With all the other problems the world is facing, it might seem strange to some that UNC-Chapel Hill recently selected water for its first pan-university research and teaching theme. For the next two years students, faculty and staff from all over campus will be exploring various and sundry issues relating to H20 here, there, and everywhere whether in the present, future or past.
Why water? Why now? Heck, North Carolina’s economy has been in the doldrums for almost five years now, and we’re not even in a drought.
What about the Great Recession – or the Lesser Depression, as Paul Krugman calls it? Increasing inequality worldwide? Climate change? Nuclear proliferation? International terrorism? Failed states? The crisis in our schools? So many issues, so little time. So, again, why water?
Despite its relatively low- profile image and under-the-radar status as a capital-letter Problem, many experts agree that issues relating to water will be among the most prominent we will face in coming decades, with many viewing water as the new oil.
For starters, there are basic issues relating to demand and supply. While the world as a whole will not be running dry any time soon, many discrete locales are already facing shortages of fresh water. With world population likely to reach 9 or 9.5 billion by mid-century, with urbanization continuing to increase and with average income rising worldwide, demand for water, already intense, will rise rapidly, putting increasing pressure on limited supplies.
As a result, tradeoffs between water for human consumption and other uses will grow increasingly intense. Since roughly 75 percent of the world’s fresh water is currently used for agriculture, clearly, something’s gotta give. At a minimum, we’re going to have to learn to use less water more smartly and efficiently at relatively higher prices. This will entail a great deal of new thinking such as is being done in Singapore, where an ever increasing portion of the drinking supply is comprised of so-called NEWater, which is water recycled from toilets after intense purification. NEWater indeed!
There’s more to deal with: Oceanic pollution, diminished aquifers and water tables, political fights over water rights and the building of dams, overfished lakes and streams, etc. And we haven’t even mentioned the severe problems relating to so-called WaSH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) issues, which are perhaps the most pressing of all.
Don’t believe me? Try these stats from a 2010 U.N. Environment Programme report entitled “Sick Water? The Central Role of Wastewater Management in Sustainable Development.” According to this widely cited report, over 90 percent of the sewage and agricultural/industrial waste in developing countries is “discharged untreated directly into rivers, lakes or the oceans.” The (unsurprising) result? A child under 5 years of age dies from one or another water-related disease every 20 seconds. More than half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from diseases associated with water contamination or pollution. Many more people die each year from water-borne diseases than from war. Sobering to say the least.
In deliberating about a campus-wide theme at UNC-Chapel Hill, these were just some of the issues that made water rise to the top.
Water plays a prominent role in many of the great religions, and water themes have long been central in cultural expressions ranging from literature to art, and from dance to music. Over the next two years we don’t expect to solve every problem relating to water, nor to explore each and every facet of the infinitely complex relationship between water and culture, broadly construed. What we do hope to do, however, is to enrich and intensify the conversation about a priceless resource that, despite its importance, has all too often either been overlooked or employed wantonly and used cavalierly.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome distinguished professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.