An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2015

On Water

Christopher Bower Field and Anna M. Michalak
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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.

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.

Authors Christopher Bower Field and Anna M. Michalak

Water in Mythology

Water in its various forms–as salty ocean water, as sweet river water, or as rain–has played a major role in human myths, from the hypothetical, reconstructed stories of our ancestral “African Eve” to those recorded some five thousand years ago by the early civilizations to the myriad myths told by major and smaller religions today.

Water Security in a Changing World

This essay defines the concept of water security and explores the implications of the eternal pursuit of it. Briscoe describes how water security is perceived by wealthy and by poorer nations, the tensions that arise from these differing views, and how these tensions are being resolved in a world in which the geography of economics and power is changing rapidly.

Author John Briscoe

Progress on Nonpoint Pollution: Barriers & Opportunities

Nonpoint source pollution is the runoff of pollutants (including soil and nutrients) from agricultural, urban, and other lands (as opposed to point source pollution, which comes directly from one outlet). Many efforts have been made to combat both types of pollution, so why are we making so little progress in improving water quality by reducing runoff of soil and nutrients into lakes and rivers?

Authors Adena R. Rissman and Stephen Russell Carpenter

Water Unsustainability

Water is a vital renewable resource that is increasingly stressed by multiple and competing demands from people, industry, and agriculture. When water becomes unavailable or unusable, life itself cannot be sustained. Changes in supply and demand for water are driven by population growth, climate change, and our energy and land use choices. Poverty frequently precludes the ability of many people to respond and adapt to water insecurity.

Author Jerald L. Schnoor

Adaptation in the Water Sector: Science & Institutions

Water management activities involve a complex and interconnected web of science, infrastructure considerations, societal expectations, and institutional limitations that has evolved over time. Much of the water management system's current complexity developed in response to the interests of local water users and land owners, historical water supply and demand issues, political demands, and water quality and environmental considerations. Climate change poses a new set of questions for water managers and may require more flexible solutions than those that have evolved historically.

Authors Katharine L. Jacobs and Lester Snow

Urban Water-Supply Reinvention

Geographical realities, population growth, and favorable economic conditions can create the impetus for investments in new technologies, while support by activist groups and NGOs can encourage more sustainable approaches using locally sourced water. New approaches–whether desalination, stormwater use, water recycling, or potable reuse–share a common path to mass adoption.

Authors Richard G. Luthy and David L. Sedlak

Dynamic Markets for Dynamic Environments: The Case for Water Marketing

Static models used in economics and ecology ignore dynamic processes at work in both human and natural systems. In the case of water management, whether for quantity or quality, static models fail to connect changing human demands on water systems with changing supplies due to short-run climate variations and long-run climate change.

Author Terry L. Anderson

A Brief History & Global-Scale Hypothesis Regarding Human-Water Interactions in the Anthropocene

Water is an essential building block of the Earth system and a nonsubstitutable resource upon which humankind must depend. But a growing body of evidence shows that freshwater faces a pandemic array of challenges. Today we can observe a globally significant but collectively unorganized approach to addressing them. Under modern water management schemes, impairment accumulates with increasing wealth but is then remedied by costly, after-the-fact technological investments.

Authors Charles J. Vörösmarty, Michel Meybeck, and Christopher L. Pastore