On a sunny Saturday in Santa Barbara, four water experts expressed cautious optimism that investing in water infrastructure and management and addressing climate change could increase global access of clean freshwater – that is, non-saltwater -as well as ensure the stability and security of countries with trans-boundary water resources.
In celebration of Earth Day, the Santa Barbara Coalition of Global Dialogue – an association that promotes non-partisan discussion about challenging global issues – presented the public policy forum Thirst for Security: Global Water and Tomorrow’s Armed Conflicts at Santa Barbara City College’s Fe Bland Forum on April 19. The coalition brought together a panel of water authorities with different backgrounds – political, scientific, legal – who spoke from their respective points of view on how to protect and improve water sources worldwide and how to share them peacefully.
The invited guest speakers included Jeff Dozier, UCSB professor and founder of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management; Hilal Elver, UCSB visiting law professor; Engin Koncagul, program specialist and coordinator of the Paris World Water Assessment Programme of UNESCO, and Jerome Delli Priscoli, a senior advisor at the Institute for Water Resources of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The first keynote speaker, Koncagul, noted that although water is a vital resource that affects not only food supply and human health but also the environment, energy sources, economics, and political stability, governments continue to under-invest in water resource management and water systems. “Spending on water infrastructure must be a high priority for leaders in government,” he said. Otherwise poverty and environmental degradation will increase and human security with regards to water conflicts, health and water-related disasters will decrease.
Elver and Piscoli addressed water disputes. Because more than 250 river basins are shared by two or more countries, the potential for water conflicts between increases with a dwindling global water supply. Although water resources have not been the primary cause of any war, they have been used to a country’s advantage as a weapon during war. Elver emphasized the need for resource management diplomacy between nations. Piscoli, who believes that potential water conflicts can be a venue for dialogue between nations and community building, said that instead of focusing on identifying areas of water security concerns, governments should focus on what investments would be needed in those areas to reduce the threat to their citizens.
“Whatever your ideology or philosophy on how one manages water, we will need to be able to predict water supply,” said Dozier, who specializes in snow hydrology. He emphasized the importance of building a knowledge and information base to provide clean, water to people and ecosystems in the face of climate change. Snowmelt is the major water supply for Californians and for approximately 1 billion people worldwide. Climate change affects the amount of snow. He said that in the near term – by around the year 2030 – different concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere will not extensively affect snowpack. But, he said, by 2100, depending on how well the world controls carbon emissions, Aspen, Colorado will have either a shortened ski season or no ski season at all.
During the question session after the talks, moderator Stan Roden asked the speakers if they had hope for improvement in the world’s water situation. Koncagul said that people around the world are starting to think about the end of the century and what will happen to their children and grandchildren. “People have changed their mindset,” he said. “[Water resource management] is not only about profit but also about the health of our planet.” Dozier noted that there is evidence that the world population is stabilizing, and Priscoli added, “The per capita consumption of water has gone down, especially in developed countries.” In addition, several islands in the Pacific and some cities have begun to use dual water systems, in which seawater is used for such purposes as flushing toilets, and countries have begun to put limits on carbon emissions. Dozier said he would not be at the forum if there were no hope. “I would ski a whole lot more and not worry about giving talks.”