Zone of Peace
A World Without Water
By Tara Lohan
Back to Archived Reports List
February 16, 2009
If you've read anything about the global water crisis, you've likely
read a quote from Dr. Peter Gleick, founder and president of the Pacific
Institute, and one of the world's leading water experts. His name has
become as ubiquitous as drought itself, which is suddenly making major
headlines. A report from the World Economic Forum warned that in only
twenty years our civilization may be facing "water
bankruptcy"--shortfalls of fresh water so large and pervasive that
global food production could crater, meaning that we'd lose the
equivalent of the entire grain production of the US and India combined.
But we don't have to wait twenty years to see what this would look like.
Australia, reeling from twelve years of drought in the Murray-Darling
River Basin, has seen agriculture grind to a halt, with tens of billions
of dollars in losses. The region has been rendered a tinderbox, with the
deadliest fires in the country's history claiming over 160 lives so far.
And all this may begin to hit closer to home soon. California's water
manager said that the state is bracing for its worst drought in modern
history. Stephen Chu, the new US secretary of energy, warns that the
effects of climate change on California's water supplies could put an
end to agriculture in the state by 2100 and imperil major cities.
The bad news is that these droughts are not just characteristic of a few
hot spots around the world. Climate change is liable to affect already
stressed drinking water in countless places, including much of Asia,
Africa, the Middle East and parts of the Americas and Europe. Water is
the essence of life, vital not just for drinking and sanitation but for
agriculture and industry. If we don't change our ways, and fast, we are
courting global economic collapse, the World Economic Forum warned.
But there is good news, according to Gleick. For years he has advocated
for a fundamental change in policy, infrastructure and thinking that he
calls the "soft path" for water. I first met Gleick when I edited Water
Consciousness, the newest book from AlterNet, which takes a
comprehensive look at solutions to the global water crisis. With the
flurry of drought related headlines recently and the release of Gleick's
newest edition of his biennial book, The World's Water, this seemed like
the perfect opportunity to catch up with him again and see how we can
begin to put his thinking into practice--before it's too late.
From what I've read in the newest edition of your book, The World's
Water 2008-2009, (Island Press, 2008) it seems that China faces some of
the most difficult water challenges on earth, and the trends are only
growing worse as climate change intensifies. For example, the glaciers
that supply much of China's (and other Asian nations') drinking and
irrigation water are melting fast and some portion of them will be lost
forever. What is China doing to prepare for the impacts of these and
Nothing. The glaciers are melting. In China, and in general, nobody is
doing anything different.
Since the Tibetan Plateau is a source of drinking and irrigation water
for an estimated one billion people--one out of every six people on
earth--how will this impact other Asian nations?
For China, the international ramifications of their water policies are
vast and under-appreciated. Just about every major Asian river
originates in the Tibetan plateau--the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Ganges,
the Brahmaputra--there are almost no major rivers that don't derive some
of their flow from water that comes out of Tibet. That means whatever
happens in Tibet doesn't just affect China, or the Tibetans. And yet
there is very little public discussion about the international nature of
those water resources. With climate change it will be a growing source
of tension in the future.
What should they be doing?
The same as everyone else. We need to do two things, broadly. We need
first to slow the rate of climate change. The second thing is that we
need to start adapting to the climate changes we can't avoid. And the
best way to say it is that we need to avoid the unmanageable and manage
the unavoidable. We need to avoid the kinds of climate changes that
will, in the long run, be catastrophic. And we need to start managing
those climate changes that we know we aren't going to be able to avoid
because of the gases in the atmosphere and the inability of
policy-makers to deal with the problem.
What China has done with water, seems to epitomize what you call the
"hard path" for water. But you advocate for the "soft path." Can you
explain what that means?
The idea of a soft path for water is most simply to move toward a
long-term, sustainable management of our water system. The old way, the
"hard path," was the way we managed water in the twentieth century--with
centralized infrastructure, big construction projects, and narrow
management by a small number of specialists. The hard path brought
benefits, substantial benefits, to many parts of the planet. But the
idea that infrastructure alone--and that style of management alone--is
enough to solve our water problems is I think obviously wrong. We need
to rethink demand for water and efficiency; and we need to rethink
distributed water systems, rather than centralized systems; and we need
far more transparent decision-making and institutions.
One of your points on the soft path is about matching the quality of
water with its use so that we are no longer flushing our toilets or
watering our lawns with potable water. How can we begin to make this
We are making it. The places that are really water scarce are making
that transition faster than other places. Water re-use has been going on
for many years in Namibia. Singapore is moving very aggressively to
something called NEWater, which is a state-of-the-art water treatment
that is not used for direct potable re-use right away but for other
demands for water. We can treat any quality water to potable standards.
We have the technology. There is a psychological barrier and an
education barrier and an expense barrier, but we are seeing it more and
more. Another barrier is that we have one set of pipes that come into
our homes. We don't need potable water for flushing our toilets, but
often that is the only water we have. So part of the challenge is
changing our infrastructure, so we can use different qualities of water
for different purposes. That takes investment: money, time and education.
So who should be doing this? Cities? States?
In general, we want our water to be managed and regulated at the lowest
possible level: the most local. We want communities making decisions
about water management, where appropriate. But there are things we want
at the federal level--like efficiency standards and water-quality
standards. One of the key points of the soft path is to manage water at
the proper level.
You've mentioned that new technology like desalination should be used
"where appropriate." Since desal has some serious drawbacks in its use
of energy, its impact on marine ecosystems, and hazardous brine waste,
where would an appropriate place or use for it be?
Compared to most water alternatives facing us, desalination is very
expensive, environmentally and economically. But, there are places where
we are willing to pay a lot for water. It is also possible to build a
bad desalination plant that harms marine systems--we've built plenty of
them around the world. But it is possible to build them in ways that
don't harm them, and I just think it ought to be mandated. It makes the
water more expensive, but so be it. Too much of the twentieth century
was built while ignoring the environmental impacts. That's why we have a
climate problem--these externalities have been ignored.
Right now an enormous amount of attention is focused on energy issues.
You mentioned at a recent talk in Berkeley that some of the cheapest
ways to save energy are actually through water efficiency. Can you
explain the interconnection?
It takes a lot of water to produce certain kinds of energy--oil, coal,
natural gas, nuclear. Thermal plants, in general, all require a lot of
water for cooling. And in the US probably the single largest use of
water is for power plant cooling. Whereas, solar and wind and other
energy systems require very little or no water. If energy is an issue
and water is an issue, let's think about the two together.
But conversely, it also takes a huge amount of energy to collect and
treat and move water. There is a big energy cost in our water systems,
but it turns out that some of the cheapest remaining energy efficiency
options for us are not saving energy per se, but are saving water. So, a
simple example is front-loading washing machines, which save water,
detergent and energy. And so, that is a no-brainer. We should be seeing
more of these kinds of things implemented to save both.
And maybe we'll start rethinking a lot of the biofuels stuff, too.
Biofuels, like ethanol, are a great example of solving one problem and
causing another--and in this case, solving one problem and causing a lot
We hear a lot these days about "peak oil," but you write about "peak
water." What do you mean by this?
Discussion of peak oil got us thinking about the idea of peak water.
Rather than run out of water, what we're going to run out of is the
ability of the planet to sustain the amount of water we use and the way
we use it. Water is a renewable resource, mostly. After it is used, it
just goes somewhere else in the hydrologic cycle, and it comes back. And
so we are not literally running out of water, with some exceptions. For
example, there are parts of the planet where we use groundwater faster
than nature recharges it.
Like the Ogallala under the Great Plains?
Yes--the Ogallala, the North China Plain, parts of California's Central
Valley, parts of India. In that sense, it is very much like oil. And the
idea of peak water very much applies in the way it does for oil. There
comes a time when it is harder and more expensive to get, and so use
drops off. And that is a problem in many parts of the world. A lot of
our agriculture relies on non-sustainable groundwater use.
Where are you seeing this the most?
We see it in almost every ecosystem: the Everglades, the Aral Sea, the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Yellow River, the Colorado River.
There are, unfortunately, a distressingly large and growing number of
places where the ecological consequences of our water use is significant
So we have a new president now. What should we be pushing for at the
national policy level?
Without forgetting that there are important things to be done at the
local level, with a new administration we have a new opportunity to
change a lot of things. I think we need a new national water commission.
The last national water commission was in 1970.
There are many suggestions that came out of that commission that are
still perfectly relevant, but there are new things as well. They don't
talk at all about climate change and it is a reality that we have to
deal with. They don't talk about the role that water should be playing
in our foreign policy. I think we can spend more money in some areas to
help meet needs for water and sanitation.
We also need to talk about how at the international level we can play a
role as a country in reducing the risks of conflicts over water. There
are many parts of the world where water is a growing source of conflict
And another thing is that it is really time we rethought water quality
at the federal level. We have two major laws, the Clean Water Act and
the Safe Drinking Water Act, which we've had since the early '70s. They
need to be brought into the twenty-first century by updating the kinds
of things that we monitor, how we monitor, how we enforce our water
quality laws, and the kinds of technologies we encourage to protect our
water. We need to do a better job at protecting water quality than we're
doing, and that should be done at the federal level.
Maybe we have that opportunity now.
About Tara Lohan
Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and heads up the Environment
and Water coverage. She is the editor of the newest title from AlterNet
Books Water Consciousness: A Comprehensive, Solution-Focused Guide to
America's Greatest Environmental Crisis.