Imagining a smarter water future in World’s Water 7

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA Communications Officer

map of world water resources with territories re-sized to reflect proportion of world fresh water

Unequal wealth. contorts the shapes of world territories to reflect the relative proportions of the world’s freshwater resources found within their bounds. © Copyright SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan).


How much water do humans use? And how much water do ecosystems need? At the heart of water management research are simple questions that we can’t answer, said Peter Gleick, McArthur fellow and president and founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, in Washington to talk about his latest biennial report on water, world-wide, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“Congress is very concerned with the budget. I actually think Congress and everybody in the world should be concerned with the five letter word spelled w-a-t-e-r,” said Wilson Center president Jane Harman, introducing Gleick on October 18th. Harmon left her own congressional seat to take up leadership of the Wilson Center  in February 2011.

Released this October by Island Press, The World’s Water Volume 7 dips into fossil fuels and water quality, the boom in Chinese dam development, Australia’s efforts to cope with severe drought, corporate social responsibility, and US water policy reform. It tackles the basic questions of use, supply, and demand, bringing to bear new tools, like satellite observations of groundwater depletion measured through slight changes in gravity. It projects future trans-border water conflicts as the world’s climate changes.

Water has a long history as prize, weapon, and victim of war. Gleick and colleagues chronicle water’s violent history with an emphasis on the interdependencies of our essential resources. They also discuss success stories, “case studies that might help us to move from where we are to where we want to be,” said Gleick, pointing to a 2008 Canada-U.S. compact on Great Lakes water use as an imperfect but encouraging example.

When we don’t take connected resources into account in policy decisions, he said, we get bad regulations and bad consequences. Water does not conform to territorial boundaries. It can’t be separated from our demands for food and fuel. The dynamic between energy systems and water systems is a particular interest of the Pacific Institute.

Heating, moving and purifying water demands energy, and producing energy demands water. Hydraulic fracking, an increasingly popular method of natural gas extraction, uses large volumes of water to crack rock and release gas. Extraction of oil from tar sands is also exceptionally water-intensive compared to more traditional fossil fuel exploitation. Alternative fuels use water too. Encouraging corn ethanol production to cut oil imports, exacerbated high food prices worldwide and put new demands on limited water supplies in the Midwest. Solar-thermal generation of energy can consume large amounts of water if regulators do not insist on dry-cooling systems.

With existing technology, urban areas could reduce water consumption by a third and keep the same standard of living, the Pacific Institute calculates. Agriculture has the potential to use 10-15% less water. “It’s not enough just to look at the cost of water to determine if efficiency measures are worth it,” said Gleick, arguing that we need to add benefits to energy consumption and ecosystem protection to the equation to see the full value of investing in water conservation.

Washing machines and dishwashers, for example, not only use water, but hot water. Investment in newer machines can make a real difference in combined energy and water savings, compounded across an urban area. “I want my water company and my energy company working together,” Gleick said. “I want rebate incentives from both.”

Making that happen requires concerted political action. More than 20 federal agencies deal with water, said Gleick, “and they don’t play very well together.” Gleick doesn’t know how to energize Congress to take on water policy reform, but he’s pushing for cultural change.

Gleick, who wrote a book about bottled water last year, said he likes to think that a recent deceleration in the consumption of bottled water reflects a change in social mores and not just recessionary penny-pinching. From her seat in the front row, Harman pointed cheerfully at the water glass dripping condensation onto the podium. “Note the glass of water.” Gleick meant to mention that, and took time to heap praise upon his hosts.

“The days when [institutions] could get away with inviting Peter Gleick to give a talk and then putting bottled water on the podium — are not yet over, but those who do are increasingly embarrassed,” he said. Moderator Geoffry Dalbelko smiled, looking pleased to have had the foresight not to be embarrassed.

“Along those lines, I bring my own tap water wherever I go,” Gleick announced, brandishing a red aluminum bottle, challenging water consumption culture, one seminar at a time.


Watch a webcast of Gleick’s talk “Moving to a Sustainable Water Future” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Read excerpts from The World’s Water Volume 7 from the Pacific Institute

See a map of world water consumption at





Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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