Summer 2015

On Water

Christopher Bower Field and Anna M. Michalak

There is no resource more central to life on Earth than water, and it is impossible to overstate its role in shaping human history. Humanity’s need for water is inextricably linked to its need for security, energy, food, and community. At the same time, climate change, population growth, and economic development are currently placing unprecedented demands on this limited resource, as well as increasing the uncertainty associated with future demands and availability.

The Summer 2015 issue of Dædalus moves beyond the problems and failures. Instead, guest editors Christopher B. Field and Anna M. Michalak frame contemporary events and issues within the context of the decisions we face—and the opportunities that emerge—when we are confronted with increasing demands on this limited resource:

Decisions about water often tell us more about our priorities than they do about the total amount of available water. Many of the trade-offs in allocating water involve three big water users: food, energy, and environment. A world with an increasing human population, burgeoning energy demands, evolving food preferences, and a rapidly changing global climate means that everything about the water equation is dynamic. The result is a complicated web of interconnections with potentially unexpected risks, but also with many points for intelligent intervention.

Wastewater being treated for reuse at the Changi NEWater Plant in Singapore in February 2010. © by Bloomberg/Getty Images.
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Worker at water treatment facility
Wastewater being treated for reuse at the Changi NEWater Plant in Singapore in February 2010. © by Bloomberg/Getty Images.
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Water, Climate, Energy, Food: Inseparable & Indispensable

Water issues are rarely simple. At the global scale, water is at the focus of a powerful multifaceted challenge. Demands for both consumptive and nonconsumptive uses are growing, while climate change is at the same time decreasing availability in some places and increasing risks of heavy precipitation in many others. Through diverse mechanisms that interact with natural processes, human activities impact not only the quantity of water available but also its quality. Here we explore the multiway interactions among water, climate, energy, and food through a number of case studies illustrating the interconnected web of competing drivers, demands, and trade-offs that frame humanity’s decisions about water use. The net result of this complex mix of drivers and processes is that water issues need to be addressed with a systems perspective. While a systems framing can be daunting, integrated approaches are fundamental to identifying and evaluating options for sustainable solutions.

Authors Christopher Bower Field and Anna M. Michalak