Why is Water Such a Big Issue? Global Water Challenge Pres. Paul Faeth Sets Us Straight (Part 1)

paul faeth global water challenge president photo
photo: Global Water Challenge

Having given Global Water Challenge a Best of Green award earlier this year for their innovative work on the issues of drinking water and sanitation, it goes without saying that TreeHugger is a fan of their work.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with GWC president Paul Faeth and pick his brain about what water issues we ought to be paying attention to, how bad an impact is climate change going to really have on water supplies, water privatization, desalination, and much more. Both of us being verbose people we went on for some time. This part one of that conversation:lake lanier drought photo
Water levels in Lake Lanier, Georgia in 2007 (left) and 2008 (right), due to drought. Though, as a commenter has pointed out, lake levels have risen again, it's very much indicative of the type of water challenges the US will have to face. Photo: Brian Hursey via flickr.
In your opinion what are the main issues that TreeHugger readers should be concerned with regarding water and access to water?
The biggest thing facing us right now is climate change. Studies suggest that right now about a third of people in the world are living in climate-stressed areas. That includes places like California and the desert Southwest, but also places in Latin America and places you'd normally think about in Africa and India. The numbers suggest that as much as two thirds of the human population could be living in water-stressed areas [because of climate change].

Water resources are not growing, and we keep putting more stresses on them. We're polluting them. So the resources that we do have are running out. Water from aquifers, fossil water, as it's called...we're not making anymore of that, and we're using it up. Fresh water in many places of the world, we're polluting it, is just going to become more scarce because of climate change.

A huge amount of water also goes into nuclear power. A lot of people are talking about nuclear as a response to climate change, because it doesn't produce greenhouse gas emissions...there are other issues with it, of course. And one of them is that it uses a lot of water.

The other issue which I think is really important, the developing country aspect, is the issue of safe drinking water. There are a billion people in the world today, who do not have access to a safe source of drinking water. What that means is that nearly 5,000 children a day die from diarrheal diseases, because they don't have access to that safe source of drinking water. One of the things that's polluting the drinking water in many of these places is that there's no sanitation. That spreads human diseases around...there are 2.5 billion people in the world without access to sanitation.

How about an example, California. As far as I understand it, it's likely in the future that the Colorado River won't reach the sea...
...It doesn't now sometimes. One of the things in California right now, for example, is that we rely on different types of reservoirs to get us through the year. And one of the key types of reservoirs for California is snowpack.

This is what's happening in many areas of the world there's more precipitation falling in the winter in the form or rain instead of snow. So when it comes time to melt in the summertime and provide flow, it isn't happening.

They're predicting that the snowpack in the Sierras could be gone in 25 years. The same thing for the Himalayas. The Ganges could run dry for parts of the year, and the Colorado as well.

In the dry season, in California, a lot of the water used to grow alfalfa for milk. The single biggest use of water in California is crops, and alfalfa is the single biggest one is alfalfa. So they're growing alfalfa for milk, in the desert. We have many inefficient uses of water, all over the place, and that's the first place—to get from reverse into neutral so to speak—is thinking about how to use your resources more efficiently.

ganga at haridwar photo
Due to melting glaciers and climate change, the River Ganga, shown here in Haridwar, could at times run dry. Photo: Ajay Tallam via flickr.
At a policy level what can be done?
Before the Congress now is legislation on climate change and I think that's imperative. The first thing we have to do is reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions; we have to get that under control. And the Waxman bill is a very, very good start on that. I think that's a critical thing to get [our] house in order. Number one, to reduce our own emissions, but also for other countries, who are waiting for us to lead (which we have yet to do), will then say, "the US has moved, so now we're ready to do some things."

Do you think the emissions reductions in Waxman-Markey are enough? When you listen to a lot of climate scientists, they're saying that the reduction amounts we're proposing for 2050 really ought to be happening by, say, 2030...
...From folks I've spoken with, when I used to work at the World Resources Institute, there's a physicist there who I've spoken to who talked about having degrees in the bank. So basically, we're unavoidably locked into a certain degree of climate change. There's no way we're going to get out of some amount, but being as aggressive as we can is very, very important.

There's the legislative aspect, but there's also things, like people getting the hell out of their SUVs and into hybrids, switch their lightbulbs...there's amazing amount you can do in your own household, really.

There's a lot people can do without legislation, but I do think that we need, for those people who aren't inclined to take those kind of actions, a broad-based policy to get everyone to act, whether or not they feel like this is an important issue.

water tap photoThe other thing that's interesting going on the Hill: In 2005 the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act was passed; it wasn't funded for the first time until 2008. That moved the US from $30 million a year in non-emergency aid for safe drinking water and sanitation to $325 million a year.

But the goal now, which is a really laudable one...the act has been retitled The Water For the World Act...will be taken up in Foreign Operations and Appropriations. So if people want to take this up with their Senator it would be a very appropriate time to do something.

There will be a goal the US will take, the reach 100 million people with safe drinking water and sanitation. That's probably going to cost about $500 million a year. It's a bi-partisan no-brainer. It's just that right now there aren't enough sponsors on the bill to actually report it out of committee. So if we can do that, that's an enormous step forward in solving that problem. And help those people who don't have access to the resource now, to adapt, because it's only going to get worse because of climate change.

From a technological perspective: Could you talk about desalination a bit, some of the problems and some of the benefits? In your opinion, is it a good, wide-spread solution?
I think conservation is the first, best way to go on these things. Not growing alfalfa with precious drinking water. There are a lot better uses, and higher economic value uses; if water were actually priced right, it wouldn't go to alfalfa.

There's some space for desalination, but because of the space and energy requirements...also the ecological impact because of the waste water...it's a tough first approach.

But on the other hand, we actually are actually supporting a group in India that's doing this on a micro-scale: The Naandi Foundation.

We funded this through the Changemakers contest. What they did was put in place this kiosk [where] for $15,000 they can treat enough groundwater that has salt, or flouride, or arsenic in it, which can service a village of 5,000 people. [These desalination units] last 10-12 years, so roughly 30¢ a year.

What they're doing is putting these installations in place, and for a very low cost, selling water to people, to help recover their costs. So for roughly 30¢ a year it's really, really cheap, very affordable for these folks. Naandi's putting in about 40 of these installations a month right now, and water to reach 45 million people in India over the next five years.

Keep Reading: Part Two of my interview with Paul Faeth of Global Water Challenge

More: Global Water Challenge
Water tap photo: Julien Harneis via flickr
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Tags: Desalination | Drinking Water | Pollution | Water Conservation | Water Crisis


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