October 20, 2011

Events from Around Town: The World's Water Volume 7: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources

Despite the vast amount of water on Earth, demands for human
consumption are reaching constraints with regard to accessibility, quality and
use. This concept of “peak
ecological water
” – limitations to
the regional availability of water – has been developed by MacArthur
Genius Fellow Peter Gleick in his biennial report The
World’s Water
, which was launched
this past Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Now
in its seventh volume, The World’s Water
continues to build on a diverse set of issues centering on water and its
implications for energy security, including the necessity of reforming U.S.
water policy and the implications of water contamination as a result of
producing alternative energy sources.

The U.S. government’s lack of vision is in part to blame for
America’s current inability to revamp aging laws and infrastructure for a 21st
century environment. In The World’s
Water, Volume 7
, Gleick and his colleagues devote a chapter to the need to reform
outdated water laws and policies
. Policymakers working on water issues
across the U.S. government have not sufficiently worked together to develop
coherent legislation, in part because most of over 30 federal agencies and
programs with water-related responsibilities do not view water as their central
mission. For example, Gleick recommends improved collaboration, especially
between the Farm Service Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and State
Revolving Loans, in prioritizing projects that better manage the country’s
river basins. Concerns over internationally shared water systems with Mexico
and Canada will also require increased planning and diplomacy in order to
reduce tensions among neighboring countries. According to Gleick, as demands
for water increase alongside the growing population, a more integrated water
policy that includes all relevant stakeholders in the U.S. government is needed
in order to sculpt a more sustainable approach to federal water management.

The report also explores the water-energy
and the challenges brought about from the significant amount of water
usage in fossil fuel extraction and processing. Gleick stated that the
increased use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” will greatly impact water
quality. Water contamination is at high risk, considering that fracking
requires between two to five million gallons of water in each well, affecting
surrounding groundwater sources and drinking water. The extraction of oil
shale, also promoted as an alternative energy source for America’s future,
requires large amounts of water to extract kerogen from shale rocks for further
refinement and processing. As a result, water extracted during processing is
held in retention ponds, where it could leak and contaminate surrounding
surface or groundwater. Significant risk to the local water supply will
continue to rise with the increased production of unconventional oil and gas.
These challenges are not unique to America. For example, China’s
own energy demand and production is having a cascading effect on water scarcity
throughout the country

The World’s Water
calls for a “soft path” approach for water security, focusing on safe and
affordable water for everyone, the restoration of national aquatic ecosystems,
developing new ways to manage water and sponsoring a more efficient use of our
current water supply. Restructuring decades-old water laws and policies necessitates
collaboration and engagement across the large number of government agencies to
implement more efficient and productive methods for sustainable water
management. As the country continues to explore alternative energy options,
concerns over water usage and contamination must also not be overlooked.

For U.S. foreign policy and national security practitioners,
developing a “soft path” to water security could be a useful toolkit in
engaging states around the world suffering similar water challenges. As the
United States orients itself to deal with its own water crises, it would be
useful to leverage those experiences in pursuit of building the capacity of
partner states rather than leaving them to re-invent the wheel.

Photo: Front cover of The World’s Water, Vol. 7. Courtesy
of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.