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A Discussion on Peak Water

Gas ration stamps being printed as a result of...
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Over at Aguanomics there is a guest post by Damian Bickett, a PhD student from University of California Berkley. In this post Damian discusses the use of the term “Peak Water” in a book  by Peter Gleick (among others) of the Pacific Institute. You can read the whole post here, but this is the final two paragraphs…

Now, to get to water. Besides the major problems I have with peak oil, even if true, applying it to water is odd. Water is a renewable resource rather than a nonrenewable one (except some groundwater situations), and so Peak Oil refers mainly to a permanent condition while with water, it is more about management. Attempts to bring the alleged water crisis underneath the umbrella of Peak Oil seems to be an attempt to corral anti-growth, anti-corporate activists into the same tent, and it confuses the message of both problems.

Bottom Line: People are flexible and can deal easily with less, but we need good price signals to do so. The oil market allows prices to rise and to therefore allocate the scare resource. Water prices ought to be able to do the same.

Source: Aguanomics: Peak Water?.


I started writing a comment that got longer and longer, and ended up deciding to post the comment here on UrbanWorkbench with a link to it in a short comment on Aguanomics, here’s my full comment…


You breeze through the concerns of Peak Oil as though they have no merit. Not all people who are concerned about the peak of fossil fuels and the impact on humans in the inevitable descent of fossil fuel supplies slavishly believe that electric ambulances are the way to go. You don’t state the position from which you attack Peak Oil, so I’ll refrain from arguing that with you, however the attack on a term such as Peak Water, which I agree is not the same as the concept of Peak Oil, seems pretty harsh.

Water may be a renewable resource, but given predictions of climate change and increased pollution of water from industrial and agricultural sources worldwide, clean water seems to be increasingly scarce, and treatment options aren’t typically getting cheaper to construct or operate. A quick search shows that Chapter 1 (on Peak Water) of the book by Peter Gleik is available at this link.

Speaking of water as a straight commodity that can be managed by price alone gives a narrow focus to the discussion. In a democratic stable market, price is important, but outside of this situation price has the potential to becomes another weapon for impoverishment and monopolistic corporations. I’m not an economist, I can just see that outside of a stable free market there is significant risk of abuse. Also it should be noted that clean water is a threatened resource in parts of the world, even in parts of America.

Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanzania.
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I think Peter was remarkably kind in his response above, while you may not agree with everything he writes, it is a small community of educated people who care about the protection of water quality, and seemingly even fewer who are concerned about Peak Oil and transitioning to a lower demand society – some of us care about both.

Your bottom line is rather smug considering the lengths that people go to to survive, I know how flexible people can be regarding water consumption, I’ve lived on 6 litres of water a day for weeks at a time in the Australian desert, but I wasn’t growing any of the food I ate. And although I would have paid for it if I had to, somehow I think the idea of making someone pay for water to survive using “pricing signals” sucks, bottom line: even rationing would be better at that stage.

Nothing is black and white, while not the intention of your post, it  doesn’t adequately answer the problems of peak oil, climate change, water scarcity and the financial crisis. Each of these issues has a tipping point and all are inter-related.

Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or contact me. I do believe that discussions are important to further understanding and equip policy makers to make better decisions, but let’s get there as a team.

Your thoughts?

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

2 thoughts on “A Discussion on Peak Water

  1. I do have big problems with peak oil. Let me dig up some stuff I have written and get back to you on that one. As for water, clean water is indeed a scarce resource in many areas, but in this country, I believe it is getting less scarce. I believe that the Clean Water Act and rising incomes have led to better sewage plants, better sewers, etc. which have vastly improved our water supplies. Lake Tahoe has been getting cloudier over time, but those folks are working hard to reverse that seemingly very difficult problem as well. So as we are getting richer, we are correcting our past mistakes and I think, on the whole, improving our water supplies. They are much cleaner than before, but not much cleaner than way way before (pre white people)…
    Now, the US is not really of concern though, as most people agree. I find it hypocritical to tell other countries to not dump their shit in their rivers when we did the exact same stuff. They know its bad, as did we, but for whatever reason, that is their current lot. I only hope that as their incomes increase they will improve their supplies as well. Water is forgiving in that sense–I grew up near the Mill Creek in Cincinnati, rated by the EPA and others as the most polluted creek in OH, likely tops in the nation. In my lifetime, however, my dad and I have seen ducks and turtles and fish and snakes gradually make a comeback as the river was cleaned up…

    As for pricing–David Z has discussed cheap initial prices followed by steep prices for usage over certain amounts. Specifics are not necessary, but unless you live in an area with drinkable rivers or clean wells, someone has to clean the water so you can drink, and price must play a role. I think it is definitely true that it is not a black and white issue, and I can only speak of what I know in the US. But here, the problems are subsidization of water leading people to make poor decisions rather than poor residents unable to afford a drink of water. Other countries, I can only assume, are making the same mistakes with water, and leaving out appropriate price signals.
    To be clear, if someone cannot afford a drink of water, that is a serious problem. I will guess that behind it is usually a failure of governance.

    I care about water quality quite a bit too. Nothing makes me happier than dipping my head in a stream and being able to drink. I am just very hesitant to promote a lower growth society because I believe growth does not equal more pollution, more landfills, etc. It means a better standard of living, including a cleaner environment, and so discussing transitioning to a lower demand society sounds to me like Malthus, Limits to Growth, etc. Doom sayers that do not quite understand how society deals with shortages.
    Its getting late….

    1. Thanks for your comment, which explains your position quite well. I agree with pricing as a tool, and am working on such a rate structure right now for 2009 water rates in my municipality. I’m also glad you had an opportunity to read ch 1 of the book – I think it clarifies the author’s position quite well.

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