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...I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.ROBERT FROST (1874–1963), “THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”The world is in the midst of a major transition in the way we think about—andmanage—our vital and limited freshwater resources. Earlier volumes of The World’sWater have described different aspects of this transition as the “changing waterparadigm.” This chapter goes further, describing the transition in terms of a choice ofpaths we can take. People do not want to “use” water. People want to drink and bathe,swim, produce goods and services, grow food, and otherwise meet human needs anddesires. Achieving these ends can be done in different ways, often with radicallydifferent implications for water.There are two primary ways of meeting water-related needs, or more poetically, twopaths. One path—the “hard” path—relies almost exclusively on centralized infrastruc-ture and decision making: dams and reservoirs, pipelines and treatment plants, waterdepartments and agencies. It delivers water, mostly of potable quality, and takes awaywastewater. The second path—the “soft” path—may also rely on centralized infrastruc-ture, but complements it with extensive investment in decentralized facilities, efficienttechnologies, and human capital.1It strives to improve the overall productivity of wateruse rather than seek endless sources of new supply. It delivers diverse water servicesmatched to the users’ needs and works with water users at local and community scales.1CHAPTER 1The Soft Path for WaterGary Wolff and Peter H. Gleick1. Amory Lovins (1977) originally coined the term “soft path” for energy use. We warmly acknowledge hispaternity in the terminology and many of the concepts discussed here. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s defi-nition and discussion of the soft path for water is available at www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid278.php.This chapter tells the tale of these paths up to the present. Decisions made today, andactions of future generations, will write the conclusion of the story.Water is a critical and essential resource. In the past, water policy has typicallyrevolved around the idea that regular additions to supply were the only viable optionsfor meeting anticipated growth in population and the economy. This idea led to theconstruction of pipelines and aqueducts that bring water to many towns and cities andto the irrigation canals that bring water to dry but fertile soils. Once “easy” sources ofraw water are captured, however, this path leads to more and more ambitious,intrusive, and capital-intensive projects that capture and store water far from wherethe water is needed, culminating in the massive water facilities that dominate parts ofour landscape.The traditional approach to water supply led to enormous benefits. The history ofhuman civilization is intertwined with the history of the ways humans have learned tomanipulate and use water resources. The earliest agricultural communities arosewhere crops could be grown with dependable rainfall and perennial rivers. Irrigationcanals permitted greater crop production and longer growing seasons in dry areas, andsewer systems fostered larger population centers.During the industrial revolution and population explosion of the nineteenth andtwentieth centuries, the demand for water rose dramatically. Unprecedented construc-tion of tens of thousands of monumental engineering projects designed to control floods,protect clean water supplies, and provide water for irrigation or hydropower broughtgreat benefits to hundreds of millions of people. Thanks to improved sewer systems,cholera, typhoid, and other water-related diseases, once endemic throughout the world,have largely been conquered in the more industrialized nations. Vast cities, incapable ofsurviving on their local resources, have bloomed in the desert with water brought fromhundreds and even thousands of miles away. Food production has kept pace with soaringpopulations largely because of the expansion of artificial irrigation systems that nowproduce 40 percent of the world’s food. Nearly one-fifth of all of the electricity generatedworldwide is produced by turbines spun by the power of falling water.On the other hand, half the world’s population still suffers with water servicesinferior to those available to the ancient Greeks and Romans. According to the WorldHealth Organization’s most recent study, more than 1 billion people lack access toclean drinking water, and nearly 2.5 billion people do not have improved sanitationservices (World Health Organization 2000). Preventable water-related diseases kill anestimated 10,000 to 20,000 children each day, and the latest evidence suggests that weare falling behind in efforts to solve these problems. There were new, massiveoutbreaks of cholera in the 1990s in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The number ofcases of dengue fever—a mosquito-borne disease—doubled in Latin America between1997 and 1999. Millions of people in Bangladesh and India are drinking water contam-inated with arsenic. And population growth throughout the developing world isincreasing the pressure on limited water supplies.The effects of our water policies extend beyond jeopardizing human health. Tens ofmillions of people have been forced to move from their homes—often with littlewarning or compensation—to make way for the reservoirs behind dams. Certain irri-gation practices degrade soil quality and reduce agricultural productivity, threateningto bring an end to the Green Revolution. Groundwater aquifers are being pumpeddown faster than they are naturally replenished in parts of India, China, the UnitedStates, and elsewhere. And disputes over shared water resources have led to violence2 The World’s Water 2002–2003and continue to raise local, national, and even international tensions (see the Waterand Conflict Chronology in the Water Briefs section of this volume).Negative impacts on natural habitat are also significant. More than 20 percent of allfreshwater fish species are now threatened or endangered because dams and waterwithdrawals have destroyed the free-flowing river ecosystems where they thrive(Ricciardi and Rasmussen 1999). On the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the northwest-ern United States, 95 percent of the juvenile salmon trying to reach the ocean do notsurvive passage through the numerous


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