Summer 2019 Bulletin

Water in Our Future

On June 19–20, 2019, the Academy convened an Exploratory Meeting in Boston, MA, on “Water in Our Future.” The participants included water program officials, water policy experts, research scientists, and scholars in the humanities and sciences from the United States and around the world. The meeting was organized to help identify key questions related to water security and to inform how a potential Academy project might make a contribution in this area.

Academy members Geraldine Richmond (Presidential Chair and Professor of Chemistry, University of Oregon) and Allen Isaacman (Regents Professor of History, University of Minnesota, and Extraordinary Professor, University of the Western Cape) chaired the meeting, which focused on three topics: Basin Development and Impact Assessments; Water Availability and Safety in Urban and Rural Areas; and Large Dams and Ecological and Social Impacts. The meeting included breakout sessions in which small groups of participants discussed each topic.

Basin Development and Impact Assessments

Jackie King (Academy member and Extraordinary Professor at the Institute for Water Studies, University of the Western Cape) opened the workshop with a discussion on basin development and impact assessments. She presented the three pillars of sustainable development: ecological integrity, social equity, and economic wealth. Impact assessments, most commonly in the form of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), but also including Environmental Flow Assessments (EFAs), Cumulative Impact Assessments (CIAs), and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs), are a key tool for promoting the pillars of ecological integrity and social equity. Professor King proposed that the scale of water-resource developments is now so large that detailed environmental and social structure assessments are “urgently needed as an early input to decision-making.”

Many related issues were raised in the ensuing breakout discussions. Participants in one group discussed the importance of performing impact assessments before committing to dam construction instead of alongside approved dam construction. They proposed that the Academy could assess case studies of good management and work to increase data sharing as a means to a more systematic assessment system. Bringing diverse stakeholders to the table was a consistent theme, including financial stakeholders and marginalized voices. A second group was concerned about retrospective work on how good impact assessments typically are in their predictions. This group wondered whether it would be better to move from a system of economies of scale to a system of economies of flexibility, in which the ability to delay or adjust construction would be more valuable. Finally, a third group identified several key areas of improvement in impact assessments, such as increased transparency of how they are made; increased, independent funding for early assessments; transboundary input from all affected countries; and the increased involvement of international organizations at early stages of impact assessment.

Water Availability and Safety in Urban and Rural Areas

Rita Colwell (Academy member and Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland) and Antar Jutla (Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, West Virginia University) spoke about water availability and safety in urban and rural areas. Professor Colwell discussed issues regarding the spread of waterborne diseases as well as the challenges of delivery of safe water for use. The primary challenge is to supply adequate safe drinking water to the 7 billion people living on the planet now – and the 10 billion people who will soon be on the planet. Meeting this challenge will require major investments in civil infrastructure construction and maintenance as well as improved strategies to working with diverse cultures and understandings of water. For example, Professor Jutla discussed work in which researchers were able to predict a cholera outbreak in Yemen four weeks ahead of time based on prior outbreak patterns and their analysis of complex social and meteorological factors.

Following the breakout group discussions, there was consensus around interest in a future Academy project on clean drinking water in the United States and to bring in some international cases for comparison. Areas of interest included issues of lead, plastic, and agricultural contaminants, as well as issues regarding septic tanks. Attendees emphasized the importance of thinking beyond diagnosis and identifying actional steps for governments and people, especially as climate change and population growth generate further instability.

Left to right: Annette Huber-Lee (Stockholm Environment Institute), Sylvia Tramberend (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), David Oxtoby (American Academy), and Muchapara Musemwa (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)
Left to right: Annette Huber-Lee (Stockholm Environment Institute), Sylvia Tramberend (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), David Oxtoby (American Academy), and Muchapara Musemwa (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)

Large Dams and Ecological and Social Impacts

Allen Isaacman spoke about large dams and their ecological and social impacts. Isaacman acknowledged the many benefits of dams for humanity but also highlighted the challenges related to dam development, management, and decommissioning, especially those that disproportionately affect the world’s rural poor and women. As irregular water distribution throughout the world leads to water being increasingly contested, privatized, and commoditized, Isaacman argued that the twenty-first century will be a century of struggle over water rather than petroleum, and that inequities in water distribution will lead to increased levels of tension and conflict.

Following breakout discussions, participants discussed the major challenges of large dams in a new era, both regarding construction of new dams and management and decommissioning of existing dams. Many of these new contexts will require much more research to fully understand, including climate change; rapidly increasing construction; changes in active management capabilities; a shifting funding landscape; and increased numbers of transnational concerns.

Emerging Themes and Next Steps

Many of the participants expressed alarm at the rapid pace of dam-building and about the ecological and social impacts of this construction, especially in a context in which impact assessments are not fully robust or used early in the process of commissioning a new dam. In addition, the participants raised concern about the global lack of access to clean water in many locations, including portions of the United States. All of the discussions at the meeting will help to clarify and shape future research and policy development regarding water in our future.

The exploratory meeting on Water in Our Future was made possible through a generous gift from John E. and Louise Henry Bryson and by additional support from William Rutter.