Over one billion people live without access to clean water. At the same time, the world spends more on bottled water than would be needed to meet 100 percent of human needs. At a November 17th Environmental Change and Security Project meeting, Dr. Peter H. Gleick launched the Pacific Institute's latest publication, The World's Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources 2004-2005 (Island Press). Dr. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and MacArthur "genius grant" winner, argued for U.S. leadership, both internationally and domestically, to address the world's water crisis: "Global, national, and local water problems are growing in scope and magnitude. A comprehensive U.S. national and international water policy is overdue."
The World's Water highlights some of the globe's major water problems. An estimated 2.1 million people die every year from water-related diseases, principally diarrhea and cholera. In Bangladesh, 21 million people are exposed to harmful levels of arsenic in their drinking water. Around the world, the total area of irrigated land is growing more slowly than the population, and 2002's total global production of cereal crops was less than 1996's. And most startling, while annual overseas development assistance (from OECD and multilaterals) for water supply and sanitation totals $3 billion, we spend $50 billion per year on bottled water alone.
Meeting Basic Human Needs
According to Dr. Gleick, we are failing to meet basic human needs; more than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion are without access to adequate sanitation. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals address these issues, seeking to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to water supply and sanitation by 2015; however, Dr. Gleick doubts our ability to meet these goals, especially for sanitation. He claimed that even if we meet them, an estimated 35 million to 75 million people will still die between 2000 and 2020 from preventable water-related diseases.
Economic, Social, and Ecological Values
The ostensible conflict among the economic, social, and ecological values of water is addressed extensively in The World's Water. Dr. Gleick suggested that we transcend this zero-sum mentality and focus on holistic water management. Addressing the contentious issue of water pricing, Dr. Gleick said while water should be priced, "water should be subsidized for the basic needs of those who cannot afford it." He cited the case of South Africa, which guarantees in its new constitution access to water as a basic human right and has taken measures to assure that a minimum quantity of potable water is available to all citizens. After this minimum amount, users pay for the volume they consume; therefore heavy users subsidize those who cannot afford to pay for their basic needs. He noted that in many systems, heavy users—such as farmers—do not cover the marginal cost of the water they use, and are therefore subsidized by the state.
Public Versus Private Management
Dr. Gleick acknowledged that the debate between public and private water management systems has gained attention recently and sparked international and domestic protests. While not explicitly critical of private management schemes, Dr. Gleick cautioned that water provision is essentially a monopoly business that requires government regulation: "There are some important public aspects to water that private water companies don't adequately deal with unless there is government oversight." He was especially concerned by water privatization schemes that deny services to poor people who cannot afford to pay. Dr. Gleick commented, "The truth is, the poor in many developing countries pay far more for water, for bad water, than they would pay if they were on a reliable municipal system."
Paradox of Bottled Water
The World's Water includes a chapter examining the phenomenal popularity of bottled water. Although bottled water appears cheap, it is much more expensive than municipal tap water. The $50 billion spent per year on bottled water could meet 100 percent of everyone's basic human needs. While they represent only a tiny fraction of total groundwater withdrawals, bottled water plants can engender conflicts over local aquifers. Moreover, the amount of plastic waste produced by disposable water bottles strains municipal solid waste systems. Dr. Gleick also pointed out that bottled water is governed by different standards since it is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whereas municipal water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. "The FDA standards are not bad, but they are different, and there are some serious weaknesses in bottled water standards in the U.S."
Domestic Water Problems Are Growing
The United States is not immune to water-related woes, as indicated by several high-profile incidents, including lead contamination in Washington, D.C.'s municipal water. Gleick recommended using Department of Homeland Security money to invest in new water-quality monitoring technologies, thus benefiting local communities and addressing U.S. national security concerns.
In a powerful visual, Dr. Gleick compared drought maps produced by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Department of Agriculture that document a severe and prolonged drought in the Western United States, especially in the Colorado River basin. Groundwater contamination from agricultural runoff is increasingly threatening freshwater aquifers, and competition among agricultural, urban, and environmental sectors for scarce water resources is producing a barrage of litigation and straining relationships. Moreover, the impending arrival of climate change-induced environmental disturbances demands immediate attention, according to Dr. Gleick: "There is growing evidence of climate change, with quite significant implications for water systems around the country."
Lamenting the current lack of U.S. political leadership on water issues, Dr. Gleick advocated restoring the U.S. Water Commission, which the United States has not had for more than 30 years. The impact of these domestic water problems on the economy, security, and health gives us all the more impetus to act, said Dr. Gleick.
What Should the U.S. Do Internationally?
The average annual overseas development assistance for water supply and sanitation has decreased over the last ten years from roughly $3.5 to $3 billion, and the United States has contributed the least in terms of percent of gross national income—only 0.13 percent. Dr. Gleick argued, "We need to spend more money, and I think we need to spend the money we do spend better." He encouraged investment in new technology for monitoring and purification—for example, point-of-use purification systems like membranes and filters—and heralded this as a profitable opportunity for U.S. businesses. Dr. Gleick also recommended that the United States train foreign water experts and managers (through the United States Geological Service, Department of Interior, and Department of State), arguing that this advances U.S. security interests and benefits our image abroad. He noted that it is "easy to spend money and leave, but we need to spend money smarter."
Dr. Gleick asserted, "International disputes and conflicts over water are growing. We have the diplomatic resources and skills and expertise to intervene, and sometimes we do, but not enough." In this vein, Dr. Gleick noted, "We've managed to have water disputes with both of our neighbors, Mexico and Canada. We have mechanisms to deal with those water disputes diplomatically, and we use them often, but we could use them to better effect."
Dr. Gleick concluded by stressing that many of the water problems confronting the world are not simply technical, but rather increasingly political, economic, and social in nature. Moreover, as these are nonpartisan issues, political cooperation could effectively address them. He outlined several practical proposals for the United States:
- Phase out federal subsidies that encourage waste and pollution of water;
- Create a national research program for water, making sure to address climate change-induced threats;
- Design and implement national water efficiency standards for appliances;
- Endeavor towards better river basin management (especially basins between two or more states); and
- Monitor and enforce existing federal laws like the Clean Water Act.
Dr. Gleick remarked that U.S. leadership at the international level could generate enormous amounts of goodwill around the globe, benefiting our economic, political, and security interests. He concluded, "In summary, global, national, and local water problems are growing in scope and magnitude. A comprehensive U.S. national and international water policy is overdue. I think that lack has cost us economically, from a health point of view…and I think there are security implications, as well, for the United States."
Drafted by Benjamin Dean Goldstein.
- Co-founder and President, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security