The world’s freshwater systems are in crisis, beset by everything from global warming to population growth to corruption. Though it doesn’t get the media attention that’s lavished on energy issues, many experts predict that water will be the central resource issue of the coming century. Water, they say, is the new oil.
Few know more about water than Peter Gleick, president and cofounder of the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank. The 2003 MacArthur Genius grant recipient edits The World’s Water, a comprehensive biennial report on the state of the world’s freshwater.
William K. Reilly — CEO of Aqua International Partners, a firm that invests in innovative water projects in developing countries — knows a thing or two about water as well. Head of the U.S. EPA under the first President Bush (and credited with many of the positive environmental accomplishments of that administration), he is now chair of the board of the World Wildlife Fund.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Gleick and Reilly when they came through Seattle for a conference on 21st century water issues — and our conversation went swimmingly. (Har har.)
Energy and climate issues have recently gripped the popular imagination. But water hasn’t caught on. Why is that?
Gleick: There are a couple of reasons. One is, water problems are often local. Another is, some of the worst water problems are not in the United States, but in developing countries, where basic access to water and sanitation doesn’t exist. There are a billion people who don’t have access to clean drinking water, but they’re somewhere else, mostly.
The other thing is, we don’t import a lot of water, and so the political issues around water — there are many — aren’t typically viewed in the same way that political dependence on oil is viewed.
One of the knocks on the energy market is that it’s distorted: it offers end users prices that don’t reflect the true cost. Is the same true of water?
Photo: Pacific Institute.
Gleick: Yes and no. At home, I probably pay pretty close to the full, true cost of water. Not quite. I’m probably paying $600 to $700 an acre-foot, equivalent. Probably $50 or $60 a month.
But big users, especially big agricultural users, have historically been subsidized, mostly by federal projects and federal government, but sometimes by state projects as well. So the big users — and 80 percent of the water in the West Coast goes to agriculture — don’t see the full economic cost of the use of that water usually.
Reilly: And the numbers are staggering. I remember years ago hearing that if you reduced by 10 percent the amount of water agriculture took in Arizona, you could increase the urban use by 100 percent.
To give you a sense of the disparity, we use something like 1,430 gallons per capita in the United States. Only 100 gallons of that is household use per person. So you want to affect water volumes, you look to agriculture.
Are there big savings to be had in efficiency of agricultural water use?
Gleick: I would argue there are enormous savings. We could do what we want to do with a lot less water in every sector. But in agriculture especially, there have been fewer improvements in efficiency over the last few years — the price of water in agriculture is lower, so the economic incentive to put in efficient irrigation technologies is lower.
Reilly: Part of what you’re talking about is changing what crops we grow?
Gleick: Yes and no. There are two pieces. One is, how efficiently can we do what we’re doing? The other is, can we change what we’re doing and save water that way? And we can do both. We can switch from flood irrigation to drip irrigation on the same crop, and produce the same or higher yields, with less water. Or we could grow — this is especially true in the Western U.S. — a little less cotton and alfalfa and rice and irrigated pasture, and more vegetables and fruits and nuts and more higher-value, lower-water-using crops. But the agricultural sector is very sensitive about anybody telling them what kind of crops they grow.
Well, we tell them what crops to grow by subsidizing certain crops, don’t we?
Gleick: Yes, sure. And in fact, the World Trade Organization just passed a ruling with cotton subsidies worldwide, which could have the effect of quite dramatically changing where it’s profitable and appropriate to grow cotton.
Reilly: Water subsidies have been really dysfunctional in many parts of the world. In India, in Maharashtra, they fill up water from 300, 350 feet down and they irrigate lentils with it — a relatively low-value crop. Why do they do that? Because they have free electricity from their government. So the water tables have been dropping 12, 15 feet a year. They’re gradually going over to drip irrigation, but meanwhile they’re blaming Coca-Cola for depleting their groundwater. And Coca-Cola has had two of its plants shut down in India. But if you really trace back the problem, the problem is subsidies for electricity there.
This huge imbalance — agriculture using most of the water — is that true worldwide, or is it in the Western U.S. in particular?
Gleick: It’s especially the West, which of course is very dry. West of the 100th meridian is the classic description: where there’s not enough natural rainfall to grow agricultural crops the way we grow them. And so the federal government offered billions of dollars in bribes — dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, irrigation systems — as a way of encouraging the settlement of the West.
The vast majority of the water in China goes to agriculture, in India goes to agriculture. In Europe it’s different. They don’t have irrigated agriculture, so it’s much more heavily weighted for industrial, commercial uses than irrigation. But in general, worldwide, agriculture’s a big user. And you know, we have a lot of people to feed.
What will be the effect of global warming on water?
Gleick: First of all, the climate issue is in many ways a water issue. The hydrologic cycle, which we learned about in third grade — evaporation from the oceans, clouds, rainfall on land, runoff into the oceans — that is the climate cycle as well. And so as the climate changes (and it is changing), we’re going to see more and more effects on water resources. Storm frequency and intensity is going to change. And that’s critical for the West Coast of the U.S., for example. Higher temperatures are going to have very significant effects on snowpack in the Western U.S. We’re going to see less snow; what does fall is going to melt earlier and faster. It’s a big worry.
The worry being that there will be shortages?
Gleick: I think the worry is both shortages and floods — maybe in different places at different times. But I think in the Western U.S., for example, we’re going to see more of both. We’re going to see more floods as the snowpack melts faster in the winter. We’ll see more droughts as it runs off sooner and disappears earlier in the year. And a lot depends on things we still don’t fully understand. In California, for example, the difference between a really wet year and a really dry year is whether one or two storms go north and hit Washington instead of California. If they go north into Washington, we’re dry. If they go south into California, Washington’s dry.
You write about the “soft path” to water. What is that?
Gleick: The hard path to water is what we pursued in the 20th century. That involved mostly building big infrastructure — dams, reservoirs, centralized wastewater-treatment systems — to deal with our water problems. That infrastructure brought enormous benefits to us, but it also brought some unexpectedly high costs: environmental damage, social and economic problems. And it hasn’t solved all of our water problems.
I think it’s pretty clear in the 21st century that a new approach is needed, something that uses large infrastructure where necessary, maybe building large infrastructure to a different standard, but also uses decentralized infrastructure, smart economics, new institutions that pay attention to what communities need. The idea of applying drip irrigation in India is an example of smart technology applied to a large-scale water problem, rather than large technology applied in the old way.
What do you think about water privatization?
Gleick: [Bill and I] maybe have different perceptions on this, but I think it works in some places and not in others, and it depends on how you do it. Water privatization is a very controversial issue in the water area for a variety of reasons, and positions have become quite polarized. There’s been private participation in one form or another for centuries in the water area. And at the same time, water’s a public good, and there are certain aspects of water that I would argue we have to make sure we protect. That’s part of the reason we have regulatory agencies over public or private water companies, because water service delivery is ultimately a monopoly.
Reilly: I don’t really disagree with that. What strikes me is, whenever I go to World Water Congress, or conferences on water, there’s always some activist, angry group of environmentalists, or Indians, protesting privatization somewhere. And that’s fine. But we’re probably not gonna see much more classic privatization, the way that Mrs. Thatcher did it in England. We’ve gotta improve the public systems.
I deal with public water systems in the Latin American world in particular. They’re a disaster. They’re a disaster almost in every developing country: they’re overstaffed; they have a huge amount of leakage; they don’t put money back into improving the system; they are corrupt.
It’s not enough to drive out Bechtel, if the water’s just as bad as it ever was. And the attitude seems to be, the World Bank should provide it. Well, the World Bank can’t provide water to everybody. So there are a lot of reforms necessary in publicly provided water. That’s where I’d focus for the future, because I don’t think privatization is that much of a threat anymore.
Do you think water is a human right?
Gleick: I think water is a human right, and I think it’s been so declared by the United Nations. The United States doesn’t recognize that officially, though in the long run I don’t know how important that is. The question is: if there’s a human right to water, what does it mean practically? What does it mean for providing water and water services for the vast numbers of people whose basic human needs for water aren’t being met? I don’t think the human right to water means water should be free. I’m willing to pay for water; I ought to pay for the water services I get. Most people around the world are willing and able to pay for water. Often they pay far more for bad-quality water now than they would if there were a good, reliable system. They buy water from private vendors of dubious quality.
How could such a right be enforced?
Reilly: People who think we ought to get water free — it’s because they’ve been getting water that they’re not paying for in many parts of the world. But there’s no money going into improvement. That was true in Mexico City; no money went into improving the pipes for seven years. So they had a disaster system and were buying water, especially the poor, from truck vendors at 10 times what you would pay for reasonable public-system-provided water. So the human-right part of it means different things to different people.
I think there’s also a human right to housing. In the United States we have a national housing law, from 1949: we are all entitled to a decent house and a suitable living environment. Well, who can you sue to enforce that right? What did it mean to declare it? It’s an important milestone, a metric of progress in civilized society, but don’t misunderstand how far it gets you.
Gleick: The question is not, who can I sue if I don’t have water? The question is, is there a way to pressure governments who are not fulfilling their responsibilities to their citizens? They’re not intentionally depriving their citizens of water, but they’re failing to provide the infrastructure and the institutions and the systems required to provide that water. There’s still a billion people without access to clean drinking water, and 2.5 billion without access to sanitation services. And it’s because governments haven’t met their responsibilities, I would argue.
Do you think that end-user conservation is a particularly significant piece of the water puzzle? Not running water while you brush your teeth, stuff like that?
Gleick: There’s conservation where you cut back on what you’re doing — you let your lawns go brown, you take shorter showers. A classic perception, Jimmy Carter in front of the fireplace with a sweater. That’s not what I think of when I think of water conservation and efficiency. What I think of is doing what you want to do with less water. And the potential for that kind of conservation is enormous. Even in areas where, like the Western United States, we’ve put some effort into this for a long time, there’s still enormous potential to do what we want to do with less water. There’s a lot more potential for cutting back on the demand for water without cutting back on the benefits that water use provides.
We’re already moving in the direction of more efficient use. We use less water in the United States today for everything than we used 20 years ago, despite a bigger economy and a bigger population.
Is it public policy that’s driven those changes, or private entrepreneurship?
Gleick: It’s both. A big change came when the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which required industries to clean up wastewater in the ’70s. It turned out one of the cheapest ways to clean up wastewater is not to dump wastewater in the first place, not to generate it. That, it turns out, made a number of industries much more efficient in their water use. It used to take 200 tons of water to make a ton of steel in the U.S. Now it takes five or six tons. That’s an improvement in efficiency, and it wasn’t driven by a desire to save water. So sometimes laws are required, sometimes education, sometimes economic incentives.