Worldwatch Paper #132: Dividing the Waters: Food Security, Ecosystem Health, and the New Politics of Scarcity

September 1996
Sandra Postel
ISBN: 1-878071-34-3
76 pages

A growing scarcity of fresh water is now a major impediment to food security, ecosystem health, social stability, and peace among nations. As supplies dwindle, competition for water is increasing-between cities and farms, between neighboring states and provinces, and between nations.

Although water is renewable, it is also finite. The amount of fresh water that can sustainably be supplied to farmers is nearing its limits. Numerous rivers, lakes, and wetlands--along with the life they support--are declining in health. At least 214 rivers flow through two or more countries, but no enforceable law governs the allocation and use of international waters. As world population expands by 2.6 billion over the next 30 years, water problems will intensify.

Our ability to meet growing water needs the traditional way--by building large new dams and river diversions--is limited by high economic, environmental, and social costs. In Dividing the Waters, Sandra Postel sets forth a new and more promising blueprint--one focused on using water more efficiently, sharing it equitably, and protecting the health of freshwater ecosystems.

Rational water pricing, regulated water markets, efficiency standards, the reuse of wastewater to irrigate crops, and the setting of minimum flows for ecosystem health are among the actions that are needed. Water problems can no longer be solved by engineers alone. They require political leaders to take notice, and to act.