In May of 2013, Jay Famiglietti, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, gave a speech at Tedx event on ending the global water crisis. Here’s a transcript of what he said:
Can we end the global water crisis?
I’ve some good news for you today and some bad news. And I’d kind of like to get the bad news out of the way.
We can’t end it; it’s too big. It’s too complex. We can’t beat it down and conquer it. We’ve passed too many tipping points with respect to climate change, population growth and human behavior to be able to turn this very complicated system around.
But I do have some good news.
I firmly believe that with shared vision and with leadership and commitment of governments, our government and governments around the world, and with public and private partnerships, that if we work together we can manage our way through to ensure a sustainable water future.
Let’s dig a little bit deeper into this. We hear this term “global water crisis” all the time. And what does it mean, really? The global water crisis in its simplest form is the inability to provide a reliable supply of potable water to regional populations around the world. There’s something like a billion people that lack reliable access to potable water, and that’s a number that’s just way too big. One out of seven and unfortunately, I believe that the number is getting bigger.
When I think about the global water crisis, I think about several components including the ones that I think we know best – the crisis of water quantity and water quality, and those are what I’ll focus on today.
The water quantity crisis is, ‘is there enough water available in a particular region?’, and the water quality crisis is, ‘is the water clean enough so that when we drink it, we don’t get sick?’
But there’s more to it than that. Even when water is clean and available, we still have a crisis of management. Is water being effectively managed? Do governments even have the commitment to delivering water to their populations?
There’s a crisis of economics. Is there sufficient wealth to build and maintain the infrastructure that’s required to treat and distribute water? And there’s a crisis of understanding. Do people and our elected officials really understand what’s going on with water locally, regionally, nationally, globally, because I think if they did, we could make tremendous progress towards managing our way through this crisis.
And that’s why I’m here today. We need to work together so that we can raise awareness of critical water issues to the level of every day understanding.
Let’s talk about this water quantity crisis. This is a figure that’s based on some of the research that we do in my group here at UC Irvine. And it shows trends in freshwater availability; it shows us how water storage is changing over the last decade or so. We put it together with a very cool NASA satellite called GRACE, and what’s cool about GRACE is that it basically works like a scale in the sky. It is literally weighing changes in water availability, including places that are gaining water like those shown in blue up in the high latitudes and in the tropics, so we’re seeing this wet areas getting wetter; and it’s also telling us what places are losing water, like those shown here in the yellows and reds in the mid-latitudes, so we see these dry areas getting drier. It has allowed us to see for the first time our first space-based picture of regions of the world that are gaining water versus losing water from both natural and human causes.
But there’s a lot more to this map. There’s a number of red blotches, red hot spots. The green are the Antarctic ice sheets melting away. These arrows point to mountain glaciers, alpine glaciers in places like Alaska and Peru and Patagonia over in the Himalayas. We know that the Greenland ice sheet melt and the Antarctic ice sheet melt are the main contributors to sea level rise, and unfortunately in these alpine regions of the world where these alpine glaciers are melting, we will be seeing very serious water shortages in the future; they will also drive food shortages and power shortages. We’re seeing it already. This includes places like India and China that are rapidly developing and where a couple of billion people live.
There are a number of other hotspots on this map. These other hotspots that I’ve circled all overlie the world’s major aquifer systems in the arid and semi-arid parts of the world – in the already dry parts of the world. An aquifer is thick broad layer of rock or soil that can store groundwater, and groundwater is the water that’s stored under the ground instead of on the surface of the ground in rivers and lakes.
So why are these regions losing water? Well, very simply, we’re using it faster than its being replaced, and so if you have a bank account and you are making withdrawals faster than you are making your deposits, the balance goes down and down.
What are we spending this money on, this water money? We’re spending it on agriculture and food. Most of the water we use in the water globally we use for agriculture, something like 80 or 90%. In the dry parts of the planet, most of this comes from groundwater, yet it is being removed from the ground at a very rapid pace the world over. We have to eat so obviously this is a problem we need to solve.
At least 2 billion people rely on groundwater as their primary water source, and most of their water comes from these aquifers, and so the groundwater depletion we see is a global phenomenon that threatens to significantly increase the number of people affected by the global water crisis from 1 billion to some number, much greater than 1 billion.
Now what about this crisis of water quality?
The history of humanity and of economic development falls into two broad categories with respect to water quality. For the early years, where we really didn’t understand anything about the water cycle and how it worked and how it was interconnected, we very blissfully threw toxic waste or industrial chemicals right on the ground or directly into rivers and so this is the result.
But then there is the more recent phase, the modern era, where we actually know better but we continue to do it anyway because it’s easy and because it’s cheap. The upshot is that there is this unfortunate reality that we’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. We’ve been around for centuries and centuries and centuries, doing our thing, all the while using our waters as our personal dumping grounds. We shouldn’t be surprised, but many people are, that when it comes time to use this water, we have to invest heavily in cleaning and treatment so we can actually use it, so most of our water is seriously contaminated.
So the path ahead. Do we put our heads in the sand? No. What are some questions we can try to solve? What are some things that we can try to do, what should be telling our elected officials or our water managers, or our local water development boards?
There are a few key things that we need to understand. One of the first ones is how much water do we have. It turns out that we don’t really know, especially when it comes to groundwater, we have not done the exploration that we need to do to really understand how much water we have, so we need to get on that.
How much do we need? I don’t mean how much do we need to drink, but how much do we need for agriculture, how much do we need for domestic and municipal use, for industry, and we cannot forget the environment. We have to get past this idea that the environment does not need any water, because if we don’t, we won’t have a very healthy planet to live on.
The third thing we need to look at is the gap between the supply and demand – how much we have and how much we need, and how that’s going to change over time. It might increase over time with things like climate change, and population growth, or that gap might decrease with time as we become more aware of the problem and we begin to conserve water and use it more efficiently.
So this is my call to action. Today, I challenge our government and other governments around the world to do the exploration that needs doing. If water is the new oil, the next oil, then we should be approaching the exploration with the same level of vigor. We cannot begin to address sustainability issues unless we actually know how much water we have.
Another thing we need to do is monitor groundwater withdrawals, both public and private. Turns out in most parts of the world, we don’t monitor groundwater withdrawals, and that’s true in many states in the United States. If you own property, you can drill a well and pump at will, even if it means you are pulling in water from beneath your neighbors property to your well, so this is not unlike having several straws in a glass and everyone sipping water at once. If we want to control the level of water in the glass, then we obviously need to stop this free for all.
We need to improve conservation and efficiency, especially in agriculture as it’s the biggest use of water around the world. We need more efficient irrigation, better crop selection, including more saline tolerant and drought tolerant crops , we need more greenhouse agriculture, and we do need more realistic pricing. We need to be looking to pioneering experts like Israel for new technologies in conservation and efficiency. Only then should we be considering more expensive options like recycling and desalination, but don’t get me wrong. Those are very important part of a water security portfolio and recycling is something that we do quite well here in Orange County.
On the government side, we know these are difficult economic times, and there’s a lot of competition for a limited amount of funds. So we need vision and leadership in our government. We need champions in state and federal governments to carry the torch. We’re not going to get too far without it.
But I also believe that public-private partnerships can significantly accelerate the agenda. The private sector has the resources and the ability to partner with our universities and our research labs. Many of the technologies that we need to monitor and manage water more efficiently already exist, so these public-private partnerships can make this happen more quickly than trying to convince a giant government bureaucracy.
I call this slide food for thought. And that’s what I want to leave you with. We can take steps to manage our way through this global water crisis and ensure a sustainable water future for everyone, but we have to confront the realities head on and deal with them now. We need to begin working on the required political and legal frameworks and the civil infrastructure that’s required to peaceably share, use and reuse water, both within regions and across political boundaries. We need a national water policy and we need new global international water policy and water law. We need to integrate water discussions into the fabric of our diplomatic efforts, especially in places like the Middle East and other hotpots where threats to water security may trigger violent conflict.
We must begin the process of taking back our environment. Economic growth and environmental preservation are not mutually exclusive; a green economy can be a very, very strong economy and without water, there really is no economy. The nexus of food and energy and water will define the quality of life in this century. It is already doing it, ultimately water will be limiting in all respects unless we learn to do a lot more with a lot less and to reuse and reuse more and more and to manage our way to a sustainable water future.