Letter from the Editor

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

Water - one of the most valuable and precious resources we have. Without water, life as we know it couldn't exist on "the Blue Planet" Earth. Human civilization developed and progressed near water with Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and metropolises such as New York City, Paris, London, and Shanghai rising near waterways and sea accesses that facilitated commerce and trade. Nor should we forget the fact that, without drinking water, a human dies within three to five days. Water is life.

In this issue of bridges, we have placed a special focus on water policies and technologies. Were you aware that more than a billion people still lack access to safe drinking water? Given the fact that we currently have the scientific knowledge and the applicable technologies to provide safe drinking water, this is simply an outrage. One of those promising technologies is desalination, turning seawater and saline lake and aquifer waters into potable water. In his article , Mark Shannon, director of the US National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center for Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems in Urbana, Illinois, explains for bridges the technology behind desalination, as well as its pros and cons.

Another serious global problem is human-caused water pollution that impacts the health of freshwater ecosystems and the human communities that rely on their water supply. It was in the 1800s, in the course of the industrial revolution, that the so-called "sanitary revolution" improved peoples' lives by putting in place sewage disposal and water supply systems. Laborers who flocked with their families to the urban areas for work suffered under appalling working and living conditions. The uncontrolled population explosion in the cities led to the spread of disease, and highly infectious diseases such as diphtheria and cholera exacted a huge toll in morbidity and mortality. The champions of the sanitary revolution were John Snow, who showed that cholera was spread by water, and Edwin Chadwick, who came up with the idea of sewage disposal and piping water into homes. Despite the great progress in sanitation in the Western World over the last 200 years, more than 2.5 billion people still lack adequate sanitation. Most of these are in developing countries, where as many as 2 million people, mainly small children, still die annually from water related diseases.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} For those of us who are in the lucky position of having access to safe (drinking) water, the importance of sustainable management and use seems to be a no-brainer, given its indispensability. Rational water policy should be put in place to ensure that we make the best use of the scarce and valuable water we have. In an interview with bridges, Steve Parker, head of the US National Academies' Water Science and Technology Board (WSTB) speaks of the "tremendous challenge in water management" that faces the United States in coming years, and in another article Ben Grumbles, the assistant administrator for Water at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), provides insight into the EPA's newly released National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change. The Strategy gives an overview of the potential effects of climate change on water resources and America's clean water and safe drinking water programs, including an outline of 46 specific actions EPA suggests for adapting the existing water programs to the realities of climate change.

At the international level, limited access to water can be the source of serious violent conflicts. Take, as an example, Kenya and Ethiopia, where water shortages and droughts have led to several deadly clashes between ethnic groups arguing over water access rights. In the case of the Darfur crisis, the United Nations Environmental Report from June 2007 states: "There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification, and conflict in Darfur," noting that rainfall in northern Darfur has decreased by one-third over the last 80 years, and that "environmental degradation and the symptoms of a warming planet are at the root of the Darfur crisis."
In her bridges article , Christina Leb, a researcher in the field of international water law, draws on the example of the Himalayan Rivers System to show how international water treaties could serve as a useful tool to prevent future conflicts including, in the worst cases, entire nations at war over water.
The Tibetan Plateau is a casebook example to look at: Half of the world's population lives in the watersheds of rivers whose sources lie on the Tibetan Plateau. In addition, the region suffers from the political issues swirling around Tibet and China. The strife became increasingly tense in 2008, escalating in violent clashes between Chinese police and Tibetan demonstrators this past March. Some observers argue that one of the main long-term interests of China is the region's water supply: Both the Yangtze and the Yellow River have their sources in the Tibetan Plateau and together serve roughly 520 million people in China.

With sound scientific knowledge as the foundation upon which sustainable water use, distribution, and protection policies should be built, the introductions of two young Austrian scientists working in water-related areas are an integral part of this bridges issue.
One of the portraits introduces Kornel Kerenyi , a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in fluid mechanics and hydraulic steel structures, and now head of the US Federal Highway Administration's Hydraulic Laboratory in McLean, Virginia.
The other portrait introduces hydrologist Harald Kling , who is currently spending 16 months of research, with a Erwin-Schrödinger-Fellowship, at the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona. His research projects focus on modeling the transformation of precipitation into runoff, a technique widely used for flood predictions or to determine the impact of land use on water resources.

As an old proverb goes, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." The same may sometimes be true of policy makers and scientific knowledge. Let's hope, for our common good, that in the case of water management the proverb proves to be wrong.

Caroline Adenberger
Editor-in-Chief {/access}