An Interview with Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project

Access to water is essential for human survival, as well as human advancement. Without sufficient water to drink and to grow food, no society—however advanced—can last. We have spoken to Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project and appointed Freshwater Fellow at the National Geographic Society, who has devoted a whole chapter in the latest edition of the State of the World 2013 report to how we can use water and its dependents sustainably.

By Katerina Batzaki

In your chapter "Sustaining freshwater and its dependents" you state that water management has largely aimed at getting water to people and farms where and when they need it. Now, how successful has that been?

Water is not always available when and where we need it. We have a lot of irrigated agriculture in places that are quite short of water relative to the demand for it. So the way we dealt with that is to move water around through canals and so on. The Western United States, China and India are doing this. A lot of places that rely heavily on agriculture or where people are living in dry climates have ended up moving water to them. Our dams and diversions have been quite successful at doing that, but of course it has an impact on the ecosystem. That said, we haven’t always looked at the ecological side of this very well and looked at the consequences and come up with alternatives that focus more on local use of water, more conservation, more efficient use of water, etc. And that is really the shift that needs to happen.

Photo Credits: Shaun Amey

Between 1980 and 2006 the volume of water used for Saudi irrigation more than tripled - and nearly all of it was ground water. Do you support this kind of irrigation method for areas with extensive drought issues?

Ground water is an important source of water and a good bit of the earth’s fresh water is underground. That water can be used sustainably as long as it is not used faster than nature is replenishing it. Saudi Arabia is a good example, which is a bit unusual in the sense that its ground water is essentially fossil ground water. It was put in place tens of thousands of years ago. In Saudi Arabia there is very little rain fall today so that ground water is not getting replenished. And they decided - for reasons of national security really - to try to become self-sufficient and engrain in food production. They planted large areas in wheat and irrigated the wheat with that fossil ground water and depleted the ground water. More recently they realized that the aquifers were running dry and they decided to phase it out. But places like China, and India, the Western United States – the food basket regions of these countries rely very heavily on ground water to sustain food production. In most of these regions it’s not sustainable. In the North-plain of China, North-Western India, and the central valley of California here in the United States – all these areas are over-pumping ground water. They are pulling out more ground water than is being recharged and so they are depleting it over time. This is a danger to the future food supply because if we are over-pumping ground water to meet today’s food needs, where is the water going to come from to meet food needs in the future? About 10% of our current food supply to the world comes from depleting ground water. That’s a troublesome trend in terms of food security, food prices down the line, and of course water supply. You can look at it as to we are meeting some of today’s food needs by borrowing water from tomorrow. You can see a river running dry, but you can’t see the ground water being depleted.

So what is the answer to this concern?

Well, the answer is first to better monitor what is happening to our groundwater, and then begin to regulate its use. Once you do that, farmers and others begin to adapt – they invest in irrigation efficiency, they switch crops to grow crops that require less water. In Texas now there is serious ground water depletion and the High Plains Water District put in place essentially a cap on ground water pumping, which was very controversial in Texas because ground water is private property. And yet the supreme court of Texas decided that even though it is private property it can be regulated by an irrigation district for the common good. More can be done as we begin to further reduce the pumping closer to the recharge level. Right now, farmers are allowed to pump as much ground water as they like, there is not very much incentive to invest in using water more efficiently, to put in a drip irrigation system or a more efficient sprinkler system. I think that actually giving rebates or some kind of tax incentive to invest in efficiency would make a great deal of sense because that would help promote a more sustainable use of water which would benefit the future.

What incentives will the government give to be appealing enough for the people to become more sustainable in their use of water?

Well, there is really two or three ways to think about it. One is economic incentives – for farmers incentives through rebates or tax incentives of some kind, financial incentives to invest in efficiency, that’s an important one. Similarly for consumers – water use prices at home often do not give the proper signal for conserving water. Food prices are often subsidized in various ways. And then also regulation – water is life, it is not just a commodity. And it is the government’s role as the custodian of the public trust in water, to make sure that we protect the ecosystems that all of life depends upon. The market place can’t do that. That’s a role for government on behalf of the people. And we are just not seeing enough of that kind of action yet.

You say the good news is that we have barely begun to apply our human ingenuity and inventiveness to meet this challenge. Do you think there is still room to change things, to become more sustainable, in terms of using water more reasonably?

Absolutely! That is really the silver lining in this whole story that while we have so many examples of aquifers being depleted and rivers running dry. Part of the reason is that we are not giving enough incentives to develop soultions, the incentives are not there yet. Once they are put in place we will see all kinds of innovation in technology, in management, in water use practices, in changes in consumer behavior – particularly in North America, a little bit less so in Europe. We have a very meat-intensive diet that takes a lot of water to grow the grain that feeds the cow that produces the meat. So consumers have a role to play, corporations have a role to play, farmers have a role to play, and governments have a role to play in setting the incentives. Once those line up, we will see substantial innovation in the water field that we haven’t yet begun to see – more recycling and reuse of water, more efficient irrigation, conservation and reuse in our cities, the ability to use more grey water systems in our homes, planting native vegetation instead of thirsty lawns, and so on – there is a whole host of things!
The latest edition of Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World series: State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? will be released on April 16, 2013. Pre-order your copy now and register for the European Launch Event in Copenhagen on April 29, 2013 here.