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Sharon B. Megdal: What challenges will water security face in the 21st century

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Dr.Sharon B. Megdal, Senior Fellow in Resources Security

Sharon B. Megdal is director of the University of Arizona's Center for Water Research (WRRC), Professor in the College of Environmental Sciences, Director of the Water Sustainability Program, and co-director of the University of Arizona's Water, Environment, and Energy Solutions Program, both funded by the Technology Research Programs Foundation (TRIF). His research interests are water resources management and policy.




What challenges will water security face in the 21st century

1. What are the challenges to water supply in the 21st century?


We face significant water quantity and water quality challenges, though they vary in form and intensity depending on location. Key challenges include having sufficient water of acceptable quality to produce enough food for a growing population, meeting community water needs (both residential and industrial), and meeting the water needs of nature. A key goal is making sure people have access to water for basic human needs and access to functioning sanitation facilities. Increased reliance on (invisible) groundwater means groundwater in storage is being used faster than nature replenishes it. Often there is limited knowledge of the amount of groundwater available. Groundwater pollution can be difficult to detect and even more difficult to clean up. In addition, water governance frameworks are in need of improvement. This includes the need for more involvement of civil society. In summary, the challenges are great.


2. What are the top priorities for dealing with the contradiction between water supply and water demand?


If by “contradiction” between water supply and water demand, you mean imbalance, yes, that is one of the challenges I cite as a wicked water problem of the Colorado River Basin – and many other places. The Colorado River serves the water needs of an estimated 40 million people in one way or another. The region is over 20 years into a drought. Poor river flow is a result of changing precipitation and temperature patterns. Demand is adjusting, too, in that urban per capita water demand is going down in many cities in the region but overall demand is projected to increase. Wicked water problems are not readily solved. Addressing them requires actions of many over many years. The solution set for imbalance in supply and demand typically consists of some combination of commonly cited options: conservating water by all water users, integrating more use of supplies like reclaimed or recycled water, augmenting supplies through desalination, optimizing supplies through deployment of managed aquifer recharge, investing in systems to reduce leakage, utilizing market mechanisms when appropriate, changing the way communities and buildings are designed, etc. Water pricing comes into play here as well. For the most part, there is no recognition of the scarcity of the water molecules themselves. Top priorities include working with individuals and businesses to improve understanding of the challenges, opportunities to address the challenges, and the trade-offs associated with alternative solutions pathways.


3. In the new era of water planning and investment, what are the directions of cooperation between the private and public sectors?


The private and public sectors should collaborate better on providing and sharing information about water. The private sector has much expertise and information to contribute but is sometimes reluctant to share information. Given the magnitude of the challenges, we need all hands on deck. Withholding information tends to breed distrust. These are times for building new partnerships. Private sector collaboration with government, academia, and communities is necessary to tackle these challenges. We should think of ways to develop collaborations so there is not distrust of the results or findings because of who paid for the effort. Private sector funding can truly be a catalyst.


4. What do you think should be done to address the lack of financial capital in the water challenge?


Lack of capital is a problem for the public sector. Estimates indicate that the need for investment in the water sector, including that to address aging infrastructure, is huge. The lack of plans to invest is in part reflective of challenges associated with water pricing. Because water is needed to meet basic human needs, there is resistance to increasing the cost of water – at least to non-industrial users. In areas where utilities exist to serve the public, there is a desire to keep them as self-funded enterprises. This can lead to challenges in collecting the revenues needed to cover major infrastructure investments.

I wish to emphasize the importance of education and involvement of the public. Everyone is a water stakeholder. Everyone needs to know where their water comes from. It is important that scientific and technical results be accessible (meaning understandable) to those who are not water professionals. Public involvement, communication, and education are resource-intensive activities. They should be funded and valued as other activities needed to prepare ourselves appropriately for our water futures.


Interviewer: Li Meiqi

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