What is the Water Crisis?
According to Gleick, the global water crisis comprises many problems, including:
- The failure to meet basic human needs for water, which leads to diseases like cholera and typhoid;
- Local water scarcity and resource depletion;
- Contamination by industrial and human wastes;
- The effects of climate change and extreme events;
- Reduced production of food, goods, and services caused by water scarcity, poor water quality, or inequitable water allocation;
- Ecosystem degradation and destruction; and
- Threats to international, national, and subnational security posed by conflict over water.
Three Kinds of Peak Water
Because water is a largely renewable resource, we will not completely run out of water. However, Gleick warned that non-renewable water sources such as fossil aquifers are limited. Thus, "peak non-renewable water" could occur if we use fossil groundwater faster than it is recharged; by some estimates, 30-40 percent of today's global agricultural production comes from non-renewable water, which will become increasingly difficult to extract, said Gleick. "That's a real challenge from a food point of view, especially in a world that is going from 6.5 billion to 7 billion to 9 billion people."
Eventually, we will also run up against the ecological and economic flow limits of renewable water sources, which include streams and rivers, Gleick said. And before either non-renewable or renewable peak water, we could reach "peak ecological water," which occurs when using additional water "causes more ecological damage than it provides human benefit, and the total value of using more water starts to decline," he explained.
China: Water Challenges Writ Large
China's stunning economic growth in recent years has come "at an enormous environmental cost…to their air quality, to human health, and especially to water resources," said Gleick. China's water is over-allocated, poorly managed, and severely polluted by industrial and human wastes. Public protests over environmental degradation in China are becoming increasingly common. According to Gleick, there have been as many as 50,000 protests over environmental issues in a single year, with the majority of these relating to water quality or allocations.
Solutions to the Water Crisis
Gleick recommended a series of actions:
- Develop more water sources, while ensuring that environmental and community concerns are addressed;
- Improve water infrastructure, including the installation of low-flow toilets and efficient drip-irrigation systems;
- Improve water-use efficiency;
- Update the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act to include new contaminants, and actively enforce the standards already in place;
- Price water more accurately, with the understanding that water is a human right and should be subsidized for basic human needs;
- Improve and expand public participation in environmental decision-making; and
- Strengthen water institutions and improve communication between them.
Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar.
- Co-founder and President, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security