More and more regions around the world – from the Yellow River in China to the Great Plains in the United States – are reaching their “peak water” limits, according to the latest biennial report on freshwater resources by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security.
The seventh volume of The World’s Water analyzes the role of climate change in transboundary water politics, looks at the corporate risks and responsibilities around water, probes the effects of fossil fuel production on water quality, and lays out the need for reform and a soft-path approach to U.S. water policy.
The study also looks at Australia’s decade-long drought as a case study for other parts of the world — including California and the Western United States — and explores the regional and global consequences of China’s rampant dam-building policy. Other topics include bottled water, The Great Lakes Water Agreement, and how water impacts security.
“The idea behind this book is to provide a regular update on the state of the world’s water – what progress have we made in solving water problems, where are we falling behind – and to provide an update on data,” said Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and lead author of the report. “We also look back over a long period of time at the trends, and the fact that this is now Volume 7 gives us an increasingly long view on water issues.”
Circle of Blue spoke with Gleick about the report and the state of the world’s water.
Circle of Blue: Which regions of the world are facing the highest risk of reaching “peak water,” and what does this really mean globally?
Peter Gleick: The last volume of The World’s Water – Volume 6 – laid out the concept of peak water, that is, growing constraints in three areas. One is on renewable water resources: limits to our ability to take more water from renewable systems. And we see examples of “peak renewable water” all over the world, including the Colorado River, the Nile River, the Yellow River — rivers where we are effectively taking almost the entire renewable river flow, and that’s a peak renewable limit. We also talk about “peak non-renewable water resources,” where we are overpumping non-renewable groundwater faster than nature recharges it. And we see these limits again in many parts of the world — in California, the Great Plains, Northern China, India, large areas of the Middle East. These are peak non-renewable limits, and they are not sustainable. And the third category is “peak ecological water,” where we are running up against environmental constraints on how much water we can use in any system; where we are causing more ecological harm than we are producing economic benefit. And several parts of Volume 7 are examples of peak water. The chapter on Australia is a good example of peak water constraints in Australia, where we are simply running against physical contraints on how much water we can use.
Circle of Blue: The report features a chapter on corporate water management. What is the potential for business to push the global sustainability agenda?
Peter Gleick: I think the good news is that the corporate sector and businesses are increasingly aware of their impacts on water resources; on the risks they face from water scarcity and contamination; on their responsibility for using and managing water in a more sustainable way. And that’s actually a change from 14 years ago [when we did Volume 1], when participation by the business sector in these conversations was almost non-existent. There’s good news in that the corporate sector is playing a more positive role. But the corporate sector is only one player. They have certain responsibilities, but it’s also critical that governments and communities address these problems as well. No one sector is going to solve these problems.
Circle of Blue: One chapter in the report summarizes your upcoming book on 21st century U.S. water policy. What did you find?
Peter Gleick: Some people wonder if there’s a U.S. water policy at all. And there isn’t a formal U.S. water policy, but there are very important federal efforts, activities, and responsibilities around water. We reviewed the role of the federal government in water policy, and we’ve laid out what we would argue is a comprehensive set of reforms for federal policy around water quality, water management, water allocations. We’ve looked at where it’s appropriate that the federal government be involved in water policy. And we put out a set of reforms — in particular, around the area of new thinking about water quality, about the management of federal infrastructure and financing, about strategies for integrating what are terribly disjointed and uncoordinated federal agencies, at the moment. And we make some of these recommendations in a chapter in The World’s Water, but the book that is coming out in the spring is going to give a much more comprehensive look.
Circle of Blue: And what are some of the regions that are using innovative approaches?
Peter Gleick: In the first chapter, we talk about some transboundary-river agreements, which have been somewhat successful at reducing tensions over water resources. For example, the Great Lakes region, where a fairly comprehensive agreement between the U.S. and Canada has been put in place to manage the shared water resources. Another partial success is in the response of Australia to their severe drought, where very innovative agreements have been put in place to manage water allocations and ecosystem water. They’ve been forced on Australia by the severity of the drought, but the response has been some pretty innovative programs. And some of these might be lessons for other regions, as well. The experience of Australia was so dramatic that they were forced to put in place truly innovative and potentially transformative, policies — but the challenge is always whether or not those policies remain in place after the drought’s end, and I don’t think we know yet.
Circle of Blue: What are some of the new data in this volume?
Peter Gleick: One of the interesting data sets that we included this year is looking at public perception around water resources. What we found is that the publics — in countries all over the world — find water issues to be at the top of their list of environmental concerns. Climate change goes up and down with the American public, goes up and down with the publics in other countries, but water issues have been at the top — and remain at the top — of the environmental concerns of people around the world. To some degree, that’s good news. People care a lot about water, and they care about water consistently over the years: they worry about water availability, and they worry about the quality of their water. And if there’s any good news in all of this, it’s that – that people care about water. And, if we are going to make progress at solving our water problems, it’s only going to come because people demand progress.
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