Water Wisdom

Recently I visited water expert Peter Gleick at the Oakland, California, headquarters of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, where he is president and co-founder. A MacArthur Fellowship award winner for his work on water issues, Dr. Gleick has been a practitioner in the field for some 20 years. His institute's work can be found at www.pacinst.org and www.worldwater.org. Some highlights of our conversation:

RS: In your book Water in Crisis, published in 1993, you said that water was going to be a major challenge for the world for the coming century. Well, here we are well into that coming century. Are things now better or worse than you thought they would be?

PG: I do think there is a water crisis. There are still more than a billion people who don't have access to safe drinking water, and 2 and a half billion people, or so, without access to adequate sanitation. Two million people a year die of water-related diseases that are preventable, curable, unnecessary. And that, by itself -- what I describe as a failure to meet basic human needs for water -- is a crisis. Sometimes the word is overused, but not in my opinion in this case.

The good news is that there's growing attention to water by the public, by politicians, by scientists, by academics. And that's leading to new efforts to use water more efficiently, to think about incorporating ecosystems into water planning and management. There are many good examples of political cooperation over water. All around the world we're seeing bits and pieces of what, if taken altogether, is a sustainable strategy of what I call a soft path to water.

RS: Are industrial users becoming interested in the soft path?

PG: Yes. At the Pacific Institute we spend a lot of time looking at water-efficiency potential across the board. In the 1920s, it took 200 tons of water to make a ton of steel. Today, the best steel plants in the world use 2 or 3 tons of water to make a ton of steel. That's a 99 percent reduction. In general, the drumbeat from industry used to be, "Oh, we can't comply with these environmental regulations, they're too expensive." But the reality has turned out to be that they made these industries more efficient, and made the environment cleaner. Everybody benefited. The steel industry would have died a slow, horrible death in the United States. In-stead, it was fundamentally restructured.

Other smart, innovative industries get it, and they get it early, and they reduce their environmental footprints, in every aspect -- energy, environment, water, toxics -- and it's to their credit that they do so. They don't want to get in trouble with their consumers. They don't want to have people badgering them to measure their water footprint. They want to get ahead of the problem.

RS: Global warming in many respects is making matters worse in the water world. What sort of response can we expect?

PG: It's sometimes a little depressing to look back and see how little progress we have made in getting water managers to understand the true risks of climate change. I do think the debate about climate change itself is over. The next step is integrating that understanding into changes in the way we manage water. It is still happening very slowly -- too slowly in my opinion. But it is happening. We are, especially in the Western United States, coming to the realization that tomorrow's climate is going to be different from yesterday's climate and that we're going to have to manage our complex water system for that new reality.

RS: What about money issues?

PG: It takes less money to meet basic human needs for water than the economic cost of not meeting those needs -- in terms of health, lost work days, lost education opportunities for girls and women in the developing world. The faster we understand that, the less we'll complain about how much is involved.

People are willing to pay for water that meets their needs, and I think that's key to a lot of this.

I also believe that the economic models we've used in the past -- the role of the World Bank and the big international funding agencies -- are not going to get us to the solutions we need. In particular, while there is a need for some big, expensive infrastructure, there's also a desperate need for much smaller-scale investments: at the village level, on the individual level, at the community level. The World Bank is very good at spending a billion dollars in one place, but they're not good at spending a million dollars in a thousand places -- or a thousand dollars in a million places. That requires a new model of financing, and one that the World Bank and organizations like [it] are not capable of addressing.

RS: How about technology? We do have better-engineered desalination capabilities, drip irrigation, and other refinements of agricultural watering. Do techno-fixes represent a solution to the problem?

PG: Just as education is important, just as regulatory policies are important, just as proper economics is important, there's a critical role for technology. I think technology for water is going to be a little different in the coming years than it has been in the past when we focused on large-scale central models. Increasingly we are going to see smart irrigation technology, smart appliances in our homes, more effective local desalination is a possibility, new technologies for treating and reusing waste water are going to be key. All of those things have a role to play.

RS: On reorganizing the bureaucracies to cope with all this: What do we need?

PG: I would make two points. First, it's obvious, of course, the institutions we have today have not solved our water problems. But the second point is that doesn't necessarily mean we need new institutions. It certainly suggests that we need, at minimum, better-run institutions.

But it is also possible that we in the U.S. need to fundamentally rethink the way we manage water. We should be managing water at the watershed level, rather than the state level. Or we should be managing it for local resources rather than relying on federal subsidies and federal polices. There are certain things we have to do at the federal level and certain things we have to do at the local level. And we haven't been very good about figuring out which is which.

RS: Much is made of interpretations that position water as a commodity rather than a human right. What is your view?

PG: I do think that water is a human right. The challenge is how do we implement that right, what does it really mean? Water is also an economic good, and figuring out how to balance these things in ways that protect humans and ecosystems is going to be a challenge. It's going to be a leading challenge.

RS: What about managing political conflict? Is there a need for a new world body to arbitrate water disputes?

PG: There's a long history of conflict going back 5,000 years. And as water becomes more scarce and demand rises, the risk of political conflict and violence over water will grow. The places that concern me most are, as you might imagine, already water-scarce: the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, parts of Asia, the Southwestern United States. Where water is already tight, where supplies are scarce or demand high compared to water availability, political tensions are high.

Most disputes over water are subnational, local often, and they're under the jurisdiction of local courts, local laws, local water rights, local water allocations. There has been some discussion about some sort of water tribunal at the international level for shared water. And that might have some value. But the best way to reduce conflicts over shared water resources is by a bilateral or multilateral treaty with the parties involved. The U.S. and Mexico signed a treaty on the Colorado River. The U.S. and Canada signed a treaty about the Great Lakes. Nile River riparian nations are working hard to come up with a treaty acceptable to all of them. That's the only real way to get a comprehensive agreement. I don't think a new world body would necessarily help that.

RS: As regards water privatization, your books propose a set of principles to guide public- and private-sector water managers. Do you see evidence of those principles being adopted, or is it too soon?

PG: Yes, we do. There's enormous public opposition to privatization. The public is very concerned about private control of water resources, about the transparency of private water providers. And so, increasingly, as privatization has been proposed, there's been push-back, there's been opposition. So balancing the public and private aspects of water is also going to be part of the challenge in the coming years. And my feeling is that, unless some of the principles that we put forward are adopted -- of public transparency, government oversight and regulation, of public participation and decision making about rates and design and systems operation -- then public opposition can stop privatization. So it makes sense in my mind for the private companies to try and do this properly, or they're not going to get a chance to do it at all.

RS: So, what's most urgently needed?

PG: We can't do it all, but we don't have to. But what we really need to do is the things that are the most effective and the most efficient and the quickest. I very firmly believe that there are sustainable solutions to dealing with the complex set of challenges to fix in the water area. There are lots of smart people working on the problem; there are lots of innovative ideas and practices being tested. I think the real question is, how fast will the transition to a soft path for water occur, and how much suffering will have to happen before we are well along on that path.

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