Peter Gleick warns that world faces a water crisis

Forty percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to adequate sanitation services, says water expert Peter Gleick. Gleick talks about water-related challenges in the developing world, and what can be done to help.

Peter Gleick: In my opinion, the worst ‘crisis’ around freshwater is our failure to meet basic human needs for so many people.

Peter Gleick is an environmental scientist and head of the Pacific Institute, a water think-tank in California. Gleick told EarthSky that more than a billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe drinking water – something many of us in richer nations take for granted, he said.

Peter Gleick: There are 2.5 billion people, probably 40 percent of the world’s population, that don’t have access to adequate sanitation services. And that leads to water-related diseases. It leads to many, many deaths of mostly small children. And it’s a crisis because it’s bad, but it’s preventable.

He said in addition to water safety, water scarcity is another challenge. One water-saving strategy for all nations, Gleick said, is to find ways to grow more food with less water.

Peter Gleick: Agriculture is the key to all this, in part because we have to grow enough food to feed the world’s population. Eighty percent of the water that humans use goes to agriculture, much of it irrigated agriculture.

He added that we can no longer manage our water like we did in the 19th century, or even the 20th.

Peter Gleick: I think the way we operated in the 20th century, the idea was that if we had a water problem, we’d find a place to build another dam. We’d drill another ground water well. We’d basically look for more supply. And I just don’t think in the coming years that there’s much more new supply to be had.

Gleick thinks water is a human right.

Peter Gleick: I think it doesn’t get much more fundamental and basic than safe, clean water. In most of the world, we pay for our water services. And I think that’s perfectly appropriate. I pay for my water at home. I pay for the service of getting delivered to my house incredibly high-quality potable water and having my wastes magically whisked away to be treated at a wastewater treatment plant. And I pay for that service, as I should. But in many parts of the world, where people are very poor and don’t have access to safe water, I think it’s the responsibility of governments to provide safe water as a human right.

Gleick says there are two ways to think about areas of serious concern about water. One is regionally:

Peter Gleick: And of course, we worry the most about places like sub-saharan Africa and some of the parts of southern Asia, the poorest parts of the planet where the largest populations without access to safe water and sanitation exist. But we also worry about places where extreme events about water, serious drought, serious floods occur. Bangladesh is very vulnerable to flooding as we know. Parts of the United States are periodically in drought, and that leads to disputes about water allocation and conflicts over water use and shortages. But we also worry about types of water problems. There’s this terrible problem with our failure to meet basic human need.

Gleick says that the other is way of looking at water issues is in terms of climate and climate change. But, he says, we’re not ready for the impacts of climate change.

Peter Gleick: They’re coming faster than our institutions, our policy makers and our politicians and frankly each of us as individuals seems able to adapt. I worry that what’s going to happen is that we’re going to get bad impacts before we’ve prepared for them. There are things that we can do in advance to make ourselves less vulnerable, to make our water systems less vulnerable to changes in water quantity and water quality, to protect our coasts against sea level rise, to change the way we grow crops, to protect against changes in temperature and precipitation patterns.

Making those changes, he adds, requires that we do things early rather than late.

Peter Gleick: If sea level goes up and a storm hits and we haven’t done anything, that’s when people die. That’s when property gets inundated. If you get extremes of temperature, that’s when crops die if you haven’t put in place better irrigation or crops that are less vulnerable to heat.

Gleick says we’re faced with three options.

Peter Gleick: We have to mitigate, that is, reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that the severity of climate change is reduced. We have to adapt, because some climate changes are unavoidable no matter what we do. Or we have to suffer. And really, the big question facing usis, what’s proportion of each of those three things – mitigation, adaptation, suffering – are we going to experience? I think the more we do early, the less suffering we’ll have to do later.

Our thanks to Peter Gleick.
Peter Gleick is co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California, and an internationally recognized water expert. His research and writing address the critical connections between water and human health, the hydrologic impacts of climate change, sustainable water use, privatization and globalization, and international conflicts over water resources.

Photo Credit: Julien Harneis

Jorge Salazar