Summer 2015

Water Security in a Changing World

John Briscoe

This essay defines the concept of water security and explores the implications of the eternal pursuit of it. I will describe 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. I outline a few iconic cases of how societies have built institutions and infrastructure to deal with both floods and droughts. The essay assesses the effects of changes in climate and land use systems, and the differing reactions to the new perception of “nonstationarity”: the idea that these systems are less predictable than they have historically been. The essay concludes with some reflections on the challenges of educating young people seized with passion for the issues of their generation but who may have difficulty taking a long view of water security. Many have been taught about the environmental ravages wrought by water infrastructure, but few understand how these same infrastructure and institutions underpin the water security that the United States has achieved. Similarly, we teach the next generation too little about the remarkable contributions of “thinking practitioners”: experts who are also involved in policy-making and planning–whose work underpins the food, water, and energy security of their societies.

JOHN BRISCOE was the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering and Environmental Health at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard Water Security Initiative. Previously, he worked as an engineer in the state water agencies of South Africa and Mozambique and at the World Bank for twenty years as the Senior Water Adviser and as Director for the World Bank in Brazil. He was the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate. His books and publications include Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry (with Usman Qamar, 2005), India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future (2005), and Water Resources Sector Strategy (2004). He passed away on November 18, 2014.

The relationship of people to water is and has always been complex and contradictory. Ancient civilizations developed alongside rivers because of the services abundant and easily accessible water provided (such as irrigation, potable water, and transportation). Yet proximity to fickle rivers also meant that these civilizations were vulnerable to floods, droughts, and changing river courses. The challenge for civilizations both ancient and contemporary has been to confront this Faustian bargain and find balance–between too little and too much water on the one hand and between the financial and environmental costs and benefits of manipulating rivers, lakes, and aquifers on the other.

This essay addresses three contemporary aspects of this age-old quest. First, it describes what is meant by water security and outlines which aspects of water security keep forward-looking leaders awake at night. Second, the essay describes some successful efforts to manage the two ends of the water-security spectrum: droughts and floods. The essay concludes with some observations on the challenges that face policy-makers, scientists, and citizens in moving forward. .  .  .

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