Report Launch: The World’s Water, Vol. 7 | Wilson Center
6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Report Launch: The World’s Water, Vol. 7

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“The water problem is real and it is bad,” said MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and founder of the Pacific Institute Peter Gleick at the October 18 launch of the seventh volume the institute’s biennial report on freshwater resources, The World’s Water. “It’s not bad everywhere, and it’s not bad in the same way from place to place, but we are not doing what we need to do to address all of the different challenges around water.”

“The World’s Biggest Problem”

Worldwide, more than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, while two and a half billion lack access to adequate sanitation services. “This is the world’s biggest water problem,” said Gleick, “the failure to meet basic human needs for water – it’s inexcusable.”

Gleick predicts that the world will fail to meet the Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation by 2015, and noted that measures of illness for water-related diseases are rising, rather than falling.

The World’s Water series provides an integrated way of thinking about water by exploring major concepts, important data trends, and case studies that point to policies and strategies for sustainable use of water. Volume seven includes chapters on climate change and transboundary waters, corporate water management, water quality challenges, Australia’s drought, and Chinese and U.S. water policy. The new volume also includes a set of side briefs on the Great Lakes water agreement, the energy required to produce bottled water, and water in the movies, as well as 19 new and updated data tables. An updated water conflict chronology looks at conflicts over access to water, attacks on water, and water used as a weapon during conflict.

Despite the added data, Gleick said that vast gaps remain in our knowledge and understanding about water. We lack accurate information on how much water the world has, where it is, how much humans use, and how much ecosystems need, he said. “So right off the bat, we are at a disadvantage.”

Focus on Efficiency, Infrastructure to Better Manage Water

One of the major concepts that has connected various volumes of The World’s Water is the concept of a “soft path for water” – a strategy for moving towards a more sustainable future for water through several key focus points: improved efficiency, decentralized infrastructure, and broadly rethinking water usage and supply.

Other cross-cutting themes include climate and water, peak water, environmental security, and the human right to water (formally recognized in a 2010 UN General Assembly resolution). “I would argue that all of these combined offer to some degree a different way of thinking about water, an integrated way of thinking about water,” Gleick said.

The China Issue

The role of China has been one of the most significant changes over the course of the series, said Gleick. The growth in the Chinese economy has led to a massive growth in demand for water (see the Wilson Center/Circle of Blue project, Choke Point: China), as well as massive contamination problems. The newest volume addresses these issues as well as China’s dam policies – internally, with neighboring countries, and around the world.

Gleick pointed out that China is one of the only nations (maybe the only) that still has a massive dam construction policy, and their installed capacity is already much larger than the United States, Brazil, or Canada. In addition, Chinese companies and financial interests are involved in at least 220 major dam projects in 50 countries around world. These projects have become increasingly controversial, for both environmental and political reasons, he said.

“My lens is typically a water lens,” Gleick said, but “none of us can think about the problems we really care about, unless we think about a more integrated approach.” Gleick emphasized the need for new thinking about sustainable, scalable, and socially responsible solutions. “We have to do more than we are doing, in every aspect of water,” he concluded.

Drafted by Theresa Polk and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker


  • Peter Gleick

    Co-founder and President, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security