Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Peter Gleick has spent much of his career over more than 25 years studying and influencing water issues worldwide.

After doing his PhD focusing on hydrology and climatology, in 1986 he published one of the first articles looking at the impact of climate change on water resources and is today widely regarded as one of the world’s preeminent experts in the field of water. Perini Journal spoke with him in his office at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California.

Perini Journal

Scientists estimate that less than 3% of the water on earth is freshwater with the rest being saltwater, and only one percent is accessible freshwater. The remainder is locked in ice caps or deep underground. Thus, the simple H2O molecule - one of the most essential materials for life on this planet - is a very scarce resource that has for thousands of years been the source of concern, regulation and conflict.

The Pacific Institute, founded in 1987, aims to find real-world applied solutions to problems like water shortages, habitat destruction, climate change, and environmental injustice. Based in Oakland, California, it conducts research, publishes reports, recommends solutions, and works with decision makers, advocacy groups, and the public to change policy.

PJ: Do you feel that water has become a hotter topic throughout the world today?

PG: There is no doubt that water is increasingly important to a broader number of people throughout the planet. Overall, there is a much greater awareness of water issues today, and a greater effort to solve water problems.

But the history of conflict over water goes back thousands of years. We have a chronology of water disputes on our www.worldwater.org database, which shows clashes going back to ancient Mesopotamia. Hundreds of disputes have occurred because of water and it appears that the risk of water-related conflicts has been growing in recent years.

PJ: What do you think are the biggest water challenges we are facing?

PG: I think four water challenges stand out. Number one is the fact that there are between 800 and 900 million people on earth that have no access to safe drinking water. That’s 1/7 of the world, and I think this is totally unacceptable in the 21st century. On top of this about 2.5 billion people, or more than 1/3 of the world, lack safe sanitation services, which leads to diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and other water-related diseases.

Number two is that we are running up against what we call ‘peak water’ limits. This is analogous to peak oil, meaning we are reaching the limit of how much water we can take from our rivers, lakes, and groundwater. So we need to find other ways to use the water we have more efficiently. We have what we call ‘renewable’ and ‘nonrenewable’ water. Renewable water is the majority of water in the world today, such as a river. The fact is that we have reached a peak withdrawal in many key rivers in the world. We are taking the entire flow of the Colorado River in the USA, and doing the same for the flow of the Yellow River in China and the Nile in Egypt. We might want more water from these systems, but there is none to be had.

Nonrenewable water is ground water coming from aquifers that is pumped faster than it is naturally recharged. This is similar to oil, where we have a limited supply deep down in the ground, and once it’s gone, we must find other sources. In areas of China, India, and the Western United States we are overpumping our groundwater. By some estimates, as much as 40% of the world’s food production is based on nonrenewable water and that is certainly unsustainable. This food-water connection is a very important point, and we need urgent solutions so we can continue to grow food with limited water resources, for the growing global population.

Our third major water challenge is climate change. The scientific community and every national science academy on the planet is in agreement that climate change is happening and that humans are responsible. The challenge here lies in understanding what the impacts of climate change on water are going to be, what costs are involved, and what options there may be for reducing the impacts.

Without a doubt some of the biggest consequences will be related to water. A warmer planet means more evaporation and a more intense hydrological cycle. Agricultural demand for water will increase as temperatures go up. Climate change will cause changes in ice and snow melt, and the timing and intensity of rainfall. So, to make matters worse, the already difficult challenges concerning water and distribution of water on the planet are going to be further complicated by climate change.

Last is the political side of water and the risk of water-related conflicts. Water crosses borders and is not contained neatly within single countries. Half of the planet’s land area is in what we call an international river basin, which means rain falls on the ground and flows into a river shared by two or more countries. We must learn to manage these shared waters peacefully. So clearly there is a range of challenges in the area of water and a lot of work to do.

PJ: If you look at the pulp and paper industry, how do you see it?

PG: Pulp and paper is a very water-intensive industry and there is a lot of interest in trying to understand water use, wastewater discharge, and reporting from a sustainability viewpoint. Sustainability reports are today as common as financial reports. In this respect, we work with companies to help them evaluate, understand,and improve water use.

We are seeing progressive companies taking an interest in the corporate risk associated with water.

PJ: What is the risk of water shortages or to a corporate reputation if there is a contamination problem?

PG: Forward-looking companies want to reduce the water risks they face and understand how their operations might be affected. So even in the absence of regulation, they want to reduce their impact. Some of our work involves cooperation with innovative companies to tighten up their supply chain and reduce the use of natural resources, including water.

The beverage industry learned this very early on when local opposition forced some plants to close in India, at both an enormous economic and reputational cost. So for the water-intensive pulp and paper industry, it certainly makes sense to try to anticipate these risks and to work to minimize them. This is much more common than it was 20 years ago, showing a much wider understanding of water problems.

PJ: Do you feel you are making progress in water issues?

PG: Yes, I think we are having an impact. Most people now understand that we won’t solve the problem just by building new dams and reservoirs, but instead must improve management of water for better efficiency. In fact, water use in the United States, which for a long time grew parallel to population and economic growth, has over recent decades leveled off. We actually use less water today than 30 years ago, even though our population and economy have grown. This is a remarkable change in thinking and acting. The good news is that there are smart and effective solutions that can still be implemented. *

Login or Register to publish a comment