This interview reminded me of something many of us probably forget to think about sometimes:
Less is More: Making Changes and Saving Water
The Satya Interview with Sandra Postel
For the past two decades, Sandra Postel has dedicated her career to issues pertaining to the Earths fresh water. She is the Director of the Global Water Policy Project, which promotes the protection and sustainable use of the worlds water resources, and is a Senior Fellow of the Worldwatch Institute. Postel is the author of Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (Worldwatch/Norton, 1999) and Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (Norton, 1997). Here she tells Angela Starks about the problem of water scarcity, the role of agriculture, and the importance of adjusting our consumption habits.
Its easy for us in the West to think of water as an infinite resource; but theres a serious problem with water scarcity isnt there?
The degree of water scarcity we now see around the world is staggering. So many rivers are running dry during the times of the year when the water is needed most and so many places are over-pumping their groundwater to meet current needs. How are we going to produce the food that were going to need in the future if were over-pumping water, if were using groundwater unsustainably today?
The main shift that Ive been talking about for quite some time is the need to begin using water a lot more efficiently and figuring out how to get more benefit out of every liter of water that we take from the natural environment. Weve basically tried to take as much water as we desire by building large dams, diverting river water, levying rivers and so on, and that has created a lot of degradation of rivers, wetlands, deltas and all kinds of aquatic systems. Were destroying the very systems that we are dependent upon.
Are there any means by which we can meet the growing demand for water without further damaging the environment and the integrity of natural water systems?
We need to look at how we can satisfy our food needs, our material needs, our household water needsbasically all of our needs for waterin a more efficient way. That entails more than just installing low-flush toilets and low volume shower heads; it involves looking much more at our overall consumption levels because everything that we buy, use, and eat requires water to produce, and at the same time the waste products that we create from our heavy consumption is polluting the water.
There are certainly technologies out there that we can make better use of, from more efficient household fixtures to more efficient sprinklers in agriculture. Even something like natural, native landscaping instead of insisting on perfect green lawns saves enormous amounts of water. Those kinds of changes would buy us time to make the harder adjustments we should be making. For example, if we want to do something at the personal level, looking at the diet is a perfect place to start. The American diet takes two to three times more water to produce than the average diet of someone in, say, India.
Given that water scarcity may be the biggest threat to global food security, and since a huge percentage of the worlds irrigated crops simply end up as livestock feed, would the widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet make a difference?
Eating higher up the food chain is a more water intensive diet because of the meat consumption, so I think the adoption of a vegetarian diet would make a difference, certainly in Western countries. And ultimately that may have helpful effects globally as well. Right now, I dont know if a low-meat diet will do a whole lot for someone who is hungry in India, but over time, yes.
You suggested eating lower down the food chain. Given that this wont occur overnight, is it a matter of improving the water productivity in the meantime, while adjusting to more frugal consumption habits?
Yes. Though Im not inclined to be preachy about diet, I think as people become more aware of the consequences of their actions and the choices they do have, more people may voluntarily start to make those choices for themselves.
I also think as a mater of public policy its very important for the prices of the goods that we purchasewhether its computers, clothes or meatto reflect the true cost, including the cost to the environment. So if were depleting groundwater to grow grain to feed to livestock, but that is not incorporated in the price of the hamburger, that cant possibly include the full cost of that production cycle. And until prices start telling us the truth we wont start making the right decisions.
Can you give examples of any promising projects or initiatives that are helping to solve the water crisis?
Some of the most interesting and exciting ones that Ive seen personally have to do with the spread of simple irrigation technologies for very small-scale, poor farmers. One example is a technology thats spreading in Bangladesh. Its called a Treadle Pump, a human-powered irrigation pump that allows a farmer who otherwise might not have access to irrigation water to draw from very shallow depths. In Bangladesh theyve been selling them for only about $35 each so a farmer can afford to purchase one. It typically pays back within one season, because the farmer is able to irrigate a higher value rice crop, plus grow some vegetables. The family that was previously going hungry for part of the year is now not only well fed but they also have increased income from taking some of their produce to market.
Is there a place for biotechnology in this water crisis, such as designing more water-efficient plant varieties? And are such solutions worth it, given the dangers of genetic engineering (GE)?
I think there will be efforts to develop crop varieties that are more salt tolerant, more water efficient to the extent that thats possible, and more drought resistant. As for exactly how we go about that, well have to see what turns out to be most productive.
There are very valid concerns about GE crops. However, theres also the possibility of using genetic techniques to enhance conventional breeding. Being able to identify the presence of genes within a crop variety can short-circuit some of the laborious conventional breeding processes and focus in on exactly the genes that enhance a given trait that you desire. In this way, therell be no need to introduce genes from one species to another. We could continue with our usual breeding practices but more selectively and more efficiently.
During the green revolution stage when we were trying to increase the yield of particularly rice and wheat, more of the crops energy was basically bred to go into the actual grain instead of ending up in the overall biomass and the parts we dont eat.
What other agricultural changes could make a difference?
Agriculture is by far and away the biggest user of water, so I would emphasize the need to begin moving toward a much more efficient agricultural economy. For example, we need to use irrigation water more efficiently, and to explore possibilities of recycling waste water for use in irrigation.
In some ways I prefer the term water productivity rather than water efficiency because we need to be thinking much more broadly about how we maximize our benefit from the water were taking from nature. So we shouldnt be talking so much about how much yield per unit water were getting. We should be talking more about how much nutrition per unit water were getting. Its a much broader concept but it really gets at the heart of the direction we need to move in. You can irrigate sugar cane efficiently, but the real point is: do we need to be growing sugar cane? So I think we need to go deeper than the efficiency question, important as it is. Sure, it can be the initial line of attack, to irrigate your crop as efficiently as possible, but beyond that we need to ask: is that the right crop to be growing? Do we really need to be eating the diets were eating? Do we really need to be wearing the clothes were wearing? Do we need to be buying as many things as were buying? How can we increase the real value of the water were extracting from nature, realizing that every inefficient and unproductive use we make of water has a very serious ecological cost attached to it? Water is not free anymore. Every additional unit we take out of the natural environment has a bigger and bigger cost to nature and the ability of nature to do its work and we have to recognize that cost every time we decide to take more out of it.
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