Dr. Peter Gleick Calls for a New, More Resilient ‘Third Age of Water’ in New Book

Dr. Peter Gleick Calls for a New, More Resilient ‘Third Age of Water’ in New Book

A Q&A with Dr. Peter Gleick, Senior Fellow and Co-Founder at the Pacific Institute, about his new book ‘The Three Ages of Water.’ Guiding the conversation is Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Director of Communications and Outreach at the Pacific Institute. 

Key Takeaways

  • Dr. Gleick emphasizes the need for a Third Age of Water, one that leverages the technological benefits of the Second Age of Water to address its ecological repercussions and address water poverty.  
  • He underscores that both incremental and radical changes involving new thinking, institutions, and economics, are required to make the transition. 
  • He highlights Pacific Institute’s three focus areas– Water & Climate Equity, Water Efficiency & Reuse and Nature-Based Solutions as being instrumental to addressing global water challenges. 
  • Amid the overwhelming global water and climate crises, his book offers a hopeful message. It emphasizes our collective potential to shift towards a sustainable Third Age of Water, urging all stakeholders, from governments to individuals, to act 

“The Three Ages of Water,” the new book by Pacific Institute Co-Founder and Senior Fellow Dr. Peter Gleick, was released today. The book comes at a critical time when our relationship with water is undergoing massive changes, many of them intensifying due to climate change. In this Q&A, he gives us a thought-provoking exploration of the water challenges we face today, while offering a hopeful vision of the future. In the “Third Age of Water,” Gleick envisions an era where we harness the benefits of previous advancements and rectify their unintended consequences to ensure a sustainable, resilient, and equitable water future—for all. 

Amanda Bielawski:

In your new book, you write about the day we live in being the potential dawn of a new—and quite different—Third Age of Water. You acknowledge the Second Age of Water, during which we “learned to manipulate the natural hydrologic cycle for our benefit,” brought technological advancements, largely focused on centralized engineered infrastructure such as dams and wastewater treatment plants. While you acknowledge the Second Age helped society in many ways, including providing irrigation and human health benefits, you also underscore its negative unintended consequences, writing, “The Second Age of Water is coming to an end, and not a moment too soon.” What should be different about the Third Age of Water? 

Peter Gleick:

The Third Age of Water offers us an opportunity to both take advantage of the benefits of the knowledge, technologies, and advances of the Second Age as well as to address, and reverse, the unintended consequences that resulted from our water policies. There are several key changes that are needed: perhaps foremost among them is the need to both understand and address the failure to provide safe water and sanitation to everyone on the planet, what I describe as “water poverty,” and to understand and address the failure to protect our natural ecosystems, which have suffered massive impacts from human withdrawal and contamination of water.  

If we can apply the positive advances of the Second Age to the unintended consequences, and apply the new thinking about human rights, ecosystem values, and sustainability, a far better future is achievable. 

Amanda Bielawski:

You characterize the Third Age of Water being defined by five key shifts. These prioritize ensuring the Human Right to Water is fulfilled, recognizing the full value of water, protecting ecosystems, maximizing water-use efficiency, and reusing more water than we do today. Many of these relate to the work at the heart of the Pacific Institute, the global water think tank you co-founded 35 years ago. The Pacific Institute’s three focus areas relate to water and climate equity, water efficiency and reuse, and nature-based solutions. Could you share more about why these focus areas are so key to unlocking broader solutions to the world’s current water challenges?

Peter Gleick: 

The Pacific Institute’s priorities are directly in line with the key water challenges facing us, and they continue the long Pacific Institute tradition of working on effective, practical, and implementable solutions to problems.  

The concept of nature-based solutions is directly in line with the idea that humanity now understands (or is beginning to) that healthy communities and people depend on healthy ecosystems, and that we all benefit from solutions based on the proper, restored, and protected functioning of the environment.  

The focus on efficiency and reuse acknowledges that the old, Second Age of Water focus on water supply, and extracting more and more from nature, is no longer appropriate, but that there is an enormous potential to do more with the water we already use – the concept of efficiency. It also acknowledges that water reuse – the treatment and reuse of wastewaters – offers a new, reliable, potentially high-quality source of water that doesn’t require draining another river or overdrafting another aquifer. Both efficiency and reuse have already been proven to work, be cost effective, and environmentally beneficial, and the potential to scale these strategies up is vast. 

Finally, the focus on climate equity is a clear statement that both climate change and inequities in our current energy, resource, and water use are linked, and that addressing the threat of climate change is urgent and must be done in an equitable and fair manner. 

Amanda Bielawski:

You call for transformative change, a revolution for water and a shift from the current “hard path” to a new “soft path” for water. This call for transformative change is reminiscent of Einstein’s maxim that “the hallmark of a real problem is that it cannot be solved within the same framework that generated it1.” Could you unpack why you call for revolutionary or transformative change in this moment?

Peter Gleick:

I believe that change occurs both incrementally and radically, and moving to a sustainable Third Age of Water will include both kinds of efforts. But to really shift from the destructive approaches of the Second Age of Water will require new thinking, new institutions, new economics, and new commitments on the part of governments, corporations, communities, and individuals.  

We must stop ignoring the environmental consequences of our actions; we must stop turning a blind eye to the poverty and inequities of our current resource and economic systems; and we must accelerate efforts to learn from and scale the successful water strategies that we can see around us. The faster this transformation occurs, the quicker we’ll be able to address and eliminate the harms of the Second Age of Water. 

Amanda Bielawski:

You’ve been an early and leading voice recognizing the direct and intricate connections between the water cycle and the climate system. In your new book, you write, “water is at the heart of the climate system and… water problems must be solved in a way that simultaneously helps tackle climate change.” You further highlight the concept of “water resilience” advanced here at the Pacific Institute as being central to solutions at the water-climate nexus. Could you walk our readers through the nuances between water sustainability and water resilience? 

Peter Gleick:

We’ve worked hard at the Pacific Institute to try to understand and define the characteristics of water systems necessary for what I consider a sustainable future, by which I mean a future where society is able to adapt to disruptions, persist in time, and support a healthy, equitable, and just society. Resilience is key to such a future, where we define resilience as the ability of an individual, institution, or system to respond to shocks and stresses.  

In the Third Age of Water, what we must strive for is restoring water for the environment, using the water we need as efficiently and carefully as possible, finding new sources of water that do not require taking more from our rivers and groundwater, and finally, rethinking and redesigning our water institutions and laws to address the inequities our old approaches fostered. If we do this, our water systems will be more “resilient” and “sustainable” in all its characteristics. 

Amanda Bielawski:

Many people report feeling angst about the environmental state of the world at this moment in time. Yet, you express a significant amount of hopefulness in your new book about what might be achieved during a Third Age of Water. You write, “My experience and the success stories of water I see all around give me hope and support my conviction that a positive, sustainable Third Age of Water is coming.” Given your vast experience in water and climate research, what message would you share with those who may feel discouraged? Relatedly, what is your call to action for those, including policymakers, who are levers of change in the system? 

Peter Gleick:

There’s plenty of doom and gloom out there. And with good reason, there’s plenty of bad news. As I write in the book, I’m optimistic that we CAN solve our water problems, and our broader challenges. I don’t know that we WILL – that of course depends on the actions, efforts, choices, and commitments of all the parties, from governments to corporations to us as individuals and communities. 

And I acknowledge that many of the bad things we see around us, and the adverse consequences of our failures so far to successfully address our problems, will continue for some time. My argument is that we have the money, brains, technologies, and information needed to move to a positive Third Age, and that we can and must do so faster.  

My call to action is for all of us to give these problems the attention they deserve, to stop turning a blind eye to existential threats, and to commit the time and resources needed to bring about the transition to a sustainable future that is both possible and vital.  

For more detailed information about the Pacific Institute’s work in the focus areas of water and climate equity, water efficiency and reuse, and nature-based solutions, see our Focus Areas page

For more detailed information about water resilience, the Pacific Institute provides this Water Resilience Issue Brief

To learn more about the book, click here.

(Weston, A. 2002. Mobilizing the Green Imagination.) 

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