Towards a Stable Water Future: The Transition to Freshwater Sustainability

August 20, 2018, Oakland, Calif. –– The world is in a transition from 20th century water management and use strategies toward more sustainable practices. That transition is unevenly distributed around the planet and may be too slow to prevent continued human and ecological disruptions, but there is evidence that new technologies, economic practices, and broad philosophical concepts are beginning to displace older, failed approaches.

“Transitions to Freshwater Sustainability,” a new paper by Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), discusses the concept of resource transitions with a focus on freshwater, describes how such transitions occur, and presents examples of ongoing changes in the role of infrastructure, water use, public perceptions, and integrating thinking around human and ecological use of water.

Transitions are driven by changing natural resource conditions (such as human-caused climate change), the passing of critical thresholds or tipping points (including the complete consumption of river flows), changing demographic factors (such as the shift from rural to urban populations), new technological or economic factors (such as high-resolution remote sensing or new data platforms), evolving social preferences, and the creation and adoption of new paradigms. The paper also discusses the role of social networks and policy entrepreneurs in driving or leading transitions. Among the examples described are changes in the perception and utility of wastewater, the shift from the construction of hard physical water infrastructure toward improved water efficiency and management of water demand, and changes in institutions and funding approaches worldwide.

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The Pacific Institute is a global water think tank that creates and advances solutions to some of the world’s most pressing water challenges through interdisciplinary research and by partnering with a variety of stakeholders. Founded in 1987 and based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute envisions a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.