Our World of Water - Crisis and Confusion

DURHAM, NC -- Taken for granted by some, stolen by others, water is one of the world's most valuable commodities. In some places, a gallon of water is worth more than a gallon of petroleum, according to Miguel Medina, a specialist in hydrology and water resources at Duke's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

"More than 2.4 billion people in the world do not have access to sanitation, more than 1.2 billion don't have access to potable, clean water," Medina said. "And, under the best scenario -- if all our efforts come to fruition-- the best improvement we can hope for by the year 2015 is to cut that deficit down to something like 1.9 billion for sanitation."

Medina leads an international team of hydrologists and water experts evaluating the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP), a United Nations [UNESCO] program that aims to improve the management of the world's water resources. The opportunity to take part in this work is fascinating to Medina as a researcher, he says, but also horrifying as a citizen of the world.

"We're in a world with limited resources and our population keeps growing, but we have to remember that the amount of clean water stays fixed at best. If we contaminate it, we reduce the amount that is available," said Medina. “The more we stress the world, the more we stress the water resources."

"In some parts of Africa, women spend more than 4 hours every day carrying water to support their families. In India's largest city, Mumbai, hundreds of thousands of people are without access to water," said Medina. "Desperate people in poor neighborhoods make holes in the pipes taking water to other parts of Mumbai just to survive."

The United Nations continues to express concern that the growing global water crisis threatens the security, stability and environmental stability of many developing nations. Read more about this in the 2nd United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR).

Managing Water - Politics and Practicalities

Evaluating a country's water status entails drawing information from a wide range of sources, from individuals to governmental agencies to industry. The methods include a combination of questionnaires, on the ground interviewing and relationship building. In some countries, several agencies may be involved in managing water for different purposes; in other countries, there may be conflicting governmental oversight, transient oversight or no oversight at all.

"Part of why it is difficult to manage water is that watersheds don't respect political boundaries," Medina said. "Instead, water follows natural geographical boundaries--forming distinct watersheds."

A watershed in the broadest sense is essentially a river basin, Medina explained. Every drop of water that falls, ever tributary within the river basin is part of that watershed. For example, the La Plata River Basin in South America collects water from many other rivers, flows past Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay and then flows into the Atlantic. The La Plata and its tributaries run through five different countries.

According to the WWAP, the Danube River Basin in Europe covers parts or all of 18 states comprising Albania, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Switzerland and Ukraine. There are marked differences between these countries in terms of economy, sociology and topography that make managing water a complicated matter.

"The overlap of countries affected by and dependent on water ways is a complex, worldwide problem," said Medina. "What's worse, there are many very large bodies of water where there simply is no managing governmental body, or too many to be effective. What about when contaminants flow downstream? Who has to pay to clean that up? The country at the end of the watershed? The country where the contamination originated?"

This is in part why UNESCO's World Water Assessment Program was established. "It's imperative to bring an international focus to the management of water resources because the solution has to be an international cooperation," Medina said. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, through the World Water Assessment Program, is the United Nations unit in charge of monitoring how member nations manage their water resources.

"There is tremendous potential for conflict, but if you turn it around, there is also tremendous potential for collaboration," Medina explained. "One of the ways that Palestine and Israel have had to come together is over water. But brokering these agreements is tricky and wars disrupt them, making it impossible for both sides to carry out the responsibilities of those agreements, which can further inflame conflicts. Obviously, this affects a very broad brush stroke of people who may or may not even be involved in the military action."

What's unique about the WWAP program is that evaluation teams focus on socioeconomic factors as well as science-based hydrologic measurements such as rainfall and runoff. This entails defining and better understanding the basic hydrologic processes, management practices and policies governing global freshwater resources. Perhaps more importantly, WWAP attempts to bring the issues of water resource management into sharp focus so that policymakers and stakeholders can make informed decisions.

"We're asking whether the program is using the right evaluations," said Medina. "If there is no progress being made in countries that have had a case study conducted, WWAP is not being effective. This means more than just measurements--it is about how and why people are using the water resources in their area, and ultimately how that affects neighbors and those downstream.

But as simple as it is to recognize that water management is a problem, global discourse begins to break down almost immediately. Countries do not fully agree on how to evaluate water quality management, even though it makes practical sense to gather the same information in each country to ensure that data are comparable. For example, there is disagreement over the water quality indicators.

"Not everyone is pleased with how their country ranks out," said Medina. "Water quality is a function of so many variables--vegetation, contaminants in the country, contaminants from upstream, nitrogen/phosphorous, wetlands, and others. The balance and weighting of these factors is a hot topic of debate. The WWAP doesn't pull punches in these reports because it's not in anyone's best interest to do so. Agriculture, urbanization, herbicide/pesticide runoff, floods, droughts--this is highly complex problem with a lot of people trying to control and manage it."

Logistics and Communication

As with other United Nations programs, UNESCO's WWAP receives its share of criticism. Some argue that UNESCO generates reports that “go nowhere" and lack peer review. Comprehensive review efforts such as Medina's team are a way to address these concerns.

Ironically, even for the UN, language and translation is a major barrier to effective communication, said Medina. One of the biggest problems in program outreach is that complete WWAP reports are only prepared in Spanish and English. Executive summaries are prepared in only 11 languages.

"It's humbling to realize how difficult it can be to work in a global environment," Medina said. "Take China, for an example. One of the fastest growing economies in the world and the country has not yet had a formal assessment of its water management policies. It's a language problem. For the main WWAP office in Paris to communicate with people in China, they have to speak in English. All these people are communicating in a second language and not necessarily fluently. Everyone on my assessment team except Dr. Jun Xia from China was surprised there has not been a case study of China yet."

While the U.N. posts all their information on the internet, that doesn't help in countries that don't have internet access. The program must still print on paper just to try to reach these people. Some like the non-scientific aspects in the reports while others call for more science content.

"Because the UN can't outright enforce standards, they have to leverage more subtle means to effect change," said Medina.

"Every time a major report is released, the WWAP notifies the world press, which then writes about the problem. This puts indirect pressure on governments to do something," said Medina. "Press articles bring the problems to the surface. I know of a few private companies, such as one in Bolivia, that have been so criticized by the press that they were forced to make changes in their operations."

WWAP stimulates countries to organize themselves and to improve their governments, Medina explained. Sometimes there are governing structures in place but they are not always responsible; they respond in the way they have resources for, but that doesn't mean they are doing the right thing for their people, for a sustainable future, he said.

For instance, South America's La Plata River Basin -- where Medina was able to take advantage of his fluency in Spanish and English -- was assessed as being blessed with a "rich array of wildlife and extensive ecosystems," but plagued by "economic crises," "rising poverty," "rapid population growth" and "extensive environmental deterioration."

The U.N also routinely launches awareness campaigns, such as the "Decade of Water" to foster a set of voluntary water management goals. All member countries are asked to meet certain standards. Some make commitments, but not all commitments are supported financially economic commitments.

Medina's assessment team will travel to Sri Lanka, Japan, Mongolia, Ethiopia, China, Namibia, Uganda, France, Austria, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina and plans to complete its report in the summer of 2007.

Educating the Next Generation of Civil and Environmental Engineers

Medina, who was born in Havana, Cuba, said his interactions with UNESCO began in the mid-1980s, when he taught courses on hydrology and water quality modeling for the organization throughout Latin America as well as parts of the Caribbean. He continued serving as a UNESCO consultant from time to time since.

As an educator, Medina understands that a big part of the solution to global water management problems is to train more people.

Medina and students"In addition to not having enough rainfall in many places, there is a critical lack of infrastructure," he explained. Many countries do not have trained people such as hydrologists, technicians and ministries that can manage the resources. In other cases the infrastructure is there on paper, but not yet functioning the way it needs to be. He noted that the WWAP is considering becoming directly involved in such capacity building by encouraging formal training programs and certification standards.

Medina uses his UNESCO experiences as a teaching tool for students in his water resource engineering class at Duke.

"They are learning from each of my investigations, and I'm sharing all the information I'm gathering," he said. "It has been a real eye opener to my students--they were simply shocked to hear how bad it is in some places. This is an important counterbalance that puts everything into context. It is as critical to their training as all the differential equations and computer modeling."

As Medina works to wrap up his team's assessment and prepare its report, it's hard not to wonder what the future has in store. "What is clear," he said, "is that along with significant climate changes, global warming will also change the political power structures that control water."