"The impact of human activities on the planet and on its biology has risen to a scale that deserves a commensurate response," said Tom Lovejoy, professor at George Mason University, introducing a discussion on "Managing the Planet's Freshwater," the second of a monthly series led jointly by George Mason University and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Karin M. Krchnak, director of International Water Policy at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and Dann Sklarew, sustainability fellow at George Mason University, joined Lovejoy to discuss the increasing stress placed by population growth, urbanization, and environmental change on freshwater resources and potential solutions to global water insecurity.
Water: "A Global Crisis"
Water insecurity and pollution is "a global crisis," said Sklarew. Water scarcity is growing and aquatic biodiversity is declining around the world. According to the World Water Council, over one billion people do not have safe drinking water.
Inadequate water management contributes to these problems, said Sklarew. But, human activities "impact water connectivity, quality, and flows" at all scales, he said, and combined with climate change, have fundamentally altered the global water cycle.
"The water-rich and the water-poor are intimately connected," said Sklarew. National, international, and global trade "water transfers" often move water from dry rural areas to urban centers, he said. "We're taking from areas that don't have [water] and moving water, by itself or via food products, to places where they might actually have more water in their local environment."
But there are many opportunities – from the incremental to the bold, exciting, and revolutionary – to address these problems, said Sklarew, including growing more food with less water, reducing destructive subsidies, restoring natural river flows via dam re-design or removal, encouraging greener infrastructure in urban areas, and supporting participatory decision-making about water. He also pointed to promoting lower population growth and allowing migration that "brings the people to the water rather than the water to the people" as additional ways to improve water security. In the future, "bio-mimicking and techno-fixes," may also provide promising solutions, he said.
Clear national goals and a global-scale response are critical to making these solutions a reality, said Sklarew: "Even though these challenges are often local, in the end, we have one interconnected water system."
Watershed Protection: Innovative Solutions
"I know we all wish that there was a silver bullet for global water challenges," said Krchnak, "but there's not just one solution."
As population grows by an additional 2 billion people before 2050, "solutions must take population growth into account," said Krchnak. One-third of the world's population is now subject to water scarcity, which is expected to double in the next 30 years
More water will be necessary to meet growing demands for food, energy, and other commodities, said Krchnak. In particular, "the poor in urban centers will be the dominant challenge for us in the next decades."
Krchnak described three possible strategies to protect watersheds: market-based mechanisms, integrated water resource management, and incentive approaches.
Water funds, a market-based mechanism in which downstream water users pay for protection of the upper watershed, are one possible way to better manage freshwater, said Krchnak. With the help of local partners, TNC's Quito Water Fund, for example, creates a sustainable finance mechanism and protects watersheds that supply 2 million people. Similar programs "can be taken to other geographies and replicated across the globe," she said.
Another TNC program, the Great River Partnership, uses an integrated water resource management strategy that focuses on stakeholder collaboration and working with public and private partners to help create "one vision" for major rivers like the Mississippi, Magdalena, Paraguay-Parana, Yangtze, and Zambezi, said Krchnak.
The Alliance for Water Stewardship uses an incentive-based approach to promote "responsible use of fresh water that is socially beneficial and environmentally and economically sustainable." One of the main objectives of the Alliance is to develop performance standards and create a certification program that recognizes water providers who work to protect freshwater resources.
Strategies like these may not be appropriate everywhere, and programs need to be adapted to make local implementation possible, said Krchnak, but effectively managing the planet's freshwater is vital for human health, spiritual and cultural well-being, ecosystems and biodiversity, and economic opportunity.
Drafted by Ramona Godbole and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change and Security Program, 202-691-4178