Improving Water Security with World Resources Institute’s Charles Iceland

August 5, 2015

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John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green Is Good. This is the Wharton IGEL-GE innovation water technology edition of Green Is Good, and we are here in beautiful downtown San Francisco and we are so honored to have with us today Charles Iceland. He is the Aqueduct Director at the World Resources Institute. Charles, welcome to Green Is Good. Charles Iceland: Thank you so much, John. Pleasure to be here. John Shegerian: It’s so nice to have you here. Before we get talking about what we’re doing here today, and what you’re going to be doing in terms of your comments to this important audience, can you share a little bit about your story, Charlie, leading up to becoming the Aqueduct Director and how you even got to that place? Charles Iceland: It was not a direct line journey, John. I grew up living abroad. My father was a State Department official. We lived in Latin America, in South America, in Mexico. We also had a tour of Southern Europe. We lived in Northern Greece. And I guess what turned me on to environmental issues in, I guess, the late 1970s-early 1980s was the fact that we lived in beautiful places on the water cut kind of where we are now. John Shegerian: Yeah. Charles Iceland: Beautiful vistas. But the places where I lived in Northern Greece would dump raw sewage into the bay. John Shegerian: Wow. Charles Iceland: And the bay smelled like you would expect it to smell and you had to drive at least an hour to get to a swimmable beach. I thought that was a tragedy of mankind. I lived in Mexico City for nine years as well growing up, and I saw that city transform from a beautiful city surrounded by snow capped volcanoes to a city where you just couldn’t even see partway across the city anymore this fog had gotten so bad. So it was personal for me, my interest in the environment. John Shegerian: And when did you join the World Resources Institute? Charles Iceland: I joined WRI in 2006. About eight years ago. John Shegerian: And what does WRI do? And for our listeners and our viewers out there, to learn more about WRI, please go to What does the World Resources Institute actually do? What is its mission? Charles Iceland: Well, the World Resources Institute was created in 1982 – about 33 years ago. It was the first think tank of its kind to look at global natural resource issues. We look at the whole host of natural resource issues from water to forests and the problem of deforestation to the issue of climate change and energy. We look at the issue of food and weather. We can produce food in a sustainable manner for 7 billion today, 9 billion by 2050. So we look at those issues from a non-partisan perspective, and we publish our results. In the past, we published a lot of monographs and papers. Now a lot of it is online. Very data intensive. John Shegerian: That’s great. Charles Iceland: Changing of the times. John Shegerian: Does it also cover in terms of natural resources energy? Does it also cover metals and rarers and stuff of that nature? Charles Iceland: We do look at energy, the issues of overreliance on fossil fuels and the possibility for replacing those with clean energy sources – wind and solar. We promote that actively with groups of private sector organizations. We don’t look at mining and minerals too much. John Shegerian: Got you. Aqueduct Director – I’m just so fascinated by the title. Charles Iceland: Yeah. So about five or six years ago a colleague of mine who is no longer there, Pete Clopp, and I and another colleague, Tien Chau, had the vision of creating an online system where we could measure and map a host of water risks globally. John Shegerian: Oh. Charles Iceland: We intended the initial users to be corporations and investors who had interests across the world. This tour would operate as kind of a prioritization tool for them to figure out where they needed to dedicate their staff time and their financial resources to insure themselves against these risks. John Shegerian: Got you. So today you’re here and you’re speaking at this event hosted by Wharton IGEL and also our great friends at GE. Share a little bit about your thoughts on why now, why here, sitting here in beautiful California not far from Silicon Valley and the critical issue surrounding both the problem of the drought here in California and across the nation, and in many ways around the world, but also the innovation and technology and the hope that exists. Charles Iceland: Yeah. Well, most people aren’t motivated to change the status quo until a crisis comes along. And a crisis has come along – we’re at levels of snow pack that are unprecedented – 5 or 10 percent a snow pack. We’re seeing in this conference levels of rainfall that are falling below even the lowest thresholds we used to see. So there is a crisis, and that is the motivator for really good possibilities that exist to drought-proof California – at least the major parts of California – both its population and its economy. California as opposed to most other places around the world has a lot of financial resources. People complain there are not resources. There are resources here when it comes to securing your lifeline, which is what water is. We also have a lot of technologies that can be applied here. We can reuse the water we use in our homes, in our industries, in agriculture. We can reuse it much more than we do today. I think in California reuse rates run somewhere between 8 to 13 percent. That is, pardon me for saying it, pathetically low when you compare it to Israel, which is in a desert, recycling I-don’t-know-what but maybe 60 or more percent of their water. That’s how they survive in a desert and thrive. California can survive and thrive. My concern for California is agriculture. That’s what uses 80 percent of the water. That is what is really at risk here. I worry not only about California’s agriculture but many of the other areas of the world that serve as our humanity’s bread baskets. John Shegerian: Right. Charles Iceland: All the major bread baskets are coming under pressure. We see bouts of drought. We see declining groundwater levels, because people are pumping more out of the ground than is being replenished. So the issue of food security is great, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of the types of protests we saw in the Middle East in 2008, in 2011, where poor people who are spending upwards of 50 or 60 percent of their take-home income on food. What we’re looking at here is food prices increasing and those people not being able to feed themselves. That’s what keeps me up at night. John Shegerian: Wow. In terms of what you’re seeing it’s a fascinating frame of theses you just put up in terms of tying back out water crisis with food scarcity. Charles Iceland: Yes. John Shegerian: Which is real as we know here in California, which we are one of the great providers of the food for the United States and around the world, and as you say, there are other great food baskets around the world that are under that kind of pressure. Given what you know, though, about the water technologies that exist – like you point out Israel is deploying this in a great way, Singapore is deploying it in a very successful way as well – do you feel hopeful that the food scarcity crisis won’t pass a horrible tipping point if we get with it now and deploy this technology faster rather than slower? Or the better question, Charlie, is what is pushing back on the appropriate deployment of this very doable and usable technology that already exists? Charles Iceland: Well, there are ways to use water more efficiently in agriculture. John Shegerian: Right. Charles Iceland: And let me explain why agriculture is so important. John Shegerian: Yeah. Charles Iceland: Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of our water use, and it’s true in developing countries, it’s true in most developed countries, it’s true here in America. Of the water that is used and then lost to the system until the next rainfall, 80 percent of that is for agriculture. And see here’s the problem, John, they’re telling us we need to increase our agricultural production by 70 percent in the next 35 years to accommodate both a growing global population – so we’re going to move from 7 to 9 billion – and to accommodate a population that is eating more meat-intensive diets. Those two drivers are requiring us to increase our food production. On the other hand, the resources available for food – water and land – are maxed out and we are going into our groundwater. It’s like going into your savings account and just spending your savings. John Shegerian: Which is already overdrawn. Charles Iceland: With abandon. Yes. John Shegerian: Right. Charles Iceland: And that is my real concern. Can we somehow rethink our agriculture and food policies to accommodate this big pressure? Can we avoid greater wastage and loss of food? About 30 percent of the food we produce – maybe 25 or 30 percent – is lost or wasted. And that represents about 20 percent of the water we use worldwide. If we could cut that down to zero, I mean, we would make great strides towards improving both our water security and our food security. John Shegerian: Well, I’m going to leave you for any last words before we sign off today, because I know we both have to get back to the bigger conference, but I’d like to leave you with any final thoughts on what you’re doing at World Resources and what we’re doing here today at this wonderful Wharton-GE event. Charles Iceland: I mean, I think this is a global problem that requires a lot of people coming to understand what the issues are, looking at the information, changing attitudes towards our resources. So what I hope to do through Aqueduct, what I hope we do through this conference is to further increase people’s knowledge out there so they can use this knowledge to participate in this effort. John Shegerian: Well, Charlie, you’re always welcome back on Green Is Good to further the message of what you’re doing at the World Resources Institute and to further the message of the limited natural resources we have in this world and how we can come up with solutions that can put us in a better place. We really thank you for your time today. For our listeners and viewers out there, to learn more about what Charlie Iceland and his colleagues are doing at the World Resources Institute, please go to Again, this is John Shegerian and Charlie Iceland from the Wharton IGEL-GE innovation technology water resource conference in beautiful downtown San Francisco. Charlie Iceland, you are truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you very much. Charles Iceland: Thank you so much, John. A pleasure.

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