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Passing the Point of “Peak Water” Means Paying More for H2O

We have passed the point of “peak water”–or the end of cheap, easy-to-access water–in several places around the globe, experts say.

Those places include the Great Plains in the southern and central U.S., California’s Central Valley, northern China, the Nile River Basin in northern Africa, the Jordan River Basin in the Middle East, India, and more.

Nile River Basin image by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/)

 

The term “peak water” has been sprinkled throughout recent media accounts of droughts and groundwater depletion, but a May 20 article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science finally provides a clear definition.

“It means that every new sources we tap is going to be farther afield, harder to access, and more expensive. We are at the end of the era of cheap, easy-to-access water,” said study co-author Meena Palaniappan, director of the International Water and Communities Initiative at the Pacific Institute.

Peak Oil versus Peak Water

While there are technical differences between the way we use “peak oil”–a peaking and then decline in oil production–and “peak water,” the underlying message of scarcity is the same, Palaniappan added.

When you break it down, however, “we can’t have global peak water in the same way we have global peak oil,” Palaniappan says.

For one, there is a limited amount of oil on the planet that, in theory, could one day be used up. In contrast, there is a fixed amount of water, which has been the same since dinosaurs roamed the planet, and will remain 200 years from now.

Because of the minimal economic value placed on water, we don’t transport it around the globe, like we do oil. Water remains close to its source. Thus “peak water” is truly a local issue, she said.

The peak we reach with water is related to the value it provides, such as sustaining rivers, deltas, and aquatic species, and human lifestyles.

The ISS-9 Space Station crew obtained this high-resolution image of the Colorado River Delta on June 2, 2004, allowing for detailed observations of the delta and adjacent regions. Image courtesy of NASA

 

Peak water occurs when you see the Colorado River dry up before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. It’s also seen where groundwater resources aren’t being replenished quickly enough, such as in the south-central region of the United States over the Ogallala Aquifer, or throughout rural India. Likewise, peak water is reflected in rising water prices and escalating conflicts over water.

The Cost of Water

“Peak oil means that oil is going to be more expensive, [and] peak water means the same,” Palaniappan said.

“We need to reflect the true cost of the water we appropriate, so we have all we need for basic human needs, but charge appropriately for people who wash their seven cars or water their huge lawns,” she added. “Subsidies need to be restructured to protect the poor, and rate increases need to reflect improvement in service and reliability.”

For more on water and how to dry out your own water footprint, visit National Geographic’s freshwater website.

 

Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.

More blog posts by Tasha Eichenseher

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]