QZ&A

Peter Gleick wants to solve the water crisis yesterday

Peter Gleick wants to solve the water crisis yesterday
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Peter Gleick is the founder and emeritus director of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, California, and perhaps the world’s leading authority on the global water crisis. Quartz spoke with Gleick from his office in California.

Quartz: What is the global water crisis?

Peter Gleick:There are a lot of components to it. The most significant piece of it in my mind, and which we don’t think about about much in the richer countries, is the 700 million people without access to safe drinking water, and the more than 2 billion people without access to safe sanitation. It’s known as WaSH — Water/ Sanitation/Hygiene—that’s the basic human needs part, and it’s unresolved. It’s the 21st century and we haven’t solved that puzzle—it’s crazy. Associated with that are millions of cases each year of water-related disease: cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, malaria. These are diseases that are completely preventable, but we don’t prevent them because of the first problem.

Whose fault is this?

That’s the third issue: Many of the world’s worst ecological problems are associated with human withdrawals of water. Disappearing wetlands, dying fisheries, drying up rivers deltas and estuaries—all of the aquatic ecosystem problems are water problems. That’s because humans didn’t care about or know about those impacts when we built our water systems. The fourth piece is food production. We have to grow food for the world’s population. That’s a land problem, but increasingly it’s a water problem. Because we are tapping all of the easily accessible water now, and the world’s population is still growing. How do we grow enough food for the people who need it—7 billion and growing?

It seems like it’s all our fault.

Well there are two more parts of the water crisis. The first is the rise in violence and conflict over water resources. The last few years have seen a really big increase in number of cases of water-related violence. That’s associated with the fact that as water is more scarce, people are getting desperate. And the final piece is that humans are changing the climate: It’s indisputable from scientific point of view, and water and the hydrologic cycle is the climate cycle. As goes the climate, so go our water resources. We’ll see changes with snow melt and snowfall and extreme droughts and floods. As we change the climate we are fundamentally changing our water resources.

Those are the top water issues—there are lots of them, and together they make up what I describe as the world’s water crisis.

If it’s such a pressing crisis, why haven’t we tackled it?

We decry it as the world’s water crisis but ultimately water is local. When you don’t have a local problem, you don’t think about these things. When there is a severe drought—five years in California, or nine years in Australia—people wake up. If you live in sub-Saharan Africa and you have no safe water, you take it very seriously. But the rest of the world can ignore you. Over the last decade or so there has been much more attention given to water issues. We’ve seen more and are more interested in it. There are more documentaries, more news stories and more public concern. But we are not paying enough attention to it.

So how do we tackle the water crisis?

The most important thing is public communication, education, awareness. The more we the public, or scientists, or communities understand and call attention to water problems the more likely we are to tackle them. And tackling them is a very local issue:

What they need to do in Flint, Michigan, to provide safe water to an urban population is different from the Colorado River, where we have to restore the ecosystem, or Southern Africa, where we have to provide water to underserved populations.

Money is a big part of the problem. For a long time there has been underspending on water infrastructure, and that’s true globally. And then in the last couple of years there have been efforts to roll back environmental and health protections in the context of the broader ideological rejection of regulation that’s made it harder to protect public health and ecosystem health. Combine that with a failure to increase spending in areas where we need it, and we have bad problem made worse. The Trump Administration has gone in the wrong direction with its cuts ruining everyone’s budgets and making fixing these problems more difficult.

How do we move forward?

We need to think about the future we want, and then figure out how we move away from today’s problems toward that positive future but there is no vision being expressed by our leaders today. The phrase Make America Great needs to be a set of positive goals. But it’s going to be hard to find money to fix the problem with a global economic slowdown, and in the US, a $2 trillion deficit.

What role can business play?

There’s a growing interest and awareness in the private sector of the risks of failing to fix our water problems, and of the advantages in solving them. In the World Economic Forum’s annual risk assessment, water problems are right up there at the top of global risks. There is a whole new set of efforts by private companies to understand what those risks are and for companies to become more responsible and address stewardship issues around water. We’re deeply engaged in that here at the Pacific Institute. We are the scientific secretariat for the United Nations CEO water mandate, working with companies through the UN to help the private sector engage on water issues. Companies understand that if they don’t address water quality and supply issues, they will face stresses, too.

Well that sounds positive. What is business doing to help?

Some companies are reducing their water footprint and pollution, and there have been some very admirable improvements. More and more companies are beginning to pay attention to the risks that not solving water issues pose—financial, reputational and regulatory risks. There will always be bad players, but now there are more and more good players. The trick here is engage the good ones so they encourage their counterparts by example. Being a good water steward is profitable; it gives you more ability to work with local communities rather than be kicked out. Sometimes all it takes is a moral and ethical leader, and that’s what we need to encourage. Already we are seeing some bigger initiatives, particularly in the apparel industry, with firms like GAP and Levis, and in the beverage industry and in corporate agriculture. They’re reducing the amount of water they use and cleaning their waste water.

So what will it take to make a real dent in the world’s water use and preserve our water resources as we grow?

We don’t need to invent new technology here—I get emails all the time from people with a better way to desalinate or pull water out of the air. We know how to do that, and there are more efforts underway to recycle and reuse water, to create better irrigation systems—we just have to apply them. We don’t need any magic new technology, we need a commitment on the part of governments and communities.

This brings us back to economics. If water is a right, must it also be free? Can it also be free?

No. We need to price water properly. We don’t adequately pay for the water services that we want and get. I pay a water bill, and like most of the U.S. it covers almost the full dollar cost, but what I pay doesn’t cover the environmental damages or the true externalities of what we do. In many countries, people pay nothing for water and it’s used inefficiently. The service to clean, distribute and collect wastewater ought to be paid, but that has to be balanced with a human right to water—you don’t want to deprive water from people who can’t pay. That’s a challenge, but it’s certainly not an insurmountable one. We figured it out for energy. One good example is in Las Vegas, where the water authority has what they call a block rate structure. Basic needs are subsidized, but if you want a swimming pool you are going to pay a lot more per gallon for that water, and that provides an incentive to be efficient.

Can we solve the water crisis?

I am optimistic. I wrote in a recent paper that we are in a transition to a more sustainable future. The problem is it’s not happening fast enough, so how do we accelerate the transition? We need to act now to prevent future catastrophes and we’re very bad at that.