Sandra Postel: Water World, Uncut
Posted Sep 7, 2011 by Sandra Postel
An interview with PCI Fellow Sandra Postel, by Todd Reubold.
[Excerpt]: Whether it’s 500-year floods or 100-year droughts, water has been one of the top news stories in 2011. Good ol’ H20 will likely grow in prominence over the coming decades as growing demand due to rapid population growth collides with increasing unpredictability of supply. Momentum recently caught up with Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project, to discuss current freshwater challenges and our unending thirst for water in the 21st century.
When did you first become interested in water-related issues?
I’ve been interested in environmental issues since I was at least a teenager, if not earlier. When I left grad school at Duke I took a job with a small natural resources consulting firm in California and was given the opportunity to work on freshwater issues. We had some work going with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and so I got my feet wet, so to speak, in water pretty early out of grad school.
Can you tell me more about the organization you founded, the Global Water Policy Project?
The Global Water Policy Project is an umbrella for a variety of things that I do, but the goals really are to begin to move ideas and policies and advance ways of harmonizing human use of water with the protection of the natural world. It’s really focused on the question of, “How can we begin to meet the needs of this growing human population while sustaining the ecosystems that support not only the rest of life, but us, too?”
How would you characterize our relationship with water today?
We know that freshwater is finite, it’s the basis of life and there are no substitutes for it. But we’re not using it and managing it as if any of those things are really true. So there’s a big disconnect with these known truths about freshwater and the way we go about using and managing it.
The entire path of development over the 20th century has been about acquiring more water. As we run out, we find more. And we build more and bigger water projects. We drill more groundwater wells. And that worked for a time, but clearly it’s not working anymore. And so I think the challenge is to re-integrate how we use and manage water with those fundamental truths about freshwater. And that really is a game-changer. Once you start aligning our use of water, our policies around water, and our management goals around water with those fundamental truths at the core, it shifts everything.
Issues like climate change and energy seem to grab all the attention, but you’ve said one of our greatest challenges—if not the greatest—will be related to water. Can you elaborate?
First of all, to some extent we’ll experience climate change in large part through its impact on the water cycle. We’ll experience it through more and severe floods or more severe rainstorms. Where I am in the Southwest right now it’s very dry and expected to get much drier and much hotter. So, I think we’ll experience a lot of climate change through the water cycle.
We’ve got different wells in different parts of India that are running out, again from pumping of groundwater. We’ve got rivers of various sizes all around the world in the drier parts of the world that had been perennial rivers that are now not flowing over extended periods of time from overuse. So, I think it’s beginning to hit home in more places, and it’s connecting the dots and saying, “We can do something about this. This trajectory does not have to continue in this way.”
If you could change the way water was managed, where would you start?...
Originally published in the Fall 2011 edition of Momentum
Image credit: Van Royko