By Jeremy Orr
As a native Michigander, I grew up around one of the largest freshwater systems in the world, the Great Lakes -- not to mention the countless inland lakes, ponds, rivers and streams that were carved into Michigan’s landscape by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. Surrounded by so much fresh water, the words “drought," “water famine” and “water scarcity” didn’t seem too imminent a threat to me, as I usually applied them to arid landscapes in the western United States or deserts elsewhere in the world. In fact, they were so foreign to me, they may as well have been alien species from a distant planet.
It wasn’t until I started traveling for work that I realized how scarce water could be. When I first worked overseas, I spent a great amount of time in the Middle East, staying for brief periods in various places in the Persian Gulf. It didn’t take long to notice a common denominator in all the places I visited in the region: a lack of fresh water. It’s not that I wasn’t aware that these countries weren’t giant freshwater swimming pools like states in the Upper Midwest; I was just ill-prepared for such a dearth of water, period.
The region’s parched landscape had me thinking of both water scarcity and access to potable water worldwide. Aside from the obvious, what were the implications of a lack of fresh water in the region, and elsewhere? Does a shortage of potable water in a region as large as the Middle East affect the world’s water supply, and if so, how? What role does climate change play in all of this? Of course, these questions, among others, were not easy to answer.
According to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), nearly one-fifth of the world’s population live in regions of physical water scarcity -- that’s an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide! To complicate matters, another 1.6 billion people are threatened with water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure and the financial means to secure potable water.
And don’t be fooled -- these statistics are not just relegated to some faraway place. Arizona’s Lake Mead has the potential to be “dry” in the coming decade, yet it provides potable water to some 22 million people. That’s 22 million people in the southwestern United States alone who are currently threatened with a loss of their water source. In light of looming 2050 global trends -- a rapidly increasing population in particular -- it’s not hard to imagine that water-related issues will only worsen worldwide, producing deleterious effects on an already strained resource.
Indeed, the effects of water scarcity are wide and varied. A decrease in a region’s water abundance can lead to damaged ecosystems and a changing landscape, and it can also negatively impact food production. It can affect the financial security of a region, as businesses and communities rely on water to remain economically competitive. Water scarcity and a lack of clean, potable water, can even impact national security, as water-related issues can result in regional instability and affect national interests abroad.
Although it is paramount we act now to secure a stable water supply for the world’s current and future population, this isn’t necessarily a doomsday scenario. The Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), teaches that today’s water challenges -- and other natural resource challenges, for that matter -- are not intractable. Through trans-boundary management of resources, sustainability professionals and policymakers alike can forge a path toward sustainable development.
Partnerships between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors can be formed to create innovative solutions to environmental challenges, while also contributing to economic growth. For instance, during the summer module of the XMNR program, my team applied collective impact management in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed to promote a powerful, collaborative approach to solving the watershed’s water quality issues.
By collaborating with the Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE), we studied two successful collective impact models in the watershed (Envision the James and the Elizabeth River Project’s Learning Barge), providing an educational tool on VEE’s website for other organizations interested in learning about this multi-sector approach. Another team brought together key stakeholders in Loudoun County, Virginia, to promote a collaborative approach to protecting the quality and quantity of the region’s water supply through sustainable development in the Potomac Watershed.
Now, whether traveling in the U.S. or elsewhere, I am no longer struck by a sense of helplessness when I find myself in a place that appears devoid of water. I no longer feel as if someone has pulled the plug on the drain that holds the world’s supply of fresh, potable water. Despite the challenges we face regarding the gamut of water-related issues, the XMNR program helped me realize that, although the world’s water issues may appear insurmountable, they are not. Where I once saw irreversible plight, I now see opportunity for collaborative, creative solutions. These solutions are limited only by the imagination, and they will no doubt provide a stable and secure water supply now and into the future.
Jeremy Orr is an alumnus of Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR), graduating in 2014. He is currently the Agricultural Outreach Coordinator for two nonprofits, and is an affiliate of the Environmental Management and Business Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is a veteran of the United States Navy.