Global Water Crisis

Over 1 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water; more than 2 billion lack access to adequate sanitation; and millions die every year due to preventable water-related diseases. Water resources around the globe are threatened by climate change, misuse, and pollution. But there are solutions: we can provide for people’s basic needs while protecting the environment by using innovative water efficiency and conservation strategies, community-scale projects, smart economics, and new technology.

That a billion people lack access to clean water is surely one of the greatest development failures of the modern era. That as many as 5 million people – mainly children – die every year from preventable, water-related disease is surely one of the great tragedies of our time.

Unfortunately, despite a growing recognition that more must be done to help those without clean water or adequate sanitation, a report by the Pacific Institute estimates that over 34 million people might perish in the next 20 years from water-related disease — even if the United Nations “Millennium Development Goals,” which aim to cut the proportion of those without safe access by half, are met.

The problem is not merely a lack of aid (although more money is needed) or a lack of technology. It is a failure of vision and will. According to many international water experts, hundreds of billions of dollars are needed to bring safe water to everyone who needs it. Since international water aid is so paltry, many of these experts claim that privatization of water services is the only way to help the poor.

But many critics of this approach note that community-scale infrastructure and efficiency and conservation can bring basic water services to the millions who need it without breaking the bank. And many critics of the “gold-plated” approach argue that water privatization, although it can play some productive role, will never be able to bring water to the world’s poorest people.

However, there are solutions to the global water crisis that don’t involve massive dams, large-scale infrastructure, and tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. First and foremost, we must use what the Pacific Institute calls “soft path” solutions to the global water crisis. Soft path solutions aim to improve the productivity of water rather than seek endless new supply; soft path solutions complement centrally-planned infrastructure with community scale projects; and soft path solutions involve stake-holders in key decisions so that water deals and projects protect the environment and the public interest.

The Pacific Institute advocates the creation of a National Water Commission, which will provide guidance to U.S. water policy and, in turn, greater funding to ameliorate the global water crisis.

The Pacific Institute is also calling for a global initiative to provide safe water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene education at 100 percent of the world’s schools within a decade.

With the release of The World’s Water Volume 7, Peter Gleick talks with EOS, newspaper of the American Geophysical Union, about “Meeting Basic Human Needs for Water Presents Huge Challenge.” (November 2011)