Darden’s Global Water Initiative Looks To Combat Water Crises Around the World

From Nigeria to Syria, from Somalia to Iran, the world has seen a rise in water crises triggering civil unrest, mass migration, and in extreme cases, war. While water may not be the primary factor leading to these movements, it has quickly become an issue that has sparked controversy over its severe consequences.

UVa’s Global Water Initiative, which launched its website this past week, looks to face the challenge of managing the world’s fresh water in the 21st century. Water is an essential resource everywhere, but that does not mean that it is properly available in the places that need it. WUVA News sat down with Peter Debaere, a professor at Darden who leads the Global Water Initiative. He explained that the initiative actually began a number of years ago with a small amount of funding and a desire to make a change.

“Five years ago, we started putting together the ‘World Water Events’ with relatively small grants from the Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation, the Vice Provost for Research, the Center for Business and Society. This was meant as outreach, bringing in prominent people such as Sandra Postel (National Geographic) or Peter Brabeck (Chairman of Nestle) and always doing something hands-on (a river cleanup or a field trip),” Debaere noted. “It was, however, the more sizeable seed money from the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the Darden Business School that allowed us to hire two postdoc’s and also provided some operational funds.”

Today, water scarcity is not only affecting regions like the Middle East and South Asia, but it is having drastic repercussions in places like Cape Town. This illustrates that even in communities thought to be “more modernized” by Western standards, lack of water resources can still occur – and can cause immense damage. In this day and age, people like Debaere believe that it is not enough to simply combat these issues with ideas; real work must be done to effectively solve these problems.

“It is easy to say that an interdisciplinary approach is needed. That is not a new insight. To actually actively work across disciplines requires a lot more, and it is here that the Global Water Initiative wants to be active,” Debaere said. “As an economist in the [Darden] Business School, I work with Mike Pace and Paolo D’Odorico (both in Environmental Science) and Brian Richter (Architecture) on water markets that seek to redistribute scarce water resources among its various uses in an efficient fashion, while not short-changing the environment.”

Debaere is excited about where the Global Water Initiative is headed. Although the initiative is still young, over twenty scholars from UVa are currently affiliated with the program. The aim is to achieve a community organically, not through a top-down approach. This method allows continual engagement in research from various disciplines without much hindrance. Debaere pointed to plenty of examples of the existing research being done in several different disciplines.

“There is also Christian McMillen (History) who has been working on the history of water and disease, Deborah Lawrence has worked a lot on climate change and is increasingly incorporating water into her analysis,” he explained. “Teresa Culver (Engineering), Jay Shimshack (Policy), Taheya Tarannum (Economics), and I are critically looking at U.S. water quality data to ask what we can actually infer from those, and what explains the very poor quality of those data. This is a project with potentially important policy implications.”

With so many separate paths taken to arrive at the similar goal of alleviating water crises around the globe, the future certainly seems bright for this University initiative. For students looking to get involved, they can easily follow the institute’s work via its blog or its website.


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