Professor Jay Famiglietti speaks on water scarcity

    SEED invited Professor Jay Famiglietti to speak Monday night about something Northwestern students use every day, probably without thinking too much about it: water.

    Famiglietti, who will be director for the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in July, knows a thing or two about the connection between water and climate change. He previously worked as a professor and a hydrologist, and currently serves as the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    Through his time at NASA, Famiglietti has had the opportunity to work with the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, which uses satellite images to determine the amount of groundwater on Earth. The pictures are colorful, but the information is bleak: around the world, important sources of water, like aquifers, are quickly drying up thanks to human use and climate change.

    “About a third of the world’s population relies on groundwater,” Famiglietti said. “In many cases, it’s not renewable – in some cases it’s like oil, especially when you are pumping from deeper aquifers that took millennia or more to fill up in the first place – and it’s being depleted in some places in just a century.”

    High volume human use of groundwater coupled with climate changes, which cause dry climates to become drier, is mostly to blame for the rapid depletion. Famiglietti said the long-held perception of water as a free resource has been detrimental to any water conservation efforts. He noted that there are few, if any, laws about groundwater use, and that Americans in general don’t recognize the value and importance of water in the same way that they do fossil fuels.

    However, events like the drought in California have called more national attention to issues of water security, or quality of having reliable access to clean water. Having lived in Arizona for a large part of his life, Weinberg freshman Daniel Kiefus said that residents in the Southwestern region of the United States are aware of water shortages.

    “Water security is an issue in a local way,” Kiefus said. “We’ve had a drought for as long as I’ve lived there, which is 16 years. It’s just a constant thing. … People are conscious about leaving hoses on and watering their lawns excessively.”

    The drought in California has been particularly attention-grabbing because of the large amount of agriculture in the state. According to Famiglietti, agriculture is the biggest user of water in the world.

    “It takes an enormous amount of water to grow food. It is important for us to understand the connection between food and water and remember how much water it takes to grow food,” Famiglietti said. “There are a lot of solutions for metropolitan uses of water, but very few for agricultural uses. … The answer is really to do it as efficiently as we can.”

    Famiglietti said there are some hopes for change within the industry that could reduce water usage. Techniques such as drip irrigation, which spreads small amounts of water evenly over an area, have potential, according to Famiglietti, but currently aren’t widely used.

    “Drip irrigation is great and there are a lot of individual farmers who are really committed just like me and you, and they want to do the most state-of-the-art thing, but they aren’t going to make as much money, that’s part of the problem,” Famiglietti said. ”The financial incentive to be the ‘good guy’ isn’t there because your next door neighbor is going to go ‘old school’ and make more money.”

    Of course, the old fashioned way (flooding fields) may give farmers more income in the short term, but it is also quickly using up a vast amount of the limited water resources in regions like California and the Middle East. Without a new supply of water, or a new location for agriculture, there could soon be a food shortage in addition to a water shortage.

    Weinberg freshman Monisha Mundluru said it can be easy to forget how much other resources depend on water consumption, including medicine.

    “A lot medicines come from plants, if we don’t have enough water … there’s going to be break somewhere – everything is connected,” Mundluru said. “If there’s not enough water, then the pharmaceutical industry can be affected.”

    Andrea Patete, the co-president of SEED, said one of the reasons the campus group asked Famiglietti to speak was to call attention to aspects of climate change that are not as explored.

    “We wanted really to focus this year on climate change and water,” Patete said. “In light of recent events and the political climate today, we wanted to emphasize it as something imminent, something that is happening in the world today and that it’s going to affect everyone and everything.”

    Famiglietti is not the only one who has conducted research into water insecurity issues. Northwestern has its own team of researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research, where faculty like Professor Sera Young, Ph.D., as well as students, are looking into topics surrounding water. Young’s research group focuses specifically on water insecurity issues, collaborating with researchers around the world to try to develop a scale to better measure the impact of water insecurity at the household level.

    In fact, students or members of the general public have an opportunity to hear even more about issues of water security at Tuesday’s Third Annual Symposium on Water in Israel and the Middle East.

    Famiglietti said he believes that researchers should conduct more research into water issues, but that as of today, he does not think there will be a “cure” for the water crisis.

    “I don’t like to use the term ‘solutions.’ I think it’s mitigation and adaptation,” Famiglietti said. “We’re not really going to solve the global water crisis; we have to adapt to it and make our water supplies as sustainable as possible.”


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