One of the most powerful works of persuasion I’ve seen in recent years is this five-minute video, which premiered at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. Produced by the Pacific Institute and Circle of Blue, the understated, narration-free piece urges you not to think about how water is tied to wars, environmental abuse, disease, and more. I dare you to watch and not think about water.
Without the artistic flair, but perhaps an even more important work is the sixth edition of “The World’s Water,” an encyclopedic look at all of the challenges and potential solutions to a global water crisis we’ve been all too successful at not thinking about.
Peter Gleick and his colleagues at the Pacific Institute have published this volume every two years since 1998. They were an early voice of concern over mega-projects like China’s Three Gorges Dam, the privatization of water resources, and the impact of climate change on freshwater supplies.
The newest edition of “The World’s Water” has an appropriate, but unfortunate, element of “I-told-you-so” in it. The Chinese government once praised Three Gorges as an engineering marvel. They’ve since made an unprecedented admission that the Dam is both a mistake and a disaster in the making. Too late: More than a million people were relocated to build the nearly-fully-operational dam, which is well on its way to worsening water pollution, trapping sediments, and wiping out wetlands and wildlife. (See before/after satellite pics of the dam here and here.)
This year’s book also baptizes a new term in the water wars: Just like the notion of “Peak Oil” heralds the decline of an oil-based economy, Gleick cautions that the concept of “Peak Water” could have even greater consequence.
At Davos, and at a recent speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Gleick explained that Peak Water is both a technically inaccurate, and potentially useful, term. Unlike oil, we won’t use up our water. From the oceans, to rivers and lakes, to aquifers, to clouds and icecaps, we have the same amount of water today as 10,000 years ago, or 10,000 years from now. But the water that’s both available, and safe, to use for the needs of people and nature may be on the wane.
The peak water prescription to avoid wholesale disaster, according to Gleick, is to focus on prioritizing water for human and ecological needs, and just being smart about how we do it. Exhibit A against smartness, he says, might be our tendency to go to great trouble to treat and purify water that’s then used in toilets, seven gallons at a time. Smart decision-making and economic planning, giving the public a voice in water projects, would go a long way too.
As I write this, much of the Southern Hemisphere is in the grips of an extraordinary summer drought. Australia’s wildfires, inspired by record temperatures and a near-total absence of rainfall, have already been called that nation’s “worst peacetime disaster.” Argentina is in the third year of a drought that’s taken an enormous toll on farmers and ranchers.
Closer to home, California’s in similarly bad shape, with most of the farmlands of the Central Valley in the severe drought category. “La Nina” weather conditions may make the rain go away this year as well, and a state that’s already facing a projected $42 billion budget shortfall may have a hard time bringing the crops in, or fighting fires. Desert cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, whose staggering growth has recently slowed only because of the housing meltdown, might see an even bigger crisis as they continue to outpace their limited water supplies. (As a further bit of evidence of lack of planning and common sense, it’s no coincidence that Vegas and Phoenix rank second and sixth nationally for metro areas with the highest home foreclosure rates).
With millions of annual deaths due to unhealthy water supplies; the prospect of tragic drought and displacement as our freshwater sources re-arrange themselves; and the constant threat of water as a global security flashpoint, a rising tide of water-related crises could be in our future. You should watch the video. Then try not to worry about water.
Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)