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?

Wildlife

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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.