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'Uncertain Resource': Do we have a water crisis, or a crisis of water management?

ST. PETER — Day 2 of Gustavus Adolphus' Nobel Conference on water began with a presentation by Dr. Peter Gleick. Simply put, Gleick knows water, and he knows it well enough to be a member of the prestigious American Academy of Sciences. He's the editor of the book, "Water in Crisis: a Guide to the World's Fresh Water Resources," and the principal author of the biennial report "The World's Water."
 
Gleick began with a recurring theme at this year's conference: Water may be a very old commodity, but we need to think about it in entirely new ways. "I think we're desperately in need of new thinking about water," he told conference attendees. "Our current use of water is out of balance, it's unsustainable."
 
That's not unsustainable as in, "We're going to run out." From an absolute perspective we can't run out of water: It's a sustainable resource — it can't be used up. But as Gleick said, we can functionally run out of water because "We don't get water where we want it. We don't get water when we want it." And available water may be unavailable if it happens to be contaminated by industrial and agricultural waste, or infectious agents.

As Gleick sees it, even if we begin to make changes right now, sooner or later water will have to be rationed. Already, 1 billion people do not have access to safe, drinkable water, and 2.5 billion don't have access to water for sanitation. You've probably heard the term "peak oil," and Gleick thinks that some places in the world are already at or near what he terms "peak ecological water."
 
In many basins, we're past that point
"There comes a point in any river basin, in any watershed, where the next gallon of water used may cause more ecological harm than it provides in economic value," he explained. "It's hard to measure, but it's a real thing, and I would argue that part of our challenge is that in many water basins we're already well past the point of peak ecological water."
 
As ominous as that sounds, Gleick thinks this is a solvable problem. "I actually am optimistic about the future of water, if we do the things that we're starting to do more aggressively, more carefully, and in a more widespread fashion."
 
To that end, Gleick has charted out what he terms a "soft path" to securing a sustainable water system for the planet and its inhabitants. The hard path is more infrastructure: more dams, more wells, more pipes. The soft path is essentially better management of this critical resource. As Gleick sees it, this not a problem of money or intelligence. We have enough water, we just don't use it well.
 
Gleick's soft path to sustainable water use incorporates the following ideas:
 
• Develop some water infrastructure in some places, in some form. But build it with a sensitivity to ecological and local factors.

• Better define the water supply. That means thinking about wastewater as an asset. It means using rainwater harvesting to recharge depleted aquifers.

• Rethink our demand for water. Rather than finding more, why not use less? By Gleick's calculations the U.S. is already using less water than it did for everything 30 years ago. Example? It used to take 30 gallons of water to make a square inch of semi-conductor; now it takes 3-4 gallons.

• Consider distributing different water of different quality. Gleick's prime example: It makes no sense to be flushing our toilets with high-quality drinking water.

• Price water properly: it's a human right, but it also has economic value and should be priced with both of those factors in mind.

• Protect our ecosystems, satisfying human needs as well as the needs of nature.

• Rethink current water systems. Rather than spending a billion dollars on a new dam, consider spending a thousand dollars in a million places.

• Link energy management to water management: it takes a lot of energy to get the water we want, and it takes a lot of water to create energy. The two are inextricably linked.

• Address growth in a responsible way, with a focus on sustainability.
 
The message of ecotheology
Larry Rasmussen, a professor emeritus of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, is described in the conference guide as "One of the world's foremost Christian environmental ethicists." You may be unsure what that description means, but Rasmussen is at the forefront of a green movement within the Christian churchs, so-called ecotheology. It takes the stewardship of the earth not as a cash to be checked, but as a plant to be nurtured.
 
Although Rasmussen grew up in small-town Minnesota, if anyone in the audience was expecting to hear Lake Wobegon's Pastor Inquvist, they were sorely disappointed. Throughout his presentation, Rasmussen seemed to be issuing a different kind of altar call, an "alter call" if you will, asking people to reexamine the way that their personal and economic choices affect others. He placed three empty chairs across the front of the stage, labeled them "The poor," "Nature," and "Future Generations," and told the audience that the well-being of these three needed to be "at the center of our morality."
 
Rasmussen left no doubt that he sees the issue of global warming as a moral and ethical one, and that we need to accumulate the moral will to act. And that means pushing ahead for legislated changes, even if everyone hasn't drawn the same conclusion yet. He cited Martin Luther King's struggle for laws against discrimination, noting that the country couldn't wait for racism to go away before outlawing it. We needed to outlaw it first, and let the morality catch up later. Whatever our individual moral inspiration is, Rasmussen encouraged the audience to act, saying, "Good ethics is about closing the gap between 'is' and 'ought.' "
 
A crisis of management
Asit Biswas, the final speaker for the day's sessions, is an international leader in the area of water and environmental management. As the Gustavus faculty member who introduced Biswas pointed out, a number of well-publicized and respected books (Gleick's book for example) have been published under titles that reference an imminent global water crisis.
 
"I have to tell you that 15 years ago I also thought the same way, that the world was facing a water crisis," Biswas confessed, noting that his views had now changed. "I do not see a world water crisis occurring because of the physical scarcity of water. What we're facing is a crisis because of water management."
 
In Biswas' view, there's enough water to go around. If countries can learn to better manage the water resources that are already available to them, the water they stop wasting will more than meet increasing demand.
 
He started with the example of food waste, pointing out that 70 percent of water use is for agricultural use. For that reason, any inefficiencies in the food chain are also a major drain on water resources. And according to Biswas, across the globe, food waste is startlingly high. The USDA reports that 27 percent of food in this country goes to waste, and in Biswas' native country, India, 50 percent of fruits and vegetables, and a third of all cereals grains never get to the consumer.
 
"This [food] has already been produced — we're not talking about extra production," explained Biswas. Inefficiencies all along the food chain, from harvest to transportation to storage, mean that the food never makes it to market. "If we stop this wastage and get this food to the people," Biswas noted, "… you immediately increase your food availability without [requiring] any additional water."
 
Biswas sees soon-to-be-realized innovations in seed genetics and crops production as another way to save water through more efficient food production. As an example, he detailed how the International Rice Institute is testing a new strain of flat rice that can be grown under water for four weeks and yet still produce rice. That's good news for countries where monsoon rains can sometimes drown out a rice crop. He also mentioned progress in the field of desalinization, where he's confident that entirely new technology, some mimicking the purifying abilities of the mango tree, will sharply drop the price of making drinking water out of salt water.
 
Biswas believes there's also plenty of room for saving water on the domestic side, and he's not talking about low-flush toilets or short showers. In many parts of the world it turns out that, like a leaky food chain, a lot of water gets lost on the way to the consumer. "In most cities in the developing of the world, the losses are 40 to 50 percent," Biswas reported. In Singapore, which Biswas holds up as a beacon of success in water management, the losses are just 5 percent.

And so, although the science of scarcity can sometimes breed pessimism, Biswas is an optimist who believes we should work on finding solutions, not perpetuating myths (i.e. water crisis). He believes that if Gustavus hosts another Nobel conference on water 20 years from now, the title will be "H2O: A Certain Resource."

Earlier: Noted lecturers grapple with water, 'the uncertain resource'

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Comments (1)

Typical muddle headed liberal thinking on economic development, or lack thereof.

There is plenty of water in the ocean. Develop nuclear power plants to desalinate it.

There is plenty of water in Alaska. Implement North American Water and Power Alliance plan to divert Yukon River in Alaska to Western US, by sending it down the Rocky Mountain Trench.

Currently insane environmental regulations are cutting off irrigation to California central valley to save an inedible two inch Delta Smelt Fish.

Kill the fish. Feed the People.