Water World

Whether it’s 500-year floods or 100-year droughts, water has been one of the top news stories in 2011. And good ol’ H2O will likely grow in prominence over coming decades as rising demand due to rapid population growth collides with increasing unpredictability of supply. Momentum recently caught up with Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project, to discuss how we might help shape a positive future for the world’s freshwater resource.

Can you tell me more about the organization you founded?

The Global Water Policy Project is an umbrella for a variety of things that I do, but the goals really are to begin to move ideas and policies and advance ways of harmonizing human use of water with the protection of the natural world. It’s really focused on the question of, “How can we begin to meet the needs of this growing human population while sustaining the ecosystems that support not only the rest of life, but us, too?”

When did you first become interested in water-related issues?

I’ve been interested in environmental issues since I was at least a teenager, if not earlier. When I left grad school at Duke I took a job with a small natural resources consulting firm in California and was given the opportunity to work on freshwater issues. We had some work going with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, and so I got my feet wet, so to speak, in water pretty early out of grad school.

How would you characterize our relationship with water today?

We know that freshwater is finite, it’s the basis of life and there are no substitutes for it. But there’s a big disconnect with these known truths about freshwater and the way we go about using and managing it. The entire path of development over the 20th century has been about acquiring more water. And that worked for a time, but clearly it’s not working anymore. The challenge is to reintegrate how we use and manage water with those fundamental truths about freshwater. Once you start aligning our use of water, our policies around water and our management goals around water with those fundamental truths, it shifts everything.

Issues like climate change and energy seem to grab all the attention, but you’ve said one of our greatest challenges—if not the greatest—will be related to water. Can you elaborate?

We’ve got different wells in different parts of India that are running out, again from pumping of groundwater. We’ve got rivers of various sizes all around the world in the drier parts of the world that had been perennial rivers that are now not flowing over extended periods of time from overuse. So, I think it’s beginning to hit home in more places, and it’s connecting the dots and saying, “We can do something about this. This trajectory does not have to continue in this way.”

Where do you stand on the use of water for irrigation?

I think it’s necessary. Irrigation has been a cornerstone of human civilization for at least the last 5,000 years. We get about 40 percent of our food from the 18 percent of cropland that’s irrigated. And given the size of our population, I think using that land productively and applying water to it is critical. That said, there are so many ways that the current irrigated agricultural system is not using water efficiently and productively. There’s an awful lot that could be gained and a lot of water that could be freed up for other uses if we made our irrigation systems and the entire irrigated agricultural enterprise more efficient and productive when it comes to water.

What’s your opinion of the privatization of water?

Water is not just a commodity or an input to our production systems. It’s the basis of life, which makes it fundamentally different from just about every other commodity we deal with. So, to me, that means that we really shouldn’t privatize water. That said, I think there’s absolutely a role for the private sector when it comes to water management.

You’ve also commented on the number of freshwater species that are going extinct. Is this a global phenomenon?

Global estimates of the projected rate of loss of freshwater species are four to six times those of terrestrial and marine species. If we look at the numbers in the United States, more than two-thirds of freshwater mussels, which do a terrific job of cleansing water, are at some degree of extinction. Close to 40 percent of fish species in North America are at risk of extinction. So these numbers are very concerning and again reflect that we haven’t been managing water with the protection of life and the web of life at the core.

If you could change the way water was managed, where would you start?

Number one for me would be to say that not only should people have their basic water needs met, but also I think we need to do the same thing for ecosystems. So that means putting ecosystems and the health of ecosystems right at the core of our water decisions and saying, before we allow more to be extracted for this or that use, we need to make sure the ecosystems themselves—the river systems, the wetlands that we rely—on get the water, get the flows that they need. And this is where the game changing comes in. Because once we do that, we’ve not only secured a healthier environment or a healthier set of ecosystems, but we’ve basically said, “Okay, given that those flows need to go to the ecosystems, the remaining water is what we have to manage for human uses—for drinking, for industry, for agriculture.” So it drives up the productivity of water use. Once we don’t go out and look for more water anymore, we become a lot more efficient and productive with the water that we have.

Are there places where water policies and practices balance both human and ecosystem needs?

Certainly we’ve seen policies adopted that have those principles on paper at their core. South Africa was one of those countries, if not the first country, that adopted a very progressive water law that said not only people but ecosystems should get the quantity, quality and timing of flows that they need to be healthy. We’ve got, for example, a city like Napa, California, having endured numerous floods, deciding to try something different. They’re calling it the “living river approach” to flood control, where they’re reconstituting wetlands and giving the river some of its floodplains back. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is also looking at a different approach to flood control that brings in wetlands and the floodplains again. And we have the New York City example, where they’ve avoided a $10 billion filtration plant by investing in watershed protection, letting the healthy watershed do more of the work of filtering pollutants out.

What’s the takeaway message?

I guess the final thing is, understanding our own water footprint and how much water flows through our daily lives on an individual basis. It’s important that people have a comprehensive sense of the total water that feeds their lives every day. If you’re an average American, about 2,000 gallons of water flows through our lives every day. And more than half of that is our diet. And so understanding that the choices we make about what we consume and how much of it to consume and so on can make a big impact, not just in our local watershed but in other watersheds around the world where those products are grown and made. The simple choices we make every day can have a beneficial impact on other places around the world if enough of us make more conscious choices about what to consume.

Sandra Postel


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Video: TedX MidAtlantic

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In her November 2010 presentation at TEDx MidAtlantic, Global Water Policy Project founder Sandra Postel told her audience that with sufficient creativity, ecological intelligence, and commitment to reconnect to the web of life, the world’s water is sufficient to support people and other living things.

Around the Web

Visit the Global Water Policy Project website to learn more: www.globalwaterpolicy.org