Water and the Future of Humankind

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According to Dr. William Cosgrove, the keynote speaker from the special focus session, Water and the Future of Humankind, we have entered a new time era — the Anthropocene, . The Anthropocene is a term that reflects the extent to which humans have altered the planet and environment. The discussion addressed the importance of imagining the future that we would like to have with water. Using this imagined future, we should then “backcast” instead of forecast to determine the actions we should do today to get to the future we have planned for ourselves, a model developed by the Portuguese Gulbenkian Think Tank.

The panel was made up of five elderly gentlemen: the fact that no women were part of the panel was disappointing. It was acknowledged by Dr. Cosgrove that men have made most of the water decisions in history that have led us to water scarcity and overuse. He also said, however, that women are finally being recognized as being an important part of water use decisions. For further discussion of gender, water and leadership, look for upcoming posts about global gender and water issues as well as the gender makeup of the panels at the World Water Forum.

So, what is our water future going to look like?  The session looked at major uses of water and how those sectors are going to be affected in the future.  Those, in order, said Dr. Cosgrove, are:

Food production: The time of cheap food is over.  Volatility of food prices is becoming a new reality: the volatility is actually more of a concern than the increase in price, Dr. Cosgrove said.  We will need to continually meet the ever-rising demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel, all from an increasingly constrained water resource base.  Because of this demand, the agricultural sector will face increasing competition for consumptive water demand.

Environment:  We will continue to need to allocate water to the environment itself.  According to Dr. Cosgrove, there are already countries that use the wisdom that you only start allocating water for humans after you have allocated water to the environment.  Humans have a longer term benefit by limiting interference with ecosystem functions, also known as ecosystem services, as Heidi discussed in her post.

Energy:  All energy takes water to produce, even wind and solar.  In the future, warmer climates from climate change will lead to higher demands for both energy and water.  A shortage in energy is possible due in part to a shortage of water, particularly in Asia and Africa.

Urbanization:  There needs to be a new way to think about cities.  Since 1950, there has been a shift to where now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, with each city’s ecological footprint extending well beyond its boundaries. More integrated planning is needed that incorporates energy, water and transportation efficiency.

What are the key levers for a solution?  Most of the panelists also considered food production to be the main impacted issue with respect to the future of water.  According to Pr. Mohamed Ait Kadi, we need to understand that global food abundance is not totally guaranteed – there is a limit to how much food we can produce.  Looking at water and land, he says the last frontiers are in Latin America and, to a lower extent, sub-Saharan Africa.  Other places don’t have the luxury to expand or have exhausted water resources.  The implication for the future is that South Asia and China will rely on the world market to feed their populations, which is also the case for North Africa and West Asia.  Europe and the United States will be able to increase their production to some extent, but the major food supplier will be South America. This expanding food production will have enormous climate and environmental impacts in South America.

So, what is the future of water that the panelists envision?  We are in the Age of Men, where we have the intellect, creativity and ability to reflect on the changes that humans have wrought to the planet.  We still know what we want for humankind: in the face of anticipated global water scarcity, it is our hope that we can achieve sustainable water use for generations to come.

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