2015 Symposium Keynote

When Oil and Water Mix: The Future of the Water-Energy Nexus

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February 11, 2015

Event Summary by MAAS Student Fatim-Zohra El Malki 

Commencing the Sheikh Abdullah Kamel Symposium titled “An Energy Revolution? Political Ecologies of Shale Oil in the Middle East, United States, and China” on February 11, 2015, Dr. Peter Gleick explored the water-energy nexus and focused on the geopolitical implications of shale from a perspective founded upon preserving the ecological system, advancing the cause of social justice, and defending basic human rights.

 In his address, Dr. Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute and a leading expert on water and climate issues, opened the symposium with a discussion on the ways in which water and conflict are shaping the field of water policy and management. According to Dr. Gleick, “The effective mobilization of energy and water resources at instant use, for an insignificant cost, by modern societies, causes a substantial energy footprint which cannot be sustained without a change in water and energy management policies.” While taken for granted in the developed world, water and energy, the keystones of modern civilization, are used in an unsustainable fashion that disregards the strong nexus between the two. Water and energy can no longer be considered and managed separately, argued Dr. Gleick, but need to be managed in an integrated way to become sustainable in the foreseeable future. Additionally, concerns over water scarcity and the environmental impact of non-renewable energies must be analyzed and discussed politically.

 Dr. Gleick elaborated by explaining that we live in a remarkable time marked by rapid population growth and innovation, an era he describes as a “transitionary period” that is neither a utopian era of true sustainability, nor an inevitable slide towards a future marked by violent conflict over resources. There is, however, an increasing realization of the rising costs for collecting and mobilizing energy resources and water, and yet, little institutional debate over changing policies in regards to the water-energy nexus is taking place. Dr. Gleick cited one of the Pacific Institute’s latest studies to explain the implications of such growing material costs and environmental pressures. If considered through a non-traditional spectrum, and in different scenarios, about 75% less water could be used to produce the same amount of energy. Still, in the current system, the thermoelectric power generation sector accounts for 40% of the total fresh water withdrawals every year in the United States. The demand for water upon the current energy choices is therefore increasingly problematic as the demand goes up. In California, 30% of the energy produced is used towards the ever-improving water system; also in the United States, between 30 to 40% of the food production comes from non-renewable ground water and aquifers. Politically, violence over water resources is increasing at the subnational level and remains oftentimes unresolved in the absence of diplomatic tools of negotiation to address these growing conflicts. Dr. Gleick cited Syria as one of most recent examples of conflicts deeply rooted in a battle over resources. Thus, the race towards technological developments without a regulatory spectrum results in this very specific water-energy nexus discussed by Dr. Gleick: a growing demand for energy leads to a growing demand for water, posing different sets of socio-economic, political and environmental consequences.

 The environmental implications of the current energy choices are significant, as the latter put tremendous pressure on the eco-systems and results in peculiar climate change, also largely overlooked by practitioners. Similarly, the debate over fracking—a method used to facilitate the ability to extract oil previously considered difficult to reach—that is pursued aggressively in some parts of the United States, poses growing concerns over the amount of water used for fracking, as well as the vast quantities of spoiled water and other chemicals that it produces. The release of greenhouse gas emanating from burning fuels should also be taken into account as we are gradually experiencing changes in the hydrologic cycle, droughts, extreme flooding, etc. The environmental externalities cited by Dr. Gleick remain unaddressed by the energy industries and are pushed on the environment in an effort to reduce costs. On the political side of the matter, Dr. Gleick explained that the lack of available data and the policies of secrecy undertaken by private companies and by governments tasked with regulating energy consumption and the risks it posits, make it difficult to grasp the extent of ecological damage, such as the management of toxic-waste. The unavailability of data also makes it difficult to assess the growing risk of conflicts and tensions about water availability and its use in global and regional politics. In the conclusion of his keynote address, Dr. Gleick insisted on the need to establish new strategies for a more sustainable use of resources, and to advance innovative policy solutions that set us on a cleaner path. He proposed to find ways to satisfy water and energy needs that would benefit society and the planet by reducing the environmental impact of energy production and consumption. Protecting ecosystems should start with a three-pronged approach consisting of: effective economic tools, such as granting appropriate subsidies; social improvements, including declaring a basic human right to water and sanitation; and a well thought out, pragmatic political restructuring of existing systems that would redesign institutions for the long-term and integrated ways to confront and resolve energy-related issues. 

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Speaker Bio

Dr. Peter Gleick

Dr. Peter Gleick is renowned the world over as a leading expert, innovator, and communicator on water and climate issues. He co-founded and leads the Pacific Institute in Oakland, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2012 as one of the most innovative, independent non-governmental organizations in the fields of water and economic and environmental justice and sustainability.

Dr. Gleick’s work has redefined water from the realm of engineers to the world of social justice, sustainability, human rights, and integrated thinking. His influence on the field of water has been long and deep: he developed the first analysis of climate change impacts on water resources, the earliest comprehensive work on water and conflict, and defined basic human needs for water and the human right to water – work that has been used by the UN and in human rights court cases. He pioneered the concept of the “soft path for water,” developed the idea of “peak water,” and has written about the need for a “local water movement.”

Dr. Gleick received the prestigious MacArthur “genius” Fellowship and was named “a visionary on the environment” by the BBC. He was elected both an Academician of the International Water Academy, in Oslo, Norway and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Wired Magazine featured Dr. Gleick as “one of 15 people the next President should listen to.” He received his B.S. from Yale University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Gleick serves on the boards of numerous journals and organizations, and is the author of many scientific papers and nine books, including the influential series The World’s Water and Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, as well as the 2012 release A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy.