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Water in the 21st Century

Water in the 21st Century

Dr Peter Gleick

Dr Peter Gleick, Hydrologist, Climatologist, Engineer and President of the Pacific Institute for Development, Environment, and Security in California gave an insightful speech on what the global water situation might be by 2115.

Project Category: Education & Training

Key Areas of Work: Water sensitive urban design,Environmental quality,Sustainability,Water quality,Integrated Water Resource Management

Project Date: May 05, 2008

Video: Looking Beyond 2015 - Peter Gleick

He spoke at the Australian Environment and Sustainability Conference (ENVIRO 08) in Melbourne, May 5-7, 2008.

17 senior water leaders and leading university researchers attended the session presented by the International WaterCentre.

The key issues raised were around five central themes:

  • Economic issues; water pricing, increasing demand, property rights, efficiency -> privatization -> competition?
  • Sociological issues; community involvement, changing habits and attitudes, population, ethics, fairness
  • Institutional issues; infrastructure, laws, regulations, integrated management, transparency
  • Technology issues; innovation in alternative water sources and water-saving appliances
  • Long term planning and management; whole water cycle, integrated management, redesigning cities


Economic issues

Two of the major issues raised were pricing signals and the possibility of privatisation. Most agreed that pricing needs to better reflect the scarcity of water in order to change people’s perception of water as a valuable resource and signal more efficient usage.

The issue of privatisation is clearly a controversial one. Provision of water is currently a monopoly and to have it privately owned by one company could pose risks. It was suggested that there would need to be a competitive water industry to ensure efficiency. This was challenged however, and the ‘Beyond Privatisation’ report was cited as revealing that the determining factor was not whether water entities were public or private but rather other characteristics such as financing and transparency were what mattered.

While some argued that there is already a considerable amount of privatisation in the water sector and that public and private ownership can co-exist, this was contested as potentially an obstacle to the integrated water approach. Similarly land use and property rights were identified as complications if the option of privatisation was pursued.

Sociological issues

The issue of population growth and the effect this has on water supply was discussed.  Some felt population growth is not something we can change while others believed increased education of women throughout the world will slow population growth, stating that there is evidence to show it will peak around 2080 at approximately 9.5 billion.

The importance of finding context based solutions was also raised and the role that communities play in identifying their own solutions. It was suggested that communities are eager to get involved in better water management, despite industry scepticism of their capabilities and willingness to be part of the solution.

Although regulations can give rise to social pressure which goes some of the way to promoting responsible usage, increasing the price of water was seen as the best way to change habits quickly. Evidence was given to show that once habits change, even if water control is eased, people do not necessarily revert to previous levels of consumption.  It was noted, however, that a basic or minimum amount of water should be provided free of charge in order to ensure some level of equity of access.  Fairness and ethical pricing were emphasised however, there was also concern that a differential pricing system can be complicated to administrate.

Institutional issues

Many issues were discussed regarding the role of the government.  There was concern that although water has a high profile in Australia at the moment because of the recent droughts across the country, if the water ‘crisis’ eases then so too will government prioritisation of the issue. The radical policy changes in Australia were commended but it was noted further work needs to be done to make responsible water usage as easy as possible by creating better efficiency models. It was recommended that local government be given greater resources to implement change as they can be powerful actors in the process.

The need for government to drive innovation was also addressed, although some felt that the government should focus on price reforms and structural reform in the short term rather than subsidising capital works, and that technology would follow later.

Technology issues

(Gleick believes) in the long term there will be a movement away from big dams and other traditional water supply systems towards innovative alternative sources. Others acknowledged that crisis situations give rise to innovation and discussed the need to explore how to arrive at these innovations before they become the last resort.

Technology was seen as a long-term, ongoing process. Urban design and industrial water use were mentioned as having room for huge improvement. Coupled with changes in attitude and behaviour, technology can potentially revolutionise water use and water management in the future.

Long term planning and management

Land use and planning was seen as area that could be better managed, as was the need to move away from just optimising water supply utility and towards innovative responses.  It was noted a future vision integrating all the different aspects of water is still lacking.

Environmental externalities and climate change matters were also identified as necessary considerations when planning. Dr Gleick stressed that although decisions need to be made now, focusing on the long term is just as important as the short-term. He pointed out that water language has changed significantly in the last 50 years and is continuing to change; it is becoming more integrated and interdisciplinary and that as a result institutions, structures and approaches are changing. Cities can be redesigned over 100 years, he said, but it is a slow process.


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