My Fellow Scientists: No More Chicken Little

A beached ship in the dry bed of the Aral Sea — OK, we broke this one too. Please tell us how to fix it. Photograph by Staecker, Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks ago, hundreds of my fellow environmental scientists gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a conference on Water in the Anthropocene.  You may not yet be familiar with this term “anthropocene.”  It was coined by scientists to make the case that the influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries is so significant as to constitute an entirely new geological epoch.

When I heard that the Bonn conference participants had issued a new “Declaration on Global Water Security” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

I’m under-whelmed.

Not to take anything away from the wonderful work that these scientists have been doing to document the changes the Earth has experienced under the heavy hand of humankind.  But they have not yet learned how to translate their science knowledge and findings into tangible, implementable solutions.

The Declaration proclaims that we need six things: (1) More science. (2) More science. (3) Train more scientists. (4) Expand monitoring (i.e., more science).  (5) Consider ecosystem-based alternatives to costly structural solutions for climate proofing. (6) Change water institutions.

OK, I’m being a bit too flippant.  You should read the Declaration for yourself and draw your own conclusions.  But I’ve grown tired and jaded – as I suspect many other scientists and most non-scientists in the world have become – at hearing that the sky is falling.

We get that.  We’re in trouble, to be certain.  You’ve made your case, the jury’s in, and we’re guilty.  We’ve made a big damned mess of our planet and our atmosphere.

Now it’s time to turn your science toward helping to design a way out of this rat hole.

I didn’t go to Bonn myself because I’ve been to too many of these science conferences in recent years, only to hear the keynote speakers tell us that we need better cooperation, better data, better science, better policy, better institutions, more money.

We need more from you.

Let me give you an example of what you could do for us.

We know that in the places in the world where people and ecosystems are running short on water, irrigated agriculture is consuming more than 90% of the water.  The simple water math suggests that if we could find some way to reduce that water consumption by just 15-20%, most water-stressed places would be liberated from the binds of water scarcity.  And we could bring some really beautiful watery ecosystems back to life at the same time.

You could tell us where we could best grow the essential crops needed to feed and clothe ourselves.  You could tell us where we should stop growing the wrong crops in the wrong places because they are too water-intensive and flushing too many nutrients into coastal areas.  You could use your models to show us how much water could be freed up by applying best-available technologies and practices to produce the food needed to feed the world.  You could team up with economists and calculate how you can do all of this while making more money, more jobs.

You could create some scenarios of what a truly sustainable agricultural and human future might look like.  Those scenarios might inspire the changes the Declaration calls for.

Can you please do that for us?

Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years. He is the Chief Scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, and local communities. He is also the President of Sustainable Waters, a global water education organization. Brian has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions. He also teaches a course on Water Sustainability at the University of Virginia. Brian has developed numerous scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts, including the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software that is being used by water managers and scientists worldwide. Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” He has published many scientific papers on the importance of ecologically sustainable water management in international science journals, and co-authored a book with Sandra Postel entitled Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (Island Press, 2003). His new book, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, was published by Island Press in June 2014.
  • Roberto Parra

    Dear Brian, a really good point!!! We have to stop drawing doom scenarios and start acting, constitute one force with all the people with the passion for our planet. We need to translate scientific knowledge into precise actions to re-establish sustainability.

  • Eric Biltonen

    I share your pessimism about international water conferences and their straight-to-the-rubbish-bin declarations. A major problem is that water scientists continue to make the error that water is either the most important or the only resource in the policy/economic equation. It isn’t, and under the current system this isn’t likely to change.

    I do not think that we need more science to achieve greatly improved water management and use. Inefficiencies in water use are well known and many solutions already exist…if only someone would pay for the needed improvements or have the willingness to implement more effective policy.

    What we need is to develop a greater understanding of how water management affects our principles, priorities, and goals; globally and as nations and societies. Further, this needs to be done with the understanding that water is not the most important element. Then, we can start to develop more realistic scenarios along with paths for achieving them.

  • Mark Smith

    Brian – I fully agree!! I spent 20 years working in research and grew frustrated that the science we were doing wasn’t actually changing anything, or at least not fast enough. I began to grow suspicious that lack of science and lack of data wasn’t actually the barrier to managing natural resources better or to sustainability. Making a long story short, I ended up working in a programme that focuses on implementation: how to catalyse, lead, push, pull and teach people to make real change in the ways we manage water. As is often said, we know what the solutions are, we have the tools we need, but we’re not putting them to use well enough. What I’ve come to conclude is that in fact science is lagging behind, working on finding an academic understanding of issues that in the practitioner’s world are well understood already. Case in point: the call in the Declaration for ‘stimulating innovation in institutions’. There are plenty to great insitutions out there that are spearheads for reform and innovation, at all sorts of levels. The need is not to magic up some new institutional formulation that will lead us to salvation, it is to put in the hard work, financing and skills development to take what we know now that works and quadruple or quintuple the rate of implementation!

    The Declaration say that “solving water problems must be a joint obligation of environmental scientists, social scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and a wide range of stakeholders.” I think this is wrong. Solving water problems is the joint obligation of politicians, policy-makers and a wide range of stakeholders. The obligation of scientists of all the stripes listed is to help these groups do this better, through better data, tools and knowledge. Fundamentally, it is not lack of science that stops us having better policies and implementation of solutions. Scientists therefore need to ask how the science we have can be put to use to help societies achieve change, and what new science and new data will make that process more successful.

    It is worth bearing in mind too that by constantly calling for ‘more science, more science and more monitoring’, scientists may be letting those with real responsibility off the hook. If the world’s experts are saying that we need more evidence, then it’s way too easy for politicians and policy makers, who’s job it is to take action, to just duck – to say, no… we’re not sure yet, we better wait, the scientists say there is still too much stuff left to measure.

    There are two scientific papers that explained my own frustrations with academic science to me and that may be interesting to others similarly provoked by Brian’s blog. Their titles give you the gist, but they are really worth reading:

    Sarewitz D. 2004. How science makes environmental controversies worse. Environmental Science and Policy, 7: 385-403

    Gregory R et al. 2007. Some pitfalls of an overemphasis on science in environmental risk management. Journal of Risk Research, 9: 717-735.

  • Tom Frederick

    In Charlottesville, Virginia The Nature Conservancy and the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority worked together to provide more ecological stream flows to rivers that were also used for the community’s water supply. After gathering scientists for literature searches as to minimum flows various organisms needed concluded that available data was insufficient, the Conservancy and Authority made a paradigm shift. The solution was simply to design a system for flow releases from impoundments that more closely reflected the natural flow of the river as captured by USGS stream gages above the impoundments. In this case, environmental stewardship came not from more science and research, but simply by listening more carefully to what nature was already telling us.

  • Greg Koch

    We need to “walk and chew gum” at the same time. Science, research, monitoring are critically important and always more is needed. But, the water crises demands that we act, now, while filling important gaps in the science. There are so many placxes where we have enough science to know what we should do, including:

    (1) We know no community can be sustainable without access to sustainable suplies of safe drinking water, improved sanitation and hygiene. No more studies or science is needed to tell us that people need to enough, drink clean water, not discharge raw sewage to the environment, and wash their hands. Yet, a billion people do not have such access and a third of humanity doesn’t have even a basic latrine. We are also not waiting for some new technology to address this issue; technological advances are welcome and can be innovative but we should not wait for the “black box” to be invented for such a basic need for which so many viable solutions already exist.

    (2) We also have enough science to know that discharging untreated municipal and industrial waste is polluting the environment and having serious, observable, documented impacts on human health, societal costs and the health of ecocystems. We don’t need another burning river in the US or a river chocked with pig carcasses in China to tell us we should act. Yes, emerging contaminants do need more science but we don’t need to wait for more research to tell us that fecal matter, indutrials wastes of nutrients, petroleum, and other chemicals need to be treated, and we know how to effectively remove these pollutants.

    (3) We also know the value of flowing, clean, and healthy rivers, to us and to nature. Again, more science is welcome but there are so many things we already know work.

    More science is needed and welcome but not at the expense of acting right now on what we know works and is critical.

    What is really needed is that tough decisions need to be made.

  • Tom Annear

    What a great piece Brian – I couldn’t agree more with everything you noted here. I’ve spent my entire 32-year career working in the instream flow/water management field and can safely say you’ve nailed one of the bigger issues associated with instream flow and basic water management. “Need more data” and “need better science” are common killers of decisive action that’s proven a frustration to many environmental water managers, and I think scientists in general are particularly vulnerable to this pitch. This is likely because we like to do science and aren’t so good about making hard decisions that create controversy. I don’t mean to put us all in the same box as there are some very capable and courageous flow folks all around the globe who do take on this challenge.
    To be sure there is much left to learn about how aquatic ecosystems function and it’s worthwhile to acquire more understanding. But it’s not better or more science that’s holding back our ability to formulate recommendations and water management strategies today. There are lots of good methodologies already in existence to tackle virtually every situation we face today. My sense is that the “more data” crowd still thinks science drives the bus and “if we just knew a little more and could prove our point, we’d prevail.” The fact is that science is incapable of proving anything anymore than the national weather service can prove what the weather will be next week . . . let alone tomorrow. But like the weather service we can identify important trends and valid approximations. The “more data” mindset tends to fall short of the very crucial importance of integrating law, policy, institutional limitations, and social values along with science. There’s also a belief that if the public could just see the answer (in science) they’d line up and carry the day. The trouble is that the public still has a difficult time grasping ecological concepts and legal processes and all too often will leave just when they’re needed most. We’re then left to negotiate the complicated jumble of laws, policies and politics alone. Many scientists don’t like that situation and opt for the safe place of the field to collect more data. There are lots of smart folks who are very capable of figuring out what’s going on by drawing from existing science and ecological knowledge. Additional knowledge is never a bad thing and we will continue to know more over time. I think the challenge is to encourage environmental water managers to embrace the validity of existing science and fill them with the courage and confidence to stay the course.
    Thanks again for getting this 600 pound gorilla out in the open and keep up the good work.

  • Karin Krchnak

    There is a need for more science, but the need is for actionable science.

    As we push for a stand-alone goal on water as part of the post-2015 framework, the scientific community is very much needed to help in the collective thinking on what an actionable goal and set of targets could look like that will make the next 15+ years better when it comes to water.

  • Wes Strickland

    I believe this commentary (with which I agree) needs to be paired with the insight by Jay Famiglietti (in this same forum) that one of the keys to improving water management is public private partnerships (P3s). Science can provide excellent data and insights into what has happened in the past and what might happen under certain alternative futures, but I believe the scientific community puts too much faith in what it views as the simple, direct method to action: lobbying the government to do something about it. The scientific community over-rates the ability and desire of governments to control water use, when almost all water use is by private individuals, companies and farms. Politicians have little desire to wade into water policy, other than for a photo opportunity; there is virtually no political upside to it, and a large risk of drowning!
    On the other hand, making improvements of the sort suggested would be highly desirable for the private sector. Once water prices start reflecting the scarcity of the resource, private businesses will enter with innovative methods to optimize water use, or to arbitrage water scarcity across regions. The public sector should be involved to ensure the rule of law, protect the environment and prevent external impacts, but I truly believe it is the private sector (including NGOs) that will solve any global water crisis.
    There is a large role for the scientific community to help. In their work, scientists will identify many opportunities for improving water use, and they can either publicize those for private sector action or themselves start or work with existing companies to take action. Scientists are well-positioned to spot opportunities for adding significant value to society in the water sector, and P3s will allow them to implement those ideas for the benefit of us all.

  • Mary Davis

    The responses to Brian’s comments are all reasonable. Clearly science does not carry the day alone for water policy. Action is needed now to protect our water resources. A nice presumptive standard helps out in this arena. However, it is worth pointing out what science has done for water policy – at least in the U.S. Many of us remember when 7Q10 was put in place under the Clean Water Act in 1972. This simple minimum flow threshold was quickly rejected by scientists as not being protective of the ecological integrity of rivers. It was scientists that got water policy changed in the 1980s to better reflect seasonal variation in minimum flows. It is scientists who are now showing the need to protect the full range of flows in the hydrologic regime – and new water policies are reflecting that need. We are seeing more and more references to protection of natural variability in water policy and management practices. Without better science we are too prone to “arm-waving” and “hand-wringing” when we are asked how much water needs to stay in the river. Clear, well-justified answers are needed to stand up against the many other documented demands for water. As water demands increase, the choices get more difficult to make. We have to be able to better quantify why it is important to keep the water in the river and let society choose the consequences of their water policies. Better science has clearly made a difference. However, more information is necessary. Water is too valuable to not push the science further as hard as we can. Call me an optimist, but I am going to keep plugging away on the science.

  • David Zetland

    Agreed (I’m not going to SIWI b/c I can’t stand these useless jamborees…), and I agree with most of the comments above.

    I’m one of those people you’re looking for (you know that, per our email earlier today), and I’ve quit the academic world to have more freedom of action (=less peer-reviewed but unread papers). The business model for what I do — speaking out on water management as a public intellectual — is not widely supported, and I am piecing it together through cross subsidies, but this seems the only way to get better policies in place. They will not be implemented at scientific meetings; they will be implemented on Main Street (by action) and the capitals (by ending silly policies).

  • Rainer Hoenicke

    Brian – your blog reminded me to invoke one of my favorite quotations from Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons paper (Science, 1968): ” An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”
    You left the 800-pound gorilla right in the middle of the room. Your statement that “now it’s time to turn your science toward helping to design a way out of this rat hole” omits the need for changing the story about humans being exempt from natural laws. Just stop reproducing at levels above replacement rates!

  • Moh Kan Wu

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