Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 09

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Water Water Where?

Water Water Where?
Professor Kaggere Lokesh calls the interlinking of India´s rivers “the need of the hour.” Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

At the College´s recent Water Scarcity and Conflict conference, experts discuss challenges and solutions.

by Phoebe Hall


Every day, Americans overwater their lawns. They take long showers. They let leaky faucets drip. They buy pools and home ice rinks and snowmaking kits, even in the most arid regions, because water is cheap and, most of the time, no one´s going to stop them.

But throughout the developing world, the picture is quite different. Every day, women walk miles to fetch water for cooking and drinking. Crops and livestock die as droughts drag on. Water-borne diseases kill thousands of people — most of them children. Every day.

Despite these hard truths, the message of Connecticut College´s Water Scarcity and Conflict conference, however pessimistic its title, was largely upbeat. “The world is not running out of water,” Amy Vickers, an engineer and authority on water conservation, said. But, she added, “We must save every drop we have.”

For two days in April, scientists and engineers shared the stage of Evans Hall with policymakers, lawyers and activists to lead a cutting-edge discussion about the looming world water crisis and what to do about it. The 2009 Elizabeth Babbott Conant Interdisciplinary Conference on the Environment, organized by the Goodwin-Niering Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies, drew hundreds of students, as well as scholars and professionals from off campus, with its timely topic and multifaceted presentation.

“This is one of the biggest problems we´re facing now and in the future,” said Eric LeFlore ´11, an environmental studies major and music minor. “The conference really brings people working on the issues here to us so we can talk with them about ways to solve the problems.”

Douglas Thompson, professor of geology and the Karla Heurich Harrison ´28 Director of the Goodwin-Niering Center, said the speakers would have a lasting impact: “Your talks are an inspiration to our students, some of whom will carry on your great work.”

WATER FOLLOWS THE PEOPLE: The title of the talk by Colorado State University geosciences Professor Ellen Wohl, about the Platte River ecosystem, was a recurring theme throughout the conference and has recurred throughout history.

Human ingenuity has long brought water where nature has not. We drill private wells, irrigate farmland and dam rivers. There´s even a proposal to link India´s rivers with a vast network of canals (see sidebar). It´s this mindset — that more infrastructure is the only way to get more water — that many speakers challenged.

“It´s not an infrastructure problem, it´s a thinking problem,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of The Pacific Institute (and the son of Beth Gleick ´50). New supplies are all around us, in our rainwater and wastewater, he said. Thanks to efficient appliances and a changing economy, the United States uses less water today than it did 20 years ago. “But everything we do with water we can do with less water,” he said.

Climate change may be worsening the situation. Areas dependent on seasonal snowmelt for their water supply are seeing less fresh water in the spring. Glaciers melt faster as world temperatures rise, threatening future water supplies. Arid areas are getting even less rainfall, increasing the length and severity of droughts. Reed Benson, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, warned that these factors combined with unchecked population growth in the West could portend a “darker future” for those states.

Though new reservoirs, dams and other infrastructure are needed to address water shortages, Vickers said, we could save a lot of water simply by repairing broken pipes. The U.S. loses 10-30 percent of its water through leaks, she said. Maintaining the infrastructure we already have is key, she added: “Even if we build new supply, if we follow past practice we´re still going to mess it up.”

IN THE WATER SCARCITY BLAME GAME, politics often faces off with nature. Environmentalists accuse politicians of capitulating to agriculture, developers and other interests. Farmers and businesses, meanwhile, charge that the government is giving all the water to the fish.

But laws can accommodate both humans and the environment. The U.S. Clean Water Act has “the right goal,” said Mark Smith of The Nature Conservancy: it requires all U.S. waters to be fishable and swimmable. The South African National Water Law, which he called “one of the most progressive in the world,” declares water a basic human need. Driven not by environmental concerns but by equity of access to resources, the law demands “thriving river ecosystems” that provide the clean water vital to subsistence livelihoods.

How humans divvy up water among themselves is another source of conflict. States draw up complicated water compacts, and still land in court as new disputes arise. Where water is scarce, rights are sold off to the highest bidder. The Web site Water Colorado is “like craigslist for water rights,” said Bates College economics Professor Lynne Lewis, with some shares costing tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

Roman Polanski´s Chinatown notwithstanding, few water conflicts descend into violence. “I personally don´t think you´re going to see a war between countries over water,” predicted Aaron Salzberg of the U.S. State Department. Water can even bring governments together. The Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, is a rare instance of cooperation between India and Pakistan, noted Shlomi Dinar, an assistant professor at Florida International University who specializes in hydro-politics. “Overall scarcity and interdependence motivate cooperation,” he said.

One billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. But Gleick insisted that water problems won´t inevitably get worse — in fact, he said, there´s more than enough water to meet human needs. All we need are the money, the cooperation and political will to get it where it´s needed. Impossible? “No challenges,” Salzberg said, “are insurmountable.”

ONLY A PIPE DREAM?

Visiting professor Kaggere Lokeshcalls for interlinking India´s rivers

A nyone who has seen pictures of, or experienced, India´s monsoon season may be surprised to learn that water is a scarce commodity there. But much of the subcontinent is actually quite arid, and India has long struggled to distribute water equally to its 1.1 billion people.

One proposed solution to this problem, on and off the table since the 1960s, is the interlinking of India´s rivers. Simply put, it involves constructing a series of canals and pipelines between rivers to bring water for irrigation, power generation and navigation to regions that need it most. But there is nothing simple about this enormous, and enormously controversial, project. A feat of civil engineering such as the world has never seen, it´s estimated to cost at least $100 billion; the environmental and human costs, moreover, could be immeasurable.

Could a nation notorious for sluggish bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure pull off a scheme so vast? Kaggere Lokesh answers with an unequivocal yes. The environmental engineering professor from the S.J. College of Engineering in Mysore, India, was the Mellon Visiting Scholar in the Goodwin-Niering Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies this spring, and spoke on the pros and cons of interlinking India´s rivers at the Center´s Water Scarcity and Conflict conference in April.

“It should happen,” Lokesh says of the plan. “If it did the progress in India would be on a very high scale.” While ecological ramifications are almost inevitable — from forests and wildlife displaced by infrastructure to a massive disturbance of natural watersheds — he says the project would propel his country´s economy forward and put Indians on a more equal footing with the developed world. “We need to give water to all people,” he says. “It´s a human right.”

Lokesh´s path to New London began in 2007, when he met Edward Brodkin, Lucretia L. Allyn Professor of History and director of the SATA India program. Brodkin enlisted Lokesh to teach a class on environmental engineering to Connecticut College students in Mysore. “Our students loved it,” Brodkin says. “He knew how to communicate with students who aren´t engineers.” Brodkin recommended Lokesh to biology Professor Robert Askins, who subsequently invited Lokesh to teach a seminar on water quality and management at the College last semester.

Contrasting his experience at Connecticut College to teaching in Mysore, Lokesh says, “Here there is an open system of teaching. The learning environment is interesting and fantastic.” He enjoyed the ambience of the small, higher-level seminar and the lack of hierarchy, he adds. “In India I´m a serious professor.” But by the end of the semester Lokesh was looking forward to getting home to his family and his students. With more than 360 million Indians under the age of 15, that´s a lot of young people to train. “It gives India a fantastic advantage,” Lokesh says. “It´s a land of opportunity.”

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