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November 14, 2008

All Water is Local

When most people think of the hydrological cycle, they picture the simple diagram taught in grade school for decades. Water evaporates from the oceans, lakes, and rivers; it condenses and forms clouds; the clouds produce rain; the rain feeds the rivers, lakes and oceans, and the cycle repeats. For many, that is the extent of their knowledge on where water comes from and how it moves around the planet. That is all they will ever have to know.

The diagram is still accurate, of course, in a very basic sense. But those that study the hydrological cycle for a living realize now that it is far more complicated than we ever imagined. Human actions are making constant changes to the quality, direction, and state of water the world over. How ground water moves and recharges is still largely a mystery. And changes in climate and biological evolution are forcing us to literally relearn everything we thought we knew about water, challenging basic assumptions about the world’s most precious resource.

Among the new findings -- and one that was discussed at length during the final Deep Dive on Water and the Oceans this week in Rio de Janeiro – is that what we once thought were universal principles about water are turning out to be highly variable and localized. No two river basins are exactly the same. No two coasts, cities, wells, or fields act the same. A highly complex mix of characteristics -- from soil content to air quality to local politics to biodiversity to human activity – make each country, city, and neighborhood totally unique. As such, the approaches we take to water management need to be tailored to the specific water profile of the area.

There was wide agreement among the participants of the Rio de Janeiro deep dive on this point. The meeting had business, academic, political, and non-profit leaders from all over Latin America in attendance, including representatives from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico. Each one had wildly different water-related challenges facing their countries. Even within Brazil the issues varied, depending on the region, or even neighborhood.

That’s why some participants felt it was critical to break the problems down site by site, using existing technologies to address them, and paying close attention to the natural state of the micro-ecosystems. “The choice of technology is critical,” said Adalberto Noyola Robles, Department Director at the Instituto Ingenieria of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. “There are multiple climates and multiple challenges, so each solution must be a localized, optimal solution for that natural environment.”

This concept goes beyond the ever-popular “one bite at a time” philosophy toward major projects. It advocates a thoughtful approach and necessary harmony with local environments. And it is quite possibly the only way to tackle a problem as geopolitically complex as water.

This was the final of our eight deep dives on this topic, but over the coming weeks we’ll continue to build out some of the themes that were explored during our meetings. In the meantime, we’ll be hard at work putting together the report that will  synthesize these many findings and spur further conversation on this fascinating and important topic.

November 14, 2008 | Permalink


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I don't believe that "And changes ..... in biological evolution are forcing us to literally relearn everything we thought we knew about water"
Evolution is a very long term process, the changes that have taken place over the last 50 years won't affect water cycles.
What does affect water cycles is our cavalier, unthinking extraction, pollution, canalisation. Examples : extraction of salts from the Dead Sea are undermining its bed, causing it to pollute ground water. Lake Baikal - until recently pristine, now being polluted from factories. Caspian sea disappears because of diverted rivers.
The danger is that we will still look for the big 'engineering' solutions rather than looking at local solutions and studying existing ethnic solutions for preserving water (eg. Aborigines have coped with very low rainfall for generations, 'white' Australians introduced cattle and are surprised that periodic droughts kill the all).

Posted by: Clive TIney | Dec 11, 2008 9:17:53 AM

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