Peak Water

PEAK WATER

Meena Palaniappan

Keynote Address, Utah American Planning Association Annual Conference
Salt Lake City, Utah
November 6, 2008

To judge from recent media attention, the finite supply of freshwater on Earth has been nearly tapped dry, leading to a natural resource calamity on par with, or even worse than, running out of accessible, affordable oil. The Christian Science Monitor asks, “Is Water Becoming the New Oil,” and the Washington Post tells us to “Get ready for peak water, and even peak food.” Wired Magazine reminds us that aquifers and rivers are running dry, and others talk about how Peak Water is going to reshape civilization.

Undoubtedly, we are in a water crisis worldwide. Per-capita water availability is declining as our population grows from 6 to 8 to 11 billion people or even more. Billions of people still lack access to the most basic of water services: over a billion people lack access to safe and affordable drinking water; and 2.5 billion lack access to adequate sanitation. We’re facing water scarcity in many parts of the world. Many rivers no longer flow to the sea: the Colorado, Yellow, Nile, Others are too polluted to sustain life.

Talking about the water crisis in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the heart of the American Southwest, is very appropriate. In fact, the American media coined the term Peak Water to reflect the real limits on water availability in precisely this corner of America.

Looking at this map of water scarcity, the areas in red are defined as facing physical water scarcity, where more than 75% of river flows are being used by humans. Areas in orange are Approaching physical water scarcity. And areas in green are facing Economic water scarcity: where you have enough water to meet demand, but malnutrition exists.

In a large area covering much of the American Southwest, you see a large swatch of red, as there are real limits on water availability. Seventy five percent of river flows are already being used and with projected population growth in this area, this is expected to get worse. So we are having the right conversation about Peak Water in the right place at the right time.

To begin, I will explore Peak Oil to provide some context. Based on this, oil and water will then be compared to understand whether the concept of Peak Water is possible, and in what ways it would be useful. I will then discuss a new paradigm and a new direction in water management, called the Soft Path for water.

Download the full presentation here