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Earth Institute stresses water conservation

Columbia’s Earth Institute called for more action in the water conservation movement at its seventh State of the Planet Conference.

Environmental leaders from around the world gathered in Roone Arledge Auditorium last Thursday to discuss water issues, with the ultimate goal of illustrating what they consider one of the most pressing natural dilemmas.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, said that scientists need to find solutions to the issue of humanity’s dependence on groundwater, as well as the disasters caused by the increasing prevalence of droughts and floods.

“This is one issue we haven’t adequately attended to yet,” Sachs said. “It’s a new world, and it’s a dangerous world. Humanity is the driver, but our hands are not on the steering wheels too steadily.”

Against a backdrop of maps that marked countries with red-tinted dry-zones, panelists attempted to address how to provide fresh water to the Earth’s seven billion people.

“There are many things that could be done that are not being done,” Mark Cane, professor of earth and climate sciences at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said. “I have no doubts that there are at least some technical solutions to these problems.”

However, Cane noted, these problems tend to get attention only when they become urgent. “In the end, what does it take to get the will to put these solutions into place? And one idea is that it unfortunately does not happen until it is more of a crisis,” he said.

The panelists suggested reducing the use of water for energy by developing more efficient technology, reducing costs of kiosks that deliver water to rural communities, and a smart-card technology system that places an extra cost on liters of water once a certain limit is passed as potential solutions.

Much of the forum discussion centered on the role of water as a resource in the market economy. Richard Sandor, chairman and CEO of the firm Environmental Financial Products, proposed that water conservation credits could give farmers an incentive to use water more efficiently.

Sachs pointed out, however, that balance is key in economizing water.

“You have to think about what would happen when the price is too high,” he said. “If you reflect seriously on the statement that ‘water is life,’ turning water into a marketed commodity is a pretty grave offense, and markets do not solve that problem, as they tend to ignore the lower-income bracket.”

Tebby Ralefala, a student from Botswana, attended the conference as part of the Resolution Project, a nonprofit that promotes social entrepreneurship by initiating social venture challenges.

Ralefala, who presented a project about water preservation earlier this week at Columbia’s Earth Summit, said that Thursday’s conference allowed her to think more critically about her work.

“I am going to do more research on what I hadn’t known about other parts of the world and how dry it is getting,” Ralefala said. “I want to see how I can take some of the ideas that the panelists proposed and relate them to Africa and Botswana. There may be a possibility to eradicate the problems that they may face when it comes to drought.”

Simon Lim, an associate at the Cleantech Group, which focuses on developing clean technology and other sustainability issues, believed that the conference offered viewers an opportunity to learn about the latest innovations and thinking in water conservation.

“Clearly there is a lot of innovation needed, whether with new models or new approaches in technology, business, community, or leadership,” he said. “Sustainable development is a great and growing field. We especially trust students to help lead the way to implement the solutions that are going to be needed in the years ahead.”

Meanwhile, Cane warned that inaction on water conservation could have serious consequences.

“You won’t miss your water until the world runs dry,” he said.

josephine.mcgowan@columbiaspectator.com | @josie_mcgowan

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