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September 19, 2008

The Need to Know

Global Innovation Outlook topics always have a sense of urgency to them. By definition they are global challenges that require immediate and substantial innovation. But this is particularly true with Water and the Oceans. And so with that in mind, we wasted no time in our first deep dive in San Diego, asking the toughest question right out of the gate: If tomorrow you were elected Global Water Czar, what would be your first edict?

The room was packed with experts that represented all aspects of the hydrological cycle, from the deep ocean to freshwater drinking supplies in developing countries. There were oceanographers from the University of Rhode Island, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There were conservationists and researchers from The National Geographic Society and The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. There were venture capitalists, NGOs, and representatives from two of the most influential corporations in the world, The Dow Chemical Company and General Electric.

So it’s not surprising that the answers to the Water Czar question ran the global gamut, from general to specific, from practical to fanciful. Here is a partial list of the edicts:

Create an international commodity trading market for water
Ban bottled water
Require companies to report water usage on balance sheets
Mandate drip irrigation for all agriculture
Prohibit building cities in the desert
Require that all rivers reach the sea
Enforce the U.S. Clean Water Act on a global basis
Eliminate polluting discharge
Order a global evaluation of water assets
Tax nations based on the quality of water that leaves their system, not how much they use
Make a movie about water scarcity (a la Inconvenient Truth)
Initiate a massive global education campaign
Prohibit showers one day a week

If nothing else, this exercise and the responses it yielded demonstrates the breadth of action needed to address the many challenges before us. It also highlights the stunning complexity of global water systems, and the need for holistic, informed approaches. In fact, one participant after another bemoaned the crippling lack of data, on everything from groundwater to ocean ecosystems, upon which to base decisions.

“There is an admission that all experts need to make on their own ignorance,” said one participant. “We simply don’t know enough.” It was a humbling sentiment that was echoed time and again throughout the day. “We only know 3 percent of the oceans,” said another. “We have barely scratched the surface of understanding,” said yet another.

Dr. Anthony Knap, the President and Director of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, puts the challenges in studying the oceans in proper perspective in this video clip:


The litany of different systems that need further measurement and understanding is indeed daunting. There is a need for better data on the true global value of water; on the effects of climate change on the ocean; on the ocean’s ability to sequester CO2; on industrial consumption and discharge; on the migration patterns of marine life; on the trade offs between food, energy, and water use; on acidification of the oceans; and so on.

Fortunately, the cross-section of experts in the room in San Diego did manage to open each others’ eyes to their respective challenges. And there was a sense in the room that even as we discussed the dire need for better, more integrated information on ocean, freshwater, and climate systems, we were already getting smarter about how to get it done.

September 19, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink


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I agree on the call for more data - Lot's more data! Also, we need to come to international agreement over what is potable water, what is non-potable but safe water, and what is unsafe water.

Of the ideas listed from this first dive, the theme that seems to make the most sense is the creation of financial incentives and possibly markets not in water itself, but in discharged water quality. Again, this is really about data - The real time data that can now be gathered with distributed sensor technology.

On another theme, it is interesting to consider water's unusual nature, and why it becomes such a difficult topic to address on a global resource level. It is an accident of physics! Water is unique in that it exists commonly in three phases, gaseous, liquid, and solid, within the environmental envelope of our planet. Questions about sustainable life aside, if the temperature of our planet was primarily above 100 degrees Celsius, we might be talking about water the way we talk about air and the atmosphere. If it were below zero degrees C, we might be addressing issues involving water the way we talk about mineral deposits like coal or iron ore, or static liquids like petroleum.

On one hand, we have accepted global responsibility for the atmosphere. Everyone has a legitimate interest in what happens to the atmosphere! On the other, we have widely accepted private and political ownership of mineral deposits underneath one's land. What you do with the iron ore underneath your property really isn't of anyone else concern. The question that surfaces is when, and under what conditions, do we consider water as a global interest, and when do we consider it to be a regional or territorial resource, subject to public or private ownership?

There is one facet of this debate that does seem clear. I think we could agree that the oceans belong to every resident of the planet, even if they live in a land-locked nation, and that territorial claims involving passage rights, fishing rights, and rights to minerals beneath the ocean floor do not imply any actual ownership of the water that exists in this space. A consequence is we do become accountable to the global international community for any activity that could impact the ocean chemically or biologically, either now or within a historical time frame..

There is a subtle but interesting aspect to this position. One can make the argument that even if a nation has the right to decide who fishes in their territorial waters, they may be accountable to the international community for fishing practices within those waters that impact the oceans as a whole. Do we actually have ownership of the biological life that exists within our territorial waters? The answer is probably not.

Posted by: Tim R. | Sep 20, 2008 7:30:11 AM

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