Are We Running Out of Water?

“There is a vast amount of water on the planet, but we are facing a crisis of running out of sustainably managed water,” said  Peter Gleick, Ph.D., president of the Pacific Institute. “Humans already appropriate over 50 percent of all renewable and accessible freshwater flows, and yet billions still lack the most basic water services.”

Gleick, a MacArthur Fellow and one of the world’s leading authorities on water, has for the past decade co-authored and edited the biennial series The World’s Water, examining global issues around use and misuse of our freshwater resources. The World’s Water 2008-2009 addresses topics from “peak water” to climate change impacts, including a chart on “The Water Content of Things” — from potato chips to microchips — an eye-opener in terms of our own water footprints. (This chart, with selected book chapters and data tables, is available online at

Key to the discussion of water today is the concept of “peak water,” which Gleick and chapter co-author Meena Palaniappan redefine as “peak ecological water”— the critical point already reached in many areas, where we overtax the planet’s ability to absorb the consequences of our water use. A prime example is the water crisis in China, where water resources are over-allocated, inefficiently used, and grossly polluted by human and industrial wastes, with 300 million people lacking access to safe drinking water.

“China has developed a set of water quality and quantity problems as severe as any on the planet,” said Gleick. “Rivers and lakes are dead and dying, groundwater aquifers are over-pumped, uncounted species of aquatic life have been driven to extinction, and direct adverse impacts on both human and ecosystem health are widespread and growing.”

The World’s Water 2008-2009 explores these issues, including an update on China’s Three Gorges Dam, the largest integrated water project in history, and the problems it faces as it nears completion after a decade of controversy. Additional co-authors Heather Cooley, Michael Cohen, Mari Morikawa, and Jason Morrison weigh in on business reporting on water, water management in a changing climate, the progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, urban water use efficiencies, the Salton Sea, and the Tampa Desalination Plant. With 20 data tables on global water situations and the newly updated Water Conflict Chronology, the volume brings the urgency of the issues around sustainable water management to the fore.

The reference can be ordered online through Island Press at