Interview: The Three Ages of Water

In his new book, Dr. Peter Gleick explores our water past to reimagine our water future.

Is humanity on the verge of ecological destruction or the dawn of a more sustainable and equitable era? A new book explores this question and offers a glimpse at how we can work together to make the latter a reality. The Three Ages of Water, written by Dr. Peter Gleick, details how water has shaped humanity’s greatest achievements in science, technology, medicine, and more, but also how those advancements have resulted in unintended consequences that threaten the quality of our future.

Dr. Gleick is a leading scientist, innovator, and communicator on global water and climate issues. He co-founded the Pacific Institute in Oakland, a non-governmental organization (NGO) addressing the connections between the environment and he is a foremost mind in global sustainability; having received the MacArthur Fellowship, the U.S. Water Prize, and the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization.

We spoke with him about the new book and his positive vision of what the future can hold.

Your book takes readers on a journey through humanity’s history with water – noting three distinct ‘ages’. Why did you choose to frame the discussion in this way?

Dr. Gleick: My experience with water over my career has led me to think about the long history of water, from the very creation of the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that make up water, through human evolution and our growing relationship with water, to the present water crises we face. And I’ve spent my career thinking about both water problems, and especially future solutions. As I was writing the book, these experiences fell into the natural categories of “past,” “present,” and “future” — what I called The Three Ages of Water — and it permitted me to help express my sense of the world of water.

What can the past teach us about creating a more sustainable relationship with water in the future?

Dr. Gleick: Although my training and career have been in the sciences, I’ve always had a love of history, and the ability of history to offer us insights and lessons about both past failures as well as successes. And as the different stories in the book explore, those failures have led us to our present challenges, but also help us to better understand what paths forward might be most successful.

It’s no accident that many famous historians and pundits point to history as offering a guide to the future, if we’re smart enough to learn from the past.

The book suggests the “hard path” to providing water services, namely, relying on physical infrastructure and large institutions, has largely failed us. Can you share a little about what a ‘softer’ path looks like?

Dr. Gleick: I do believe, and say in the book, that the “hard path” — our past approach to water that has relied on a focus on “supply” and centralized infrastructure and institutions — has brought great benefits to us, or to some of us. But it has also come with serious liabilities and failures.

The “soft path” I describe still looks to technology and infrastructure but understands that the concept of “demand” is more important than “supply” in the sense that our ultimate goal is not to use water, but to provide benefits such as food, clean clothes, industrial goods and services, and so on, and that we can greatly reduce the amount of water needed to provide these benefits.

By using water as efficiently as possible, we can reduce our impacts on ecosystems and the planet, while still meeting our needs and desires. The soft path also recognizes that the environment must also be protected and guaranteed the water needed to thrive, and the soft path calls for better and smarter economics and institutions that reflect the human right to water, current inequities in water allocation, control, and use, and integrate water management with energy, food, and climate issues.

In short, the soft path is a more comprehensive, holistic way to manage our water needs.

What role should the private sector play in bringing about the Third Age of Water?

Dr. Gleick: There is a role for every sector to bring about the Third Age of Water, from individuals to community groups to the private sector to governments at all levels. A substantial amount of water is used, and controlled, by the private sector, and it is vital that they understand the risks to their own operations of failing to manage and use water sustainably and the risks to the public and environment.

At the same time, there is enormous opportunity to improve corporate water stewardship and we are already seeing thoughtful companies working in this direction to reduce their water impacts in both operations and the communities in which they operate. More corporations should move in this direction.

How important is the concept of regeneration in realizing the benefits of the Third Age of Water? What role does it play?

Dr. Gleick: An important strategy for the Third Age of Water is to understand that nature naturally regenerates and recycles water in the hydrologic cycle of the planet, constantly circulating, clean, and reusing water. Human systems can do the same thing, by collecting and treating and reusing wastewater, something already done extensively in Singapore and Israel, and starting to be done in California and other water-stressed regions. This makes wastewater an asset, not a liability. But we can also “regenerate” our natural ecosystems and rivers, taking down damaging, old, dangerous dams and restoring rivers.

Over 1000 dams have already been removed in the United States and we are slowly restoring natural systems, to the benefit of people and the planet.

The Three Ages of Water is available now for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers. You can learn more about Dr Gleick on his website.