Drought, floods, contaminated streams and depleted groundwater supplies … daily headlines draw our attention to these and other water problems. Are they isolated incidents or symptoms of a global crisis? I contend that they are inter-connected threats to our livelihoods and welfare.
What links them is the concept of sustainability: ensuring that the various ways we manage freshwater for growing food and fiber, producing energy, making and transporting goods, and meeting household needs do not impair the welfare of other living things, or of future generations.
Sustainability also means promoting development, protecting the environment, and advancing justice. Yet the way freshwater is managed often does just the opposite.
Moreover, when we abuse other resources that interact with water we create unsustainable conditions for freshwater management in two ways.
The aim of my book is to convey the magnitude of these underlying threats to freshwater sustainability, and to suggest how they might be prevented. I examine “big” threats such as the plight of refugees and the building of huge dams, as well as less dramatic but no less serious ones, such as pollution and the loss of biodiversity.
I also examine who controls freshwater, whether growing private control of water supplies is good or bad, and if what we pay for freshwater is fair. I further discuss alternative ways of providing freshwater, including desalination and wastewater recycling, and whether they can equitably slake our planet’s thirst.
Finally, I reflect on whether access to freshwater can be thought of as a basic human right: there is certainly no debate that it is a fundamental human need.
I argue that the world’s freshwater is unevenly distributed and unequally used. Growing demands and factors such as climate change will likely worsen this unevenness and inequality.
Further, threats to freshwater quality continue to diminish its usability and endanger public health. Moreover, competition over freshwater is growing because it is a resource increasingly subject to trans-boundary dispute, and increasingly an object of global trade.
Finally, when demands for water exceed availability in a given locale, stress and conflict arise, including over proposed methods to make additional water available.
David L. Feldman is professor and chair of planning, policy, and design at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Water.