Pacific Institute Topics Publications Resources Press Center AboutUs Contact
end of navigation section


The Soft Path for Water

The soft path for water is a management strategy that frees up water by curbing water waste.

The soft path strives to improve the overall productivity of water use rather than seeking endless sources of new supply. It matches water services to the scale of the users’ needs and works with water users at local and community levels. And, the soft path for water takes environmental and social concerns into account to ensure that basic human needs and the needs of the natural world are both met.

The key insight behind the soft path for water is that people don’t want to “use” water – they want to drink and bathe, produce goods and services, grow food and otherwise meet human needs. Achieving this goal can be done the traditional “hard” way by building more dams, pipelines, and environmentally-destructive infrastructure. Or it can be done through improving efficiency, using decentralized infrastructure, and reconsidering what we use water for.

The soft path can be distinguished from the traditional, hard path for water in six main ways:

1) The soft path directs governments, companies, and individuals to meet the water needs of peoples and businesses, instead of just supplying water. People want clean clothes, or to be able to produce goods and services – they do not care how much water is used and may not care if water is used at all.

2) The soft path leads to water systems that supply water of various qualities for different uses. For instance, storm runoff, gray water, and reclaimed wastewater are well-suited to irrigate landscaping or for some industrial purposes.

3) The soft path for water recognizes that investing in decentralized infrastructure can be just as cost-effective as investing in large, centralized facilities. There is nothing inherently better about providing irrigation water from a massive reservoir instead of using decentralized rainwater capture and storage.

4) The soft path requires water agency or company personnel to interact closely with water users and to engage community groups in water management. The hard path, governed by an engineering mentality, is accustomed to meeting generic needs.

5) The soft path recognizes that the health of our natural world and the activities that depend on it (like swimming and tourism) are important to water-users and people in general. Often times, the hard path, by not returning enough water to the natural world, harms other water users downstream.

6) The soft path recognizes the complexities of water economics, including the power of economies of scope. An economy of scope exists when a combined decision-making process would allow specific services to be delivered at a lower cost than would result from separate decision-making.

print buttonPrint email buttonEmail


The Soft Path for Water (Chapter 1 of The World's Water 2002-2003) (PDF)

"Soft Water Paths"
Nature 2002

"Global Freshwater Resources: Soft-Path Solutions for the 21st Century" Science 2003