Summer 2015

Impair-then-Repair: A Brief History & Global-Scale Hypothesis Regarding Human-Water Interactions in the Anthropocene

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

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. This strategy of treating symptoms rather than underlying causes is practiced widely across rich countries but leaves poor nations and many of the world's freshwater life-forms at risk. The seeds of this modern “impair-then-repair” mentality for water management were planted long ago, yet the wisdom of our “water traditions” may be ill-suited to an increasingly crowded planet. Focusing on rivers, which collectively satisfy the bulk of the world's freshwater needs, this essay explores the past, present, and possible future of human-water interactions. We conclude by presenting the impair-then-repair paradigm as a testable, global-scale hypothesis with the aim of stimulating not only systematic study of the impairment process but also the search for innovative solutions. Such an endeavor must unite and cobalance perspectives from the natural sciences and the humanities.

CHARLES J. VÖRÖSMARTY is Professor of Civil Engineering at City University of New York and Director of the CUNY Environmental CrossRoads Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center. His research has been published in such journals as Science, Nature, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, and Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.

MICHEL MEYBECK is Emeritus Senior Scientist at the French National Center for Research, METIS Laboratory at the University Pierre and Marie Curie (Paris 6). His research has been published in such journals as Science of the Total Environment, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, and American Journal of Science.

CHRISTOPHER L. PASTORE is an Assistant Professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (2014).

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