World (Ensia) – If freshwater is to remain a renewable resource, we must balance supply and demand on farms, in cities, in industry and in power production.

When you look to the year ahead, what do you see? Ensia recently invited eight global thought leaders to share their thoughts. In this interview with Ensia contributor Lisa Palmer, World Resources Institute Global Water Program director Betsy Otto responds to three questions: What will be the biggest challenge to address or opportunity to grasp in your field in 2017? Why? And what should we be doing about it now?

We continue to overspend our budget when it comes to freshwater resources globally. No country is immune; this is not just a challenge for arid regions.

Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of water, and at the same time demand for water to produce energy, industrial products, and the rapidly growing needs in cities are straining our water resources as never before. Add climate change and the situation is quite daunting.

We have no idea how much water we use relative to how much is available as a renewable supply in rivers, lakes and aquifers. The first step is to understand the relationship between supply and demand, and the impacts of freshwater use across cities, industry, power plants, and farming. WRI created the Aqueduct tool to help provide this information globally, free of charge, and it is now being widely used.

Any government or private sector enterprise can do a few things right now. One is to understand the nature of the water risks you face — too little, too much, too polluted — in specific locations, and use resources like Aqueduct’s Water Risk Atlas and Global Flood Analyzer to understand supply/demand relationships and flood risks. Those in the agriculture sector can work to improve the water productivity of agriculture. A productivity gain of at least 30 percent is eminently achievable by changing farming and irrigation practices through approaches that are already well known.

We must reduce water and energy demand together, because the two are deeply intertwined. One effective approach to reducing both is to capture the methane from wastewater and use it to power treatment plants, make electricity to feed into the grid, and create compressed natural gas to run vehicles. In this way, cities can reduce energy demand and in the process free up huge volumes of water otherwise needed to cool power plants as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


This report prepared by Betsy Otto for Ensia