Hitting the Water Wall

Jon Foley

Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

As I travel around the country, I’m often asked about the looming water crisis. Whether it is the decline of groundwater in northwestern India, last summer’s floods in the Upper Midwest, drought in the Horn of Africa, or the fate of the world’s great lakes, water seems to be on everyone’s mind.

And, in many cases, I’ve been hearing people say that we’re “running out of water.”

There is no doubt water issues are mounting. But let’s be clear: We’re not  running out of water on the planet as a whole. The amount of water on Earth is the same as it’s been for billions of years. And the amount of water flowing across our continents toward the ocean—through groundwater, lakes, streams and rivers—is largely what it’s been for all of human history.

What we are running out of is the ability to consume water without limits, without concern about pollution, when and where we want to. In a nutshell, we’re hitting the water wall.

Fueled by growth in population and affluence, we continue to consume water as if there were no limits, even as we see the clear warning signs—depleted aquifers, drying lakes and diminished river flows. Once again, we find that the exponential growth of human consumption has run into fundamental planetary resource limits. You can’t continue to consume water faster than your watershed can deliver it, period. Meanwhile, the quality of freshwater supplies is being compromised by pollution from farms, industries and communities, leaving water that is often unhealthy for ecosystems and people. And the behavior of the water cycle appears to be growing increasingly extreme due to climatic changes—with more floods and more droughts—which we will have to become better at adapting to and planning for.

Water itself is not becoming scarce on the planet. What is becoming scarce is our ability to use as much as we want, whenever, however, and wherever we want.

And there lies the rub: In most places in the world, there is sufficient water to sustain basic human needs while leaving enough for nature, if we manage it well. But good management demands completely new approaches to our water economy that meet our fundamental economic and societal needs, preserve adequate water stocks and flows for natural systems, and are much more resilient to climatic disturbances.

This requires an entirely new way of thinking about water. It requires moving from a mind-set of exploitation (which presumes water resources are essentially infinite relative to our demands, and growth can continue forever) to a mind-set that respects the limits and fragility of our water supply. It requires learning to live within our water means. And it requires becoming more resilient in our interaction with water: hoping for the best, but always planning for the worst.

Fortunately, as we see in this issue of Momentum, many pioneering efforts are moving in the right direction. The Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth is sharing discoveries across continents to help sustain the enormous benefits the world’s biggest freshwater systems afford. Global Water Policy Project founder Sandra Postel is working to align humans’ water use with nature’s constraints. Kate Brauman, a postdoctoral fellow with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, is identifying how water can be strategically allocated on a global scale to support food production without undermining the ecological integrity of aquatic systems. And, with a focus on Minnesota but an eye to global impact, Water Resources Center co-director Deborah Swackhamer has created a comprehensive plan for sustainably managing Minnesota’s waters that could become a model for other states and even nations facing the common challenge of reconfiguring our demand to fit supply.

Through these and other efforts, scientists, policy makers and others are emerging with strategies to manage our water resources in new, intelligent ways that ultimately can help us reconcile our growing demands with Earth’s abundant, but not boundless, supplies of freshwater.

If we continue to think of clean, abundant water as a given, we will hit the water wall. But if we re-imagine water as what it is—a renewable but finite resource—and apply our infinite imagination to developing and carrying out practices that sustain it, we should have plenty to meet our needs, nature’s needs and the needs of future generations as well.

Institute on the Environment


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the University of Minnesota.