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Water: A Precious Resource

Posted on March 10th, 2014

by Matahel Ansar

As part of the Central and Southern Florida project, IIHR alumnus Matahel Ansar plays an important role in managing the water resources of one of the world's most complex, water-rich areas of the world.

As part of the Central and Southern Florida project, IIHR alumnus Matahel Ansar plays an important role in managing the water resources of one of the world’s most complex, water-rich areas of the world.

As a water professional born and raised in one of the most water-stressed regions in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa, I welcome the opportunity to write about water sustainability. As a young boy, I remember spending every summer vacation with my uncles in the Sahara desert in Northern Mali. My uncles are Tuareg; they were and are still nomads, living in one of the harshest environments in the world, moving every few weeks from one place to another in search for pasture and water. These early experiences deeply shaped my appreciation for water and its undeniable preciousness. After successful graduate studies in hydraulics at the University of Iowa, I am now fortunate to play an important role in managing the water resources of one of the most complex, water-rich management systems in the world, the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) project, including the world-renowned Everglades.

Managing water sustainably provides and maintains the quantity and quality of water needed for human life and supports natural systems, now and into the future. Even though there is disagreement among experts on the absolute scarcity of water, in most places in the world it is not always available where it is needed, when it is needed, and in the quantity and quality in which it is needed. The water sustainability problem in Central and Southern Florida, as it is in most places, is one of quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of this precious vital resource.

In early days of the C&SF project, from the late 1940s to the early ’70s, engineers were mostly concerned with providing flood control and water supply. Increasingly, starting in the early ’70s, concerns over water quality and the deterioration of natural systems grew. Today, one of our most significant challenges is to manage the water resources of the region while balancing competing needs. These problems are not unique to Central and Southern Florida. Every place has one or more of these issues with which to contend, or all four. Only the prevalence and the severity differ.

The original C&SF project was built for about 2.5 million people. Today it supports about 7 million people—a number that continues to grow. On a global scale, the main stressors on water availability are human population and food production. According to the Population Institute, the world population has increased by 1 billion people in just 14 years. We currently welcome 1 million people (the population of Dallas) to our planet every 4.5 days (NPR, 2013). Globally, food production, through agriculture, uses about 70 percent of the available freshwater resources. Industrial and domestic uses account, respectively, for about 20 percent and 10 percent of the available freshwater resources. In the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council (2010) found that one-third of all counties in the lower 48 states will face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century. More than 400 of these counties will face extremely high risks of water shortages. To compound the water quantity issue, our climate is changing; events such as flood and drought are becoming more extreme, and the sea level is rising in most places.

On the water-quality front, controlling nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen produced by human activities is a growing priority, especially in the basins that drain into the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Chesapeake Bay (EPA, 2010). Higher levels of nutrients are altering the ecological balance of receiving water bodies and natural areas. Industrial pollution of water is also a major concern, especially in emerging economies such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). A relatively new and emerging water-quality issue that is garnering more attention is that of pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs), as the full extent, magnitude, and ramifications of their presence in the aquatic environment are largely unknown (EPA, 2001).

In addition to food production, water sustainability is also closely linked to the energy sustainability issue. For example, water is critical for cooling purposes for our mostly fossil-fuel based power plants. Desalination, which is increasingly the alternative of choice for meeting growing water needs in many parts of the world, is highly capital and energy intensive. So is flood control, which requires pumping at huge diesel-based pump stations. Hydropower, which has a myriad of ecological challenges, also plays a key role in the overall energy production in many parts of the world, e.g., the Pacific Northwest.

These water issues present daunting challenges, considering the ever-increasing competing needs, e.g., agriculture and the environment. In addition, more and more people in the developing world are flocking to urbanized areas that are ill-prepared to address their increasing water needs. A key question for water managers is how can we plan for and adapt to meet our water resources needs, given the increasing competing demands and the economic, climatic, and political uncertainties?

Solutions to water sustainability issues will, first and foremost, require innovative thinking fueled by a political will and a common understanding that, despite the competing interests, this is a problem of shared challenges and responsibilities. Alternatives such as artificial aquifer recharge, desalination, increased water use efficiency, water re-use, rainwater harvesting, and inter-basin transfers have shown to be effective in many places in the world. In Central and Southern Florida, constructed wetlands known as Stormwater Treatments Areas (STAs), coupled with Best Management Practices at the source-level, have also shown to be effective in controlling phosphorus and nitrogen. However, much more can and needs to be done at a national and global levels. To paraphrase Michael Walsh (NPR, 2013) , the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deputy Commanding General, Civil and Emergency Operations, “oil was the black gold of the last century; water is the blue gold of this century.”

To solve the water sustainability problem:

  1. Political leaders and society must care about solving the problem;
  2. Institutions in public, private, and academic sectors must support the proposed solutions;
  3. As pointed out by Loucks (2012), we must “approach sustainable water management as a journey along an adaptation pathway, rather than an arrival at a destination.” The adaptive measures should be based on lessons learned from our collective failures and successes. Solutions must also be trans-disciplinary and resilient to economic, political, and social changes;
  4. We must invest in rehabilitating and improving our aging and deteriorating, human-made “hard” water management infrastructure. For example, in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $390 billion (today’s dollars) will be needed over the next 20 years to update or replace existing broken or under-designed wastewater collection systems, and to build new ones to meet increasing demands (ASCE, 2010). Similarly frightening estimates can be made regarding our drinking water and flood-control infrastructures.
  5. We must strive to provide water for all, including the environment (the so-called green infrastructure), the underprivileged, and the voiceless. Regarding the water rights of the underprivileged and the voiceless, Loic Fauchon (2012), president of the World Water Council, summarized it this way: “Water obeys the same principles as freedoms: what good is the right to vote if we do not have the right to live? And the right to live is first and foremost the right to have access to water.”
  6. We must gain a better understanding of the problem, particularly in the water-food-energy nexus. This can be achieved through research and development. Examples of some relevant research areas include: risk-based conditions assessment of water and wastewater conveyance systems; climate change and its impact on the hydrological cycle and on food production at regional and global scales; development of climate-change-adapted engineering design standards; sea-level rise and its impact on flood control and water supply in coastal basins; novel approaches to desalination (e.g., nano reverse osmosis); air-cooling systems for power plants; and low-energy water treatment technologies.

At the 2009 World Economic Forum (WEF), data and information were identified as a key area requiring more attention. In the developing world, data availability is becoming a major constraint for effective sustainability planning. As pointed out by Coates (2012) and discussed in Chapter 6 of the U.N. World Water Development Report 4, and Chapter 13 of U.N. World Water Development Report 3, “There is a real need to commence global, systematic monitoring of the world’s water resource systems and land-use patterns.” Development and applications of tools and technologies in support of the monitoring networks, such as SCADA systems, remote-sensing based monitoring techniques (e.g., satellite-based monitoring systems for land use, birds, rainfall, and ET), and advanced decision support systems (e.g., probabilistic flood forecasting systems) should be made a priority.

An old saying in the American West tells us, “You will never miss the water until the well runs dry.” Today, we can rephrase this to say, “When the well is dry or full of polluted water, we learn the worth of clean water.” I believe it is within our collective ability to design a future in which the well is full of clean and accessible water for all.

References

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) “2009 report card for America’s infrastructure,” http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org, Dec. 8, 2010.

Coates, D.; Loucks, D.; Aerts, J.; and Klooster, S. “Working Under Uncertainty and Managing Risk,” U.N. World Water Development Report No. 4, Chapter 8; World Water Assessment Program; Paris, UNESCO, 2012.

EPA (2011) “Addressing the Challenge Through Science and Innovation,” Aging Water Infrastructure Research, EPA/600/F-11/010/July 2011.

Fauchon, L. “Opening Speech at the Sixth World Water Forum,” Marseille, France, March 2012.

National Public Radio, “Water Wars: Who Controls the Flow?” Around the Nation, http://www.npr.org/2013/06/15/192034094/rivers-run-through-controversies-over-who-owns-the-water, June 15, 2013.

National Public Radio, “‘Countdown’ Explores the Effects of our Overpopulated Planet” Science Friday, Oct. 04, 2013.

Natural Resources Defense Council, “Climate Change, Water, and Risk: Current Water Demands Are Not Sustainable.”

Loucks, D. “Managing Water Under Uncertainty and Risk,” U.N. World Water Development Report No 4, Vol. 1, World Water Assessment Program, Paris, UNESCO, 2012.

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