Podcast: Insight and Optimism from Global Water Policy Project Director

July 11, 2016

If you put a frog into a pot of water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will let itself be boiled to death. If you put a frog into boiling water, it will immediately jump out. It’s an old—and somewhat morbid—anecdote that applies today.

We know the trends for water management in this country aren’t good; yet we stay the course, despite that our survival depends on change now. That’s how Sandra Postel sees things, and she’s spent more than 30 years attempting to accelerate necessary changes for our country’s water resources.

As a leading expert on freshwater and the director of the Global Water Policy Project, she lectures, writes, and consults on water issues around the globe.

In 2010, she was appointed Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society and has been recognized for her “inspiring, innovative, and practical approach to promoting the preservation and sustainable use of Earth’s freshwater.”

Fortunately for us, she carved out half an hour to talk optimism in the face of great challenge and the new tools available to better manage our most precious resource.

Check out a brief from the conversation below, and listen to the full conversation above. And in August, Kate Williams, CEO of One Percent for the Planet, will talk through how a small company based in Burlington, Vermont, has ignited a global collaboration—one that’s helped invest more than $100 million in positive environmental change.

Tune in and stay tuned.

Joe Whitworth 


Did you always want to be a freshwater conservation leader? Or did this just happen by accident?

I’m one of those people that knew from the time I was pretty young that I hoped to do something on the behalf of the Earth. I had a strong connection to nature and just wanted to make sure I did something to connect people to the Earth.

I finished grad school, and my first job really got me very quickly into water conservation work in the West. I was struck by the magnitude of the challenge of it, but also just how interesting it was, because it’s not just a question of the physical substance of water—it’s also the social aspect and the economics. It was such an interdisciplinary field, and I really gravitated towards it.

How do you not get overwhelmed with the vastness and complexity of water?

It is easy to get overwhelmed because the challenge is so big and very complex. I like to remain optimistic about things. It’s easy to fall into despair because the challenges are so big and the problems are growing so fast, but all the time I see really inspiring things happening around the world that let me know we can do this. If we put our minds to it, the pieces are out there. If we can bring them together and grow those kinds of creative solutions, we can establish a harmony with the natural. That keeps me getting up in the morning and doing the work I do and feeling genuinely optimistic. We can do this if we put our mind to it.

One of my favorite lines is where you talk about how the conclusion of the water narrative in the 21st century is not yet written. And you have a pretty positive vision for how that does play out. Talk a little about that vision.

My vision is that we begin to value water not only as a commodity—the thing that is delivered to us in our homes, the thing that becomes an input in our manufacturing facilities and our farms—but that we also value water for its place in the natural world. It is fundamentally the basis of life, and that is its most important function.

You recently released a modeling tool to help planners and policy makers better understand water risks, geography and various factors around the globe. Talk a little bit about what that tool is, how it works, and where you see it going.

Essentially what we did was take a look at more than 15,000 watersheds. For one, it was spatially much more detailed than the modeling work that is typically done to understand water stress and water shortage. We included a lot of detail in this model to get a more refined look, which I think is what planners and water managers need to be able to say these areas are the ones we want to track and observe. Very few areas are likely to be scarce all the time. But what you want to know is when is there going to be trouble during that dry part of the year, when the farmers need irrigation water, when cities have increased water use, and when rivers are running dry. It’s a tool to help get that finer look.

What’s one thing you’d really like to see fixed?

I think it would have to be a more global consensus on the importance of giving nature some water. So many places, we have rivers literally running down to a trickle for extended periods of time. We’ve lost half the wetlands. We’ve got to start repairing this. So I think for me, it’s that knowledge that water is life. We are now the stewards of nature’s water. We turn the knobs on the dams and diversions, and it’s up to us to apply that ethic of “water is life” to how we manage water. That’s the vision I hope to see.

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