Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

What's the Biggest Sustainability Problem in the World?
Alan AtKisson, 15 Oct 04

WaterConsumpChart.jpgClimate change? War and terrorism? Globalization? Poverty?

A reading of expert opinion suggests "none of the above." According to a recent global survey of experts, the answer is much more elemental.


A group called GlobeScan operating out of Canada recently surveyed (by email) an international sample of "sustainability experts," with assistance from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Over 90% of respondents identified issues around fresh water planning and supply as "very important," with renewable energy and poverty next on the list. Concern about water had risen twelve points in two years in this group's survey.

The arguably left-leaning views of typical sustainability experts -- though many would not like their views being characterized that way -- was supported to some degree earlier this year by a right-leaning process named the Copenhagen Consensus. Sponsored by the Economist magazine and organized by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg (author of the much-critiqued and/or much-lauded book "The Skeptical Environmentalist"), the Copenhagen meeting brought together a group of leading neo-liberal economists to examine the world's great problems from a strict cost/benefit perspective.

Oddly, the Copenhagen result was declared a "consensus" even before the group actually met to consider the issues; but the process of evaluating the financial costs and likely returns on a list of sustainability challenges apparently produced agreement on a rank-order. Investing in water and sanitation programs was the highest ranking environmental issue on the list, coming after HIV prevention, hunger, trade reform, and malaria. (Climate was at the bottom of the Copenhagen list; the Copenhagen group did not believe the cost of proposals to address climate change would return enough economic benefit.)

Lomborg and his methods have been harshly criticized in the past, and he himself has even been officially reprimanded by a Danish scientific body. But his conclusions make a valid point, echoed by the Globescan survey: climate change may have a tendency to dominate the sustainability agenda, but there is no sustainable development without sustainable water.

Water is of course fundamental to life itself; our own bodies are about 70% water (as is the earth's surface itself). Fresh water may appear to be abundant to the average resident of a developed nation, with water faucets throughout the house. But over a billion lack access to this basic need.

Certainly water problems are not acutely "felt" by everyone in the same way that a Pakistani villager or an Australian farmer might experience them daily. And as these two examples reflect, water issues are vastly different from region to region. But a general water crisis is growing globally, for two very simple reasons that exacerbate each other: (1) demand is increasing, (2) supply is decreasing.

As populations and their aspirations grow, and industry and agriculture grow with them, fresh water needs go up drastically. Meanwhile, a combination of accumulating persistent pollutants in fresh water sources, depletion of "fossil" water (very old underground aquifers that recharge very slowly), and precipitation changes brought on by climate change and forest clearing add up to sharply less fresh water available to meet ever-growing needs.

As last year's UN World Water Assessment noted, "of all the social and natural resource crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth." As debates heat up over privatization (does it solve the problem, or cause it?), and cross-border water disputes turn more acute (even the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts are partly rooted in struggles over water), that crisis is increasingly becoming a battleground.

Conflicts over oil are already fueling war, and water is an even more fundamental resource than oil. Meanwhile, oil use helps cause climate change, and climate change is likely to increase water scarcity by as much as 20% (says the UN assessment) ... and that is just a tiny peak at the complex, systemic linkages between water and other issues. Food supply, health, economic development ... water is fundamental to all of it, and yet current water use patterns on planet Earth put all of that at risk, with the poor of the Earth suffering earliest, and most.

But these systemic linkages can also work for good as well as ill. Saving water generally saves energy; a recent NRDC analysis of California's water system noted that the authority responsible for pumping water across the state is the biggest single customer for electricity, accounting for 2-3% of total usage. Such facts mean that a whole-systems perspective can turn up many innovative ideas that help solve several problems at once: protecting water, saving energy, reducing fossil-fuel use, increasing economic competitiveness, and improving human well-being. Indeed, some would argue that the search for such solutions is the very essence of sustainable development.

Is fresh water humanity's biggest problem? It hardly matters whether the answer is yes or no: the problem is enormous, complicated, fundamental to sustainability ... and growing.

Fortunately, dire necessity is often the mother of fabulous invention, and there are many signs that the world's myriad water problems can be met by myriad innovations. At the WaveFront website (where this article first appeared), we have listed a few good websources; you can dive into the web from there, and surf the "Water WaveFront."

Bookmark and Share


Every time I complain about living in Cleveland, my boyfriend counters that when the water wars come, we'll be glad we're living next to this huge body of freshwater.

Posted by: ladygoat on 15 Oct 04

One of the main problems with our society is everyones growing disconnection with the environment around them. People are more connected with their television than with the stream in their own backyard. Economic development is given priority over the conservation of our waterways, many of which are already too polluted. THe way we live today is not natural. To change anything, we all need to develop a deeper connection with our environment nad understand that everything we have comes from the earth, so we should use it wisely

Posted by: Sara Oakley on 15 Oct 04

The EPA has a "surf your watershed" site where you can find data about your local water resources:

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 15 Oct 04


But I would aruge that these problems are so interrelated, it is a little misleading to say any one of them is the "biggest" problem.

Water resource issues are strongly tied to agriculture (irrigation is the biggest use of water in the world, and farmlands are one of the biggest sources of pollution), so water and food are something of a joined problem. In addition. changes in climate have dramatic effects on water resources. Finally, changes in population clearly will have effects on per capita water resource availability.

There are a number of interesting articles about this topic, which I could point people to if they want.

Posted by: Jon Foley on 15 Oct 04

As a Canadian, I've always been concerned that the first thing that will happen when the US runs out of fresh water is that it will annex Canada. Laugh all you want, but it's probably not that unrealistic.

Posted by: Brendon J. Wilson on 15 Oct 04

your boyfriend's comment is only half in jest- the 'council of great lakes governors and premiers' is a transnational agency that exists to protect these waters. there are treaties going back almost a century regarding diversion, its certainly not a new issue. however, i'm not sure how much power this group really holds. some attempts at diversion of great lakes water have been blocked, and some have gone through. the southwest is growing in population, power and money, and the strange ability of many americans to feel entitled to things simply because their lifestyle demands them makes Mr. Wilson's fears seem not unrealistic. the legal idea of annexing a nation seems overstated, but i heard something a few years ago about a community in southern california trying to claim water rights in canada under nafta. anyone else recall this?

(incidentally, i'm in cleveland as well, and, come on, its not so miserable that the avoidance of some sort of mad max/dune scenario is the only bright spot...)

Posted by: dan m. on 15 Oct 04

That dark point about Great Lakes water annexation - this is a timely issue:

Great Lakes Proposal a Mistake...

Diversion of Great Lakes Water...

(another Canadian sighs)

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 16 Oct 04

It's still population growth in developing nations.

Posted by: Rick on 26 Oct 04

Well, Cleveland has got to be a heck of a lot better than LA. And, speaking of road warrior, that pretty well describes SoCal in my opinion...Texas even more so.

Besides, with global warming, soon you guys will be growing palm trees and enjoying 70 degree winter nights!

Posted by: bob on 26 Oct 04

Global warming is causing rising sea levels, increased droughts and more intense storms. California is concerned about melting mountain snow pack, which they rely upon for water and electricity. Clearly climate change will exacerbate current water concerns. What's not clear is why you need to take a simplistic -- George Bush style -- black and white view of environmental problems. We live in a complex and integrated web of life and nature that needs protection on all fronts!

Posted by: Steve Winkelman on 28 Oct 04

You may want to keep your well water since it is spring fed.

Posted by: Mom and Dad on 4 Nov 04



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg