Can We End the Global Water Crisis?

Last month I had an opportunity to give a TEDx talk on my home campus at UC Irvine.  Mine was called “Can We End the Global Water Crisis?”  I’d like to share my views on this topic with our Water Currents readers by posting several excerpts, more or less straight from the talk.

“Can we end the global water crisis?… No, we can’t end it. I’m sorry. It’s too big for humanity to beat down and conquer. We’ve passed too many tipping points – with climate change and with population growth and with human behavior – to be able to turn an extremely critical situation around.”

So, why bother taking action?  Because we still can make a difference!

“I truly believe that with a shared vision, with leadership and commitment from governments around the world, and with public and private partnerships, we can manage our way through to ensure a sustainable water future. “

I thought it would be a good idea to define the global water crisis in the context of my talk. Here’s what I put forward:

“In it’s simplest form, the global water crisis is the inability to provide a reliable supply of potable water to villages, towns, cities and regional populations, all over the world. Globally, about a billion people around the world lack reliable access to potable water.

Today, about a billion people lack reliable access to potable water.
Today, about a billion people lack reliable access to potable water.

When I think about the global water crisis I see several key components…

There are the obvious crises of freshwater availability and of water quality – is there enough water available in a particular region, and is it clean enough so that when we drink it we don’t get sick?

However, even where water is available and clean, we see:

A crisis of management: are water resources being managed efficiently, or, is there a government commitment to even deliver water to its people?

A crisis of economics: does a country have the wealth to build and maintain the infrastructure to treat and distribute water?

And a crisis of understanding:  does the public and do our elected officials really understand what’s happening with water, nationally and globally?  If they did, I contend that we could make some real progress towards managing this crisis.”

I made the point that hydrologists like myself have a clear mission “to help elevate awareness of critical water issues to the level of everyday understanding.”

Much of my talk focused on our research using the NASA GRACE satellite mission to track how freshwater availability is changing around the world.  Some of that work has been written about in Water Currents before, for example, our work in India, California and the Middle East have all been highlighted.  Most recently we’ve published a map of the United States that shows several regional hotspots where groundwater depletion is threatening water supply reserves, or where increasingly wet conditions are leading to regional flooding.

However, my bottom line was this:

“Now we can see that groundwater depletion is a global phenomenon.  At least 2 billion people rely on groundwater as their primary water source, and most of their water comes from these aquifers that are at risk of running dry in the coming decades…” so that the number of people who currently already lack access to a reliable supply of potable freshwater (~1 billion) is on the rise.

I’m no expert in water quality, but I do know this:

“The history of humanity, and of economic development, has had at least a couple of distinct phases with respect to water quality – an early phase in which we really didn’t understand how the water cycle worked so we did things like dump toxic materials right on the ground or directly into rivers; and a more recent phase in which we actually know better, but choose to do it anyway, because it’s easy and cheap.

Fen River pollution. Photo by National Geographic
Fen River pollution. Photo by National Geographic

The unfortunate reality is that we humans have been living along or above our water supplies for a very, very long time, doing our thing for century after century, all the while using our waters as an all too convenient dumping grounds. It should come as no surprise – but yet it does for many people – that most of our waters around the world, where we still have them, are dangerously dirty and require considerable and expensive treatment before we can use them.”

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that in order to keep people from sticking their heads in the sand after hearing all of this bad news, is that they need hope.  They need to feel empowered. They need to know that there is a pathway forward, and that if we work together, we can definitely make a difference.

I returned to some of my favorite themes, which I will probably keep writing and talking about until a) we actually start doing something about it; or b) I die.  I anticipate that both will take a while, but you never know.

“First, we need to figure out how much fresh water we actually have on the planet. The truth is that we really don’t know. Especially groundwater. It’s our biggest stock of freshwater, yet we have not done the exploration that we need to, and that’s just unacceptable.

Second, we need to determine how much water we actually need, to grow food, for industry, to generate power and for domestic use. And by all means, let’s not forget the environment. Humans cannot expect to use all available waters and still have a healthy planet to live on.

Third, how are both of these, and the gaps between them, changing over time, with climate change, with population growth, and with increased awareness, conservation and efficiency.”

Feeling feisty, I threw down the virtual gauntlet:

“Today I challenge our government and others around the world to do the exploration that needs doing. If water is in fact the new oil, let’s finally do the exploration with the same vigor.  We cannot begin to address sustainability issues unless we actually know how much water we have.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Let’s actually monitor groundwater withdrawals, both public and private.   Right now, in many parts of the world, including most states in the U.S., if you own property, you can pump the groundwater beneath it at will, even if that means that you are drawing in water from beneath your neighbor’s property.  It’s not unlike having several straws in a glass of water, and everyone sipping at will. If we want to make the water in the glass last, the free-for-all must end at once.

Let’s focus on improved water conservation and efficiency, especially in agriculture, the biggest use of water around the globe. We can do so much more with so much less.  We need more efficient irrigation, better crop selection, more saline and drought tolerant crops, more greenhouse agriculture, and yes, better pricing. Here need to look to world leaders in conservation and efficiency like Israel.

Only after we’ve done these easier and cheaper things should we significantly ramp up our recycling and desalination efforts. But don’t get me wrong – these are already both critical components of water security in many regions around the world, including right here in Southern California.”

And now, a pitch for public-private partnerships. I feel strongly about what I said next, and as above, you will continue to hear this from me into the foreseeable future.

“The realities of our modern economy are that there are many demands for a limited amount of funds.  This is where vision and leadership come into play. We need champions in our state and local governments to carry the torch.

Wanted: Vision and leadership to ensure a sustainable water future
Wanted: Vision and leadership to ensure a sustainable water future

And beyond governments, we need more public and private partnerships to move this agenda forward.  The private sector has the resources and the agility to partner with our universities and research labs to make a huge impact.  Many of the technologies that we need to monitor and manage water much more efficiently already exist. Public-private partnerships can make this happen far more quickly than convincing a giant bureaucracy.”

Denouement time: we can’t end the global water crisis, but…

“We can take steps to manage our way through this global crisis and ensure a sustainable water future for everyone.  But we need to confront the realities that I’ve shared with you today, head on, and begin to deal with them now.

Water availability will be more contentious in the future.  We can see the haves and have nots developing already.  However, water can also be a vehicle for peacebuiliding, since these transboundary, regional problems require transboundary, regional solutions.

Therefore, we need to deal, now, with the required political and legal frameworks and the civil infrastructure to peaceably share, use and reuse water, within regions and across political boundaries.

We need a national water policy in the U. S., and we need new, global, international water law.

And we need to integrate water discussions into the fabric of our diplomatic efforts, especially in places like the Middle East and other hotspots where threats to water security may trigger violent conflict.

We can't squeeze water from a ...planet...but, we can manage our way through this crisis to ensure a sustainable water future.
We can’t squeeze water from a …planet…but, we can manage our way through this crisis to ensure a sustainable water future.

We can and must take back our environment, including our water environment. Economic growth and environmental preservation are not mutually exclusive.  A green economy can be a very, very strong economy, and the water sector can be a big part of that. And remember, without water, we don’t even have an economy.

The nexus of water and energy and food will define our quality of life in this century. It already is.

Ultimately, water will be limiting in all respects, unless learn to do more with a lot less, and to reuse and reuse more and more, and to manage our way to a sustainable water future.”

That’s my message.  A little dramatic for sure, but it was after all a TEDx talk, so I wanted to just hang it all out there. Thanks for reading.  If I have inspired you, please, share this with your family, friends and colleagues.  We need your help to  spread the word.

Changing Planet

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Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'