What Is the Future of Water?

With freshwater reserves dwindling, experts at event offer solutions for tomorrow—and beyond

Water is the Earth’s most important resource, and our collective approach to using, managing, and thinking about it must evolve quickly if we hope to have enough water to sustain us in the future, panelists said at an event in Washington on World Water Day, March 22.

Jay Famiglietti, professor and executive director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security, summarized the findings of a NASA Earth-observing mission that used a novel imaging technique—essentially using satellite imagery to “weigh” large regions of the world—to reveal how the planet’s freshwater storage had changed from 2002 to 2017. Overall, he said, the news is not good.

“Wet areas of the world are getting wetter, dry areas are getting drier, and it is happening now,” well before the end-of-the-century forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Famiglietti said. Most worrisome to him is the depletion, mainly for irrigation, of more than half of the world’s major aquifers past the point of sustainability.

“This is a wake-up call. I don’t believe society is prepared” to manage the emerging crisis, he told an in-person and online audience of more than 350 people. “Global freshwater security—and therefore global food security—is at far greater risk than we ever imagined.” He called the imbalance between those with and without easy access to water “a gateway to more violent conflict and more water and climate refugees.”

He and the other panelists at the event—co-sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and The Pew Charitable Trusts and held at the National Academies headquarters—focused on topics each had written about in the current issue of Pew’s journal of ideas, Trend.

Famiglietti expressed cautious hope that humanity could work its way out of the current situation—by increasing irrigation efficiency, greatly reducing food waste, and other means—but said it would take a concerted, collaborative effort by a broad spectrum of interest groups and decision-makers.

Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, struck a more hopeful note. “We need to recognize that we can live happy, healthy, productive lives while using less water,” Postel said, pointing out that Americans on average use more than 2,000 gallons a day, with more than half of that hidden in our diets.

To better manage water, she added, governments need to work within natural systems rather than against them. The “command-and-control” approach of the past century—building dams, diverting natural flows into canals and pipelines, draining swamps for development—has “broken the water cycle … the natural storage and movement of water between the land, sea, and air.” Globally, dams and reservoirs disrupt 48 percent of the volume of river flows, up from 5 percent in 1950, and have contributed to an 83 percent decline in freshwater vertebrate populations in that span.

Now, though, many city leaders are beginning to see the need to work in concert with nature. New York, for example, is utilizing the watershed north of the city to store and filter rain and runoff, saving billions of dollars, Postel said. She also cited a conservationist-landowner partnership that led to the installation of a solar-powered, automated gate on Arizona’s Verde River that allows irrigators to take only the water they need instead of siphoning far more than that. This simple solution has more than doubled summertime flows on parts of the Verde.

The third panelist, Tom Dillon, vice president of conservation projects at Pew, noted how plans by numerous countries to build more than 100 dams along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia threaten the second-most biodiverse river in the world—after the Amazon—and jeopardize food security for millions of people downstream. “This would hit especially hard in Cambodia, where 80 percent of the population’s protein came from fish,” he said.

Dillon also discussed inland river basins, which don’t drain to the sea, as places that rely on unimpeded water flow, often from hundreds of miles away. Channel Country in Australia, which floods every one to five years, and the Pantanal region in Brazil and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which are inundated annually, are the vibrant hearts of their regional economies.

“It’s hard to think of flooding as beneficial, but in these places it feeds ranching, farming, and tourism,” Dillon said.

During a question-and-answer session, the panelists sought a balance between hope and urgency.

“We’re not going to ‘tech’ our way out of this,” Famiglietti said, emphasizing a need to distill scientific data to reach the broadest possible audience—and, especially, to influence policymakers. Postel agreed but said she sees a prominent role for innovations such as variable-rate irrigation, which leverages GPS and other data to minimize water waste on crops, and reverse-osmosis technologies that can treat and reuse wastewater.

The panelists agreed on two things: the need to show the public, industry leaders, and lawmakers how humanity’s thirst cuts across everything we do, and that we are running short on time to answer the growing challenge of ensuring a strong future for water.