Posted by Stephanie Castle following World Water Week 2013. This is the third in a series of three posts. The first, called Moving Towards True Collaboration, was posted by Kate Voss in Stockholm. The second, called Groundwater: The Elephant Underfoot, was posted by Sasha Richey following the meeting.
World Water Week (WWW) 2013 brought together a variety of water experts and professionals with a set of common goals: water sustainability, equity and peace. Coming from California, the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling WWW delegation returned home with several important lessons regarding our precarious water position. There are lessons from which we can learn, and also lessons that we can share, in an effort to ensure global water security.
California has been a pioneer of water conveyance since the mid-1800s, when the Gold Rush highlighted the importance of water to the mining industry and to the economy. Since then, the Western United States has spearheaded some of the largest water infrastructure projects in the world, including the Hoover Dam in the 1930s and the California State Water Project in the 1960s.
California’s infrastructure moves water over vast distances through innovative engineering, and in the process, it has created one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world–the Central Valley. However, California is now paying the price for stretching a finite resource to its limits, including massive rates of groundwater depletion and significant amounts of land subsidence.
Tradeoffs due to such engineering triumphs are arising in California, including the well-known decline of the Bay Delta ecosystem, and the demise of the Colorado River, which now dries before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. In response, increased tensions are occurring between Northern and Southern California, farmers and fishermen, and environmentalistsand water managers, prompting California to consider new solutions to mitigate increased confrontation over water.
Like California, India has grown its agricultural economy, while supporting the second largest population in the world, by harnessing the potential of its water resources. However, the majority of agriculture in India relies primarily on groundwater, instead of a combination of surface and subsurface waters. One of the most riveting experiences for me at WWW 2013 happened in a side event on Groundwater Information Reliability and International Cooperation, during which UCCHM Director Jay Famiglietti presented our team’s research on how the NASA GRACE mission has helped identify major regions of groundwater depletion around the world. Following the panel discussion, Alok Rawat, Secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources of India, shared the fact that in response to such research findings, the government of India has recently added approximately 50,000 groundwater monitoring wells, and embarked upon an ambitious national aquifer mapping program, to inform sustainable water management. This statement brought on applause from the entire room.
One region above all stood out to me in its mission to achieve a sustainable water future: Africa. The lack of connection between funding and planning prohibit large scale infrastructure implementation, leading to continued issues with poor water sanitation, storm-water runoff management and water supplies, as explained by WaterAid’s Timeyin Uwejamomere. Uwejamomere emphasized the need for long term master plans beyond 20 years; perhaps the creation of a 50-year master plan to ensure that large-scale infrastructure can be implemented.
Along with infrastructure challenges, there is also significant transboundary conflict in Africa that complicates both above and below ground water resources management. Fortunately, many of those present at WWW are intently focused on Africa’s water future. This ‘blank slate’ provides the freedom and the opportunity to improve upon the many mistakes already made in the developed world. In fact, Africa’s water leaders are already learning from these mistakes, and despite the transboundary conflict, the continent’s decision-makers are discussing the best ways to monitor and manage groundwater and surface water across political boundaries.
What can we bring home from WWW 2013? John Matthews from the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation in Oregon gave great insight into future water management challenges by highlighting the difference between ecological versus engineering solutions. California’s engineering approach to water management has included massive dams and thousands of miles of water conveyances, solutions which become more unlikely in our water future with each passing year. Perhaps we would benefit from ecologically-based approaches to combating water overuse. We can also learn from India’s speedy response to map its groundwater reserves in the face of tremendous rates of depletion. Perhaps the forward thinking of Africa in acknowledging the importance of both surface water and groundwater management is another important lesson we can adopt here in the United States.