking about the idea of peak water. Rather than run out of water, what we’re going to run out of is the ability of the planet to sustain the amount of water we use and the way we use it. Water is a renewable resource, mostly. After it is used, it just goes somewhere else in the hydrologic cycle, and it comes back. And so we are not literally running out of water, with some exceptions. For example, there are parts of the planet where we use groundwater faster than nature recharges it.

Like the Ogallala under the Great Plains?

Yes–the Ogallala, the North China Plain, parts of California’s Central Valley, parts of India. In that sense, it is very much like oil. And the idea of peak water very much applies in the way it does for oil. There comes a time when it is harder and more expensive to get, and so use drops off. And that is a problem in many parts of the world. A lot of our agriculture relies on non-sustainable groundwater use.

Where are you seeing this the most?

We see it in almost every ecosystem: the Everglades, the Aral Sea, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Yellow River, the Colorado River. There are, unfortunately, a distressingly large and growing number of places where the ecological consequences of our water use is significant and bad.

So we have a new president now. What should we be pushing for at the national policy level?

Without forgetting that there are important things to be done at the local level, with a new administration we have a new opportunity to change a lot of things. I think we need a new national water commission. The last national water commission was in 1970.

There are many suggestions that came out of that commission that are still perfectly relevant, but there are new things as well. They don’t talk at all about climate change and it is a reality that we have to deal with. They don’t talk about the role that water should be playing in our foreign policy. I think we can spend more money in some areas to help meet needs for water and sanitation.

We also need to talk about how at the international level we can play a role as a country in reducing the risks of conflicts over water. There are many parts of the world where water is a growing source of conflict and violence.

And another thing is that it is really time we rethought water quality at the federal level. We have two major laws, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which we’ve had since the early ’70s. They need to be brought into the twenty-first century by updating the kinds of things that we monitor, how we monitor, how we enforce our water quality laws, and the kinds of technologies we encourage to protect our water. We need to do a better job at protecting water quality than we’re doing, and that should be done at the federal level.

Maybe we have that opportunity now.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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