An Expert Opinion: Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel has been a leading authority on global freshwater issues for 25 years. Through her organization, The Global Water Policy Project, Postel conducts research, writes, and travels the world providing insights into water challenges and solutions. A former Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, she is currently the National Geographic Society’s Freshwater Fellow —and she NEVER drinks bottled water if she can help it.
You’ve said in the future the human story will become a water story, what do you mean by that?
Water is going to be a central driver of the human experience over the next several decades and beyond. It’s about the scarcity of water; the fact that we’re running into limits in so many places around the world when it comes to water to grow food, water to keep cities expanding, and water to keep our populations supplied with what they need.
It’s been said “What oil was to the twentieth century, water will be to the twenty-first,” meaning conflict will erupt over water access. Are wars over water inevitable?
I think water’s a more serious issue than the oil issue, given that there’s no substitute for water. We can’t transition away from water, the way we can from oil to other sources of energy. The idea that there will be wars over water the way there have been wars over oil; I think that’s a distraction. There’s going to be enormous social unrest and many humanitarian crises around water and related food shortages within countries. We need to think about and plan more for these circumstances than worrying about armies mobilizing over water. When you look at the river basins around the world, there’s more of a tendency to cooperate than to enter into conflict, so that’s a good thing.
I remember once watching David Letterman do a monologue when New York was in drought where he said, “I keep hearing about this water shortage so last night I turned on my shower and this morning it was still going strong.” How can you communicate about water scarcity when, in the first world, it’s pretty much available on demand?
I think most people do only think about water from the point of turning on their tap. But it’s hiding in so many other places in our lives; embedded in everything we wear, everything we eat, everything we do. It takes about 2000 gallons a day to sustain the average American’s lifestyle. More than half is our diet. So helping people think about how their dietary choices increase or decrease their personal water footprint makes a difference. Also, it takes 700 gallons to make a cotton shirt. That awareness is really missing.
What have been some success stories in water conservation?
In terms of urban conservation, I think Boston is one of the best, in part because it’s in a part of the country that you don’t think of as needing to conserve so much. In the late 1980s, Boston was looking at a potential diversion of the Connecticut River to add supply to their reservoir.
But the citizens said they wanted to protect the river and its salmon populations, so they asked the water authority to take a serious look at conservation measures. They did, and what they put in place was one of the most progressive and comprehensive conservation programs that I’ve seen. It involved retrofitting homes, strategic pricing, education, audits of industries, fixing leaks. A lot of older cities have tremendous leakage in the system.
Boston’s water use today is back to where it was fifty years ago. It’s gone down 43% from the peak. And this is greater Boston: two and a half, three million people. The conservation program cost half as much as the alternative would have cost, and it is better for the environment. The river wasn’t diverted, and now there’s actually extra water, in a sense, surplus water in the reservoir.
Do you drink eight cups of water daily? What kind of water bottle do you use?
I drink tap water and I drink it out of a glass –or I have any number of stainless steel bottles that I put water in if I’m going to take a hike, or play tennis, or do something outdoors. I don’t drink bottled water unless I absolutely have to because I’m somewhere where there’s no other water available.
You grew up on Long Island, but now live in New Mexico. Does living in an arid environment change your relationship with water?
Sure. All I have to do is look out my window to see the importance of water in our lives. Understanding the impacts of climate change, particularly on the southwestern U.S., and what it’s going to take to sustain agriculture and populations in the West – it’s all right here.
If you want to get an idea of your own water use, try out the Water Footprint Calculator Sandra Postel helped develop with the National Geographic Society.