Global Water Crisis Is Here, Dungan Lecturer Says

We are in the midst of a global water crisis that affects not only basic water supplies but agriculture, industry, local and regional ecosystems, international politics, and the earth's changing climate, water expert Peter Gleick warned in the third annual Antoinette and Vincent Dungan Lecture on Energy and the Environment Tuesday.

Despite the magnitude of the problem--1 billion people do not have access to safe water supplies--there is hope for a sustainable future, said Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, 2003 MacArthur "Genius Award" Fellow, and author of the new book, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water.

"There are enormous opportunities, but they will require new thinking and new approaches," said Gleick, citing the explosive growth in the sale and use of bottled water over the past 30 years as a symptom of the challenges the world now faces in water policy.

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Water is often viewed in isolation, without considering its intimate relationship with other issues, said Gleick. Australia's recent drought provides a dramatic example. As a result of draconian cuts in agricultural water supplies, Australian rice production plummeted, quadrupling the price of rice in international markets in 2007-08. "World food markets are very delicately balanced right now," he said.

Bottled water is another example of water use with poorly examined consequences, Gleick said. Annual individual consumption of bottled water in the United States has risen from approximately one gallon per person in the 1970s to 30 gallons in 2007, despite the fact that much of it is simply filtered tap water and "literally costs thousands of times more than tap water," he said.

Most water bottles are made of PET plastic, a petroleum product that requires huge amounts of energy to manufacture and transport. Although PET is fully recyclable, only 25-30 percent of water bottles are actually recycled, primarily for use in the manufacture of carpet, strapping materials, and other lower-end products, he said. 

Yet there is hope for a sustainable future, Gleick said. Bottled water use actually began to decline in 2008-09, and today people in the United States use less water than they did in 1980. That's in large part a result of greater efficiencies in agriculture, manufacturing, and urban water systems. But there is much more to be done, including rainwater harvesting, the use of groundwater storage systems, greater use of treated wastewater for non-potable purposes, and an expanded and improved water infrastructure, he said.

The Antoinette and Vincent Dungan Lectureship on Energy and the Environment was established by Occidental alumna Louise Edgerton '67 and her husband Bradford Edgerton in honor of her parents. The first lecture was in 2009. Previous speakers have included Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, and Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's transportation commissioner.

The Edgerton Foundation is interested in exploring new ideas to deal with one of our most pressing environmental issues: how to utilize energy wisely while preventing damage to the environment and climate. The foundation believes there is a crucial role for leading colleges to contribute to the debate.