By Robert Lalasz

23 July 2002
—Water is central to basic human dynamics—ecosystem and human health; energy, food, and economic activity; even potential conflict. Yet inadequate freshwater resources cause a host of acute problems for billions.

The new Island Press book The World's Water: The 2002-2003 Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources proposes new solutions for these challenges as well as a surprisingly optimistic prognosis for the world's abilities to provide enough water for everyone. The book's editor, Peter Gleick, detailed its findings for a capacity Wilson Center audience.

Pressing Global Water Issues
Gleick said that the world needs to shift to new methods and paradigms that deal with water as a global and a local issue simultaneously. He first outlined the issues this new approach must address:

Meeting basic human and ecologically needs for water. While 1.3 billion people lack access to adequate drinking water, 2.4 billion are without adequate sanitation services—"in other words, anything adequate to remove human wastes from the local environment, something that the Ancient Romans had," said Gleick.

In addition, there between two to five million deaths annually—mostly children—from preventable water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and malaria. "These are problems we know how to solve," said Gleick. But without action, he added, these diseases will kill 50 to 120 million people between now and 2020. Even achieving the Millennium Development Goal of a 50 percent reduction in the number of people without safe drinking water would leave up to 700 million people with unsafe supplies by 2015.

The problem is one of scope, Gleick said. "We tend not to focus on basic human needs but on large international projects [such as dams]," he argued. "The goal should be 100 percent coverage [of adequate water and sanitation] as fast as possible…There is no region of the world that's so water-scarce that [it] can't meet basic human needs with local supplies."

Community-scale efforts towards water sustainability have proven highly effective, he said—when communities are given the resources and a voice in how these efforts are deployed. But Gleick said that international organizations such as the World Bank find it much more institutionally difficult to fund 10,000 small-scale community projects instead of a few megaprojects. "We need new thinking," he said.

And such new thinking, Gleick added, should extend to meeting basic ecological needs for water. He noted that most 20th century projects were designed to remove water from ecological situations to meet human demands—resulting in major ecological degradation. More than 20 percent of all freshwater species are now threatened or endangered because of human activity, and major water systems from the Colorado River Delta to the Aral Sea are dying.

Understanding the risks of climate change. Gleick said that some of the worst impacts of climate change will be on water resources and systems. Higher temperatures, more surface evaporation, more precipitation, and changes in runoff all will significantly alter hydrological cycles. Floods and droughts will be more common and intense. The freshwater supply for island nations will be threatened.

And Gleick argued that traditional water management is not prepared for these changes. "All our systems—aqueducts, dams, water-control systems for agriculture—have been built assuming that tomorrow's climate will look like yesterday's," he said. "But climate change has obviated this assumption."

Understanding conflicts over water. Half the earth's river basins are shared by two or more countries, which Gleick argued sets the stage for conflicts among users—conflicts for which national and international law and policy is inadequate. Disputes over water are growing worldwide, he said, spurred particularly by competing demands from agriculture, an exploding number of urban users, and the environment. "The United States is not interested in this issue," Gleick said, "but everyone else is."

Understanding the new economy of water. "The one thing people were yelling about at Bonn [International Conference on Freshwater] was the economics of water and water use," said Gleick. Because of the failure of 20th-century public efforts to meet water needs, he said, corporations and some international aid organizations have been pushing to let markets address allocation and management problems.

But while the many forms of water privatization have potential benefits, he said, they also pose some very significant risks to the public good—including concentration of water supplies in just a few hands. Privatization of water supplies from Atlanta to Bolivia has been met with protests and legal action. The World's Water 2002-2003 argues for strong government oversight of water privatization so that equity, quality, and conservation remain fundamental priorities.

Rethinking Water Policy
Gleick said that population dynamics, agricultural demand, and economic development are the major drivers to world water demand. Population growth directly impacts demand and use as well as ecosystem degradation. "If we don't get the population issue under control," said Gleick, "it makes the water and the environmental issue that much more difficult to control." Similarly, he added, the enormous growth in land devoted to agricultural use (up over 500 percent from 1950) is directly related to growth in irrigation.
But current projections of water use for 2025 and beyond are now well below dire predictions of the past, with some even below present use levels. Developed countries, Gleick said, have broken the connection between economic growth and ever-increasing water use through such measures as more efficient toilets, shower heads, and manufacturing processes.

And more improvement is possible, Gleick said—but it will require new tools, knowledge, and skills as well as thinking of demand for water "not as a function of population and economic growth, but [of] what we want to achieve." He proposed a "soft path" to water sustainability through several conceptual challenges to traditional supply-side management:

  • The measure of water withdrawn for a task doesn't tell us how much water is actually delivered to the user. For example, water delivered to irrigation canals may evaporate or seep away and never reach its destination. Gleick also said that "unaccounted-for water" levels are far too high on average for municipal water agencies, with many losing up to 40 percent of their water supplies to leaks and stealing.
  • The amount of water used to provide goods and services tells us nothing about how much water is actually required to produce those things. Gleick said that very little research has been done to determine the minimum amount of water needed for specific tasks. One exception is steel manufacturing: over the last century, there has been a 90 percent drop in the water required to make a ton of steel.
  • The amount of water required to perform a task or service tells us nothing about whether the thing was worth doing. "Is making [water-intensive crops such as] cotton and alfalfa in the arid U.S. Southwest appropriate?" asked Gleick rhetorically.

"Rethinking what we do and how we do it," said Gleick, "is more productive than pegging water policy to population and economics. All the good reservoirs and dams have been built." Instead, Gleick said, we should aim to reap productivity gains from the "enormous slack in the system."

He also pointed to South Africa's new constitutional "reserve" (which first sets aside enough water for basic human needs and then apportions the rest) as an example how to make water a top policy priority. "Overcoming old thinking, training, and entrenched interests will be difficult," Gleick said, "but I'm somewhat optimistic we'll move in this direction."