Environment Counts | Peak Water
In the past few years, discussions about the possibility of resource crises around water, energy, and food have introduced new terms and concepts into the public debate. Energy experts predict that the world is approaching, or has even passed, the point of maximum production of oil, or peak oil. To judge from recent media attention, the finite supply of freshwater on Earth has been nearly tapped dry, leading to a natural resource calamity on par with, or even worse than, running out of accessible, affordable oil. The work and chapter referenced here evaluates the similarities and differences between water and oil to understand whether and how the concept of peak water is analogous to the idea of peak oil; how relevant this idea is to actual hydrologic and water management conditions; and the implications of limits on freshwater availability for human and ecosystem well-being.
There are important differences between water resources and oil resources. Oil production will inevitably decline, while water uses within renewable limits can continue indefinitely. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource that is consumed during its use; therefore, oil production will inevitably decline. Peak oil, thus, means the end of cheap, easy-to-access sources of petroleum. Any new sources ofliquid fuel will be harder to reach and more expensive to extract. Water is a renewable resource and is not consumed in the global sense; therefore, water uses within renewable limits can continue indefinitely. Oil is routinely transported over long distances from extraction to use, making it a global resource. Conversely, water cannot be economically transported over long distances, making it primarily a local resource.
These characteristics mean that there is a global limit to oil production; constraints on water are only manifested regionally. And while many water uses can be reduced or eliminated, a basic amount of water is necessary for life to exist and for which, unlike oil, there are no substitutes.
Despite the serious limitations in the concept of â€œpeak water,â€ as described in this chapter, there are some interesting and valid applications. Not all water use is renewable; indeed some water uses are non-renewable and unsustainable. Groundwater use beyond normal recharge rates follows a peak oil type curve with a peak and
then precipitous decline in water production.
Considering the multiple roles that water provides as the fulcrum for ecosystems as well as human society, we suggest that the term â€œpeak ecological waterâ€ better delineates an important crisis in the water sector. As human appropriation of water increases, the ecological services that water provides decrease. Once we begin appropriating more than â€œpeak ecological water,â€ ecological disruptions exceed the human benefit obtained. Defined this way, many regions of the world have already surpassed â€œpeak ecological waterâ€â€”humans use more water than the ecosystem can sustain without significant deterioration and degradation.
Another resonance in the concept of â€œpeak waterâ€ is that similar to peak oil it signals the end of cheap and easy to access water. This recognition of the value of water can help drive towards an important and needed paradigm shift in the way water is managed and priced. In this way, the concept of â€œpeak waterâ€ helps moves us towards using water in ways that improve the productivity, equity, and efficiency of water use.
What is interesting about the concept of â€œpeak waterâ€ is that it may be an additional impetus for a new â€œsoft path for waterâ€ paradigm to emerge. In places where peak water is a reality, managers are moving to recognize and manage water as a valuable and precious resource. True limits on regional water availability can also stimulate innovations and behaviors that can reduce water use and increase the productivity of water.
Though the use of â€œpeak waterâ€ is flawed in key ways, it shifts us in the direction of protecting and preserving precious water resourcesâ€”a necessary step for a sustainable water future.
Peak Water Chapter 1