Deadly Droughts: Adapting to a Drier World
Several regions across the world are experiencing their worst droughts in decades, if not centuries. Crops are failing, exacerbating the global food crisis, and rivers that serve as vital shipping arteries are becoming dangerously low, threatening the global trade system. Panelists discuss the scope of the challenge and what companies and governments can do to adapt.
GOODMAN: Welcome today’s—to today’s Council on Foreign Relations session on “Deadly Droughts: Adapting to a Drier World.” I’m Sherri Goodman. I’m a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a longtime member of the Council, and also secretary general of the International Military Council on Climate and Security.
We have a great set of panelists today and we’re going to get right to it. Let me just set the scene for a moment by observing that, you know, we’re having this session here in the midst of the Africa Leaders Summit that’s occurring this week in Washington, and that many of the African nations that are here this week, especially in the case of the Horn of Africa, have experienced successive failed rain seasons, causing massive drought leaving almost forty million people insecure, and that that food crisis is multidimensional. But it’s not, as we say, unmanageable. And climate change and conflict are exacerbating this challenge, and we’re going to explore that today. Also, Africa bears the brunt of climate change. Sixteen of the most climate-vulnerable countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. And when we try to climate-proof, we need to look at water infrastructure and water insecurity on the frontlines.
I’d also note that earlier this year the White House released its Action Plan on Water Security, declaring water security to be an essential component of U.S. national security. But we’ll get further into that, as well, and we know that stressors—water stressors worldwide from poor management to accelerating climate change, and that almost half the world’s population will be under severe water stress by 2030 according to the U.N. And we’ve got an important U.N. Water Conference coming up next year.
With that, I want to go right to our speakers. We really have a fantastic group of panelists today, and—two of whom I have the pleasure of knowing and the third I’m excited that he’s joined us today.
Lauren Alexander Augustine is at the National Academies of Science. You should—can read her bio. She’s got a very distinguished career working at all aspects of water, natural disasters, and resilience across many domains and a really fantastic background.
Matthias Berninger. I love that he started out in the Green Party from Germany, went to Mars where he also led the global chocolate program, and now is at Bayer. And he’s going to talk to us about his—both his private-sector experience and his current role leading up to the U.N. Water Conference next year.
And Aaron Salzberg served for many years as the lead State Department coordinator for water. He led development and implementation of the—of U.S. foreign policy on drinking water and water security. And now he is at the University of North Carolina, where he leads the Water Institute there.
So the way we’re going to do this, I’m going to start with a question to each of our panelists, and then we’re going to go into an interactive discussion for the first half-hour, and then we will open it to questions from all of our members. And thank you for joining us today.
This session, by the way, is on the record. And that’s thanks to Richard Haass, our president, who said this subject is too important; we need to have this session on the record. So thank you.
OK. Lauren, your work—your lifetime work, much of it now at the National Academies but more broadly, has been at the nexus of water, natural disasters, and resilience. Why are you concerned about water security, both in the U.S.—and I note you run the Gulf of Mexico research program—and abroad?
AUGUSTINE: Thank you so much, Sherri and CFR, for asking me to be here today.
So the reason that water security has me the most concerned is because we all depend on water. We depend on it for food, agriculture, economy, fish, every—you know, municipal purposes. And I think that it’s the most vexing of the—of the natural disasters because it’s kind of a slow on set. You don’t exactly know you’re in a drought until you’re well into a drought, so the slow on set sets up a number of challenges.
And they rarely happen alone, right? So you have a water quantity issue, too much or too little, and it starts to trigger other things. Water scarcity gets into famine, it gets into an economic decline, and transportation issues. Too much water gets into life, you know, problems as well.
So I think that it’s one of the most vexing because the solutions that we might want to kind of pull off the shelf are not always available during a water-scarcity event. We cannot make it rain. We cannot create water. Now, we can move water. As the engineer in me, we can move water, but water, it’s kind of a sum zero. If you move it from one place, you’ve taken it from one place to another. And when you transfer water, you can get unintended consequences.
And I think that the final part of this answer is that it is—it is vexing and it also—it’s connected to everything. And so you start to make changes in where we get water, when we get it, how much, who pays, and you start to change this event down the system. And I work in the Gulf of Mexico, and everyone kind of thinks, oh, the Gulf of Mexico has too much water; it’s a flooding place. Except for when it’s not, and then it creates other problems. So it’s kind of a place where all of these issues really come together in terms of energy production, food, and transportation.
So, to me, Sherri, this issue, it’s kind of this hidden one. Kind of creeps up on you and then, boom, you got a problem. So I see it as a massive issue in the United States and of course, as you’re talking about, globally.
GOODMAN: Thank you very much, Lauren.
Matthias, you were a member of parliament from the Green Party prior to joining first Mars—I love than you ran the global chocolate program—and now you’re at Bayer, you said. So you’ve gone from chocolate to aspirin. I guess you need both.
But so why—you know, first, why did you pursue this career path? And why is water and water security so central to you?
BERNINGER: Well, I believe that detours sometimes understand—or increase the understanding of the surroundings. And for me to—having been both in parliament, in the government, but also in business helps me in these days of quite complex times to help companies, but also in a broader sense the political spectrum to move from admiring the problem to action.
And the challenge with water is that water is this topic, as Lauren said, as long as you don’t think about it, it kind of—almost kind of gets ignored. There is a certain underlying water blankness. But a bit of a warning for the audience today: Once you start a focus on water, it just doesn’t, like, allow you to pivot from it, yeah? So if you’re not interested in doing that, then you should actually leave this meeting right now.
Water is the way through which we experience climate change. None of us wakes up and says, oh, there was a lot of carbon in the air, yeah? We experience through water. We talk about droughts today, but let’s not forget the other three—highly polluted water, flooding, and, of course, also extreme heat, which is very high temperature with very high humidity. Those are the four ways we experience the climate crisis.
And we talk about drought today. And for a company like Bayer, that is leading in the area of crop science, we have a $2.5 billion budget in R&D to innovative in this space. We can innovate for a lot of things, but without water there is no food. And agriculture today consumes almost 20 percent of all fresh water. And to scare you even more, almost half of all fresh water in Asia at one point passes through only one crop, and that is rice. So here you see how this topic is really connected to security, to the climate debate, and, dare I say, also to the biodiversity debate.
And it’s kind of telling that we are talking about biodiversity in Montreal without even mentioning water. That’s one of those challenges I spoke with a lot of delegates in recent days related to biodiversity. Without water, we will not be able to achieve any of the biodiversity targets, any of the targets to reduce hunger or, I also think, climate action will be very difficult. Because without water plants cannot absorb carbon dioxide.
GOODMAN: So thank you, Matthias. Let me just pull on that thread with you for a moment. So what do you want our members to know about the innovations or sort of solution set that, for example, Bayer is undertaking today? What one story captures the innovation to improve water security in Bayer, that is so dedicated to agricultural science and innovation?
BERNINGER: What we are working on at the moment is irrigated rice. For me, it’s the number-one challenge we have to address. If you think about security in Asia, it’s absolutely vital. We just this week and last week saw these disturbing pictures of the border dispute in India—you know, between India and China, because, you know, India and Pakistan live at a very challenging border. So water is this very big topic. And rice, for me, is the number-one crop we need to focus on.
The good news is if we change the way we produce rice, if we innovate also on the rice crop, we can reduce the demand—the water demand of rice in significant ways. And that’s the kind of stuff we need to look at, stopping admiring the problem and focusing on big, bold solutions in this space.
GOODMAN: Great. Thank you. That’s a perfect—let me bring Aaron into this discussion.
Aaron, you know, we’ve known each other for a long time. You have been the U.S. government’s leader on water security. You developed the first global water strategy. You’ve represented the U.S. in many multilateral processes. You know, tell us a little bit about your journey in this space. And also I just—we’re going to very candid her today, you know, where you think we are in terms of, we’ve got a water strategy out there, and something called an action plan, but the question is, what kind of—as we sometimes say in certain government circles, strategy without resources is hallucination. So why don’t you—(laughs)—respond to where we think we’re going on water strategy in the U.S.
SALZBERG: Well, thanks, Sherri. You kind of set me up. And thanks to Lauren and Matthias for making that original point. I mean, because they’re both right, right? You know, I didn’t find water. I wasn’t trained as a hydrologist. I didn’t come in thinking I was going to spend my entire career working on water issues. Water found me. And in large part because it is a wickedly hard problem. And it’s a wickedly hard problem that matters—perhaps more than almost anything else that we’re going to have to work on. And, you know, we have this misnomer when we often think about water.
You know, we lump it in with the SDGs. And we get this impression that water is a problem that you can solve. And one of the things we have to come to terms with is that water is a problem that we’re going to be managing every single day forever and ever. Providing basic hydrogeological services to all the people that we need to—clean drinking water, sanitation services, water for food, water for energy—these are things that we’re going to struggle with every single day, day after day, for ever and ever.
And that means we have to change our mindset from, oh, let’s come up with solutions that’ll solve a problem to how do we build the institutions, how do we build the capacity, how do we make sure we have the right governance structures in place that enable us communities of people, and partnerships, technologies provider sand service providers and others, to work collectively together to solve this problem in a routine way, so that it becomes a way—just a way of working.
You know, people always add this discussion about integrated water resources management, where people think it’s a noun. It’s actually a verb, right? So it’s a way of working. It’s just something you’ve got to embrace, and we’ve got to move forward. You know, we’ve seen a lot of progress recently by the United States on the strategic front. We saw the White House Action Plan, as you mentioned, and we saw the new revised version of the U.S. Global Water Strategy.
And kudos to both, right. It’s nice to see that we’re maintaining some political pressure on the United States to actually do some of this work. And also, the recognition of water security. And in both those documents, water security played a central role. And I think that acknowledgement that it’s important for us to ensure that countries are water secure is a really nice shift in direction and something that we should all be lauded for.
I think my concern is it’s a lot of nice words. And it’s really backed up by very little action. I think, you know, both the White House Action Plan and the Global Water Strategy were kind of launched in a vacuum, which is a little bit of a shame, right/ Because you really want to use the opportunities of launching initiatives like this to solidify partnerships and to bring together the different entities from the private sector, from other governments, that will work together with you to implement these types of things. And I think that was a very big missed opportunity on both sides, that we didn’t really use the launch of these documents to advance the implementation.
The other is, you know, how do we implement these? What are the resources? What’s the—you know, for any major initiative, you know, you need the mandate, you need the money, and you need the institutional home. You need someone who’s going to be responsible and accountable for delivering on that mandate. And it’s really not clear to me who’s responsible and accountable for delivering on this mandate. And whether or not they’re properly resourced both in terms of access to expertise, knowledge and funding to be able to carry out that mandate. So I have some concerns around that.
GOODMAN: OK, let’s talk for a minute here about water diplomacy. I’ll bring also Matthias and Lauren into this. You know, as an example, you’ve got a project like under EcoPeace Middle East, to do a water sharing for solar agreement between Israel and Jordan, under the rubric of the Abraham Accord. You know, Israel uniquely, unlike many other countries, does treat water as an element of its national power, but now that we’ve seen its—you know, its rivers dry up, the Jordan River, and now there’s the prospect of a deal between—you know, Jordan has abundant solar, Israel has, you know, grew the desert—you know, greened the desert, and manages its water very adeptly. So is that the type of example that we should see more of to improve water sharing and water security in a cross-border setting?
SALZBERG: To some degree. You know, those things get a lot of attention. And transboundary solutions can be an important part of ensuring water security for many countries. And that’s something we need to think about. But, look, at the end of the day, individual countries need to focus on long-term plans and strategies that make them water secure. And that’s focusing on, you know, how do you reduce consumption? As Matthias mentioned, how do you improve the productivity of water, for food production in particular?
Rice he mentioned, absolutely. Cotton is another one. There are many foodstuffs where we can improve the productivity of water in those uses, and we should be doing that, and that will help move countries to be more water secure. Augmenting supplies through water reuse or through desalination, those are all important. Improving water storage, because climate’s going to increase that variability problem. And so how do we store water so that we’ve got it for later use, in groundwater, in large-scale dams and infrastructure?
And there’s where transboundary solutions can really begin to help. You know, I once—you know, I remember I was in—several years ago I was having this discussion with some folks from the NSC. And I said, look, if you gave me control of the WTO, I can solve the world’s water problems. And while I was being a little flippant, there is some truth to the idea that transborder trade and enabling access to—and improving the access of—the flow of water through other goods could be very important in achieving water security for many individual countries.
And so improving the accessibility that countries might have to beef products or to other high water intensive products, if they’re importing it from places where it should be grown rather than trying to grow it inside their own country, where they actually don’t have the resources to do that or conditions aren’t favorable to do that, that’s an important part of this process. And that’s where I think some of these transboundary agreements where we can think about exchanging energy for water or food products and virtual water, and shipping that across borders, can play a really important role in the water security of individual countries.
GOODMAN: Thank you. Lauren, I want to bring you in on that question, and also through the very substantial Gulf Research Program that you’ve been leading, what research has come out of that that bears importantly on these questions?
AUGUSTINE: Well, just following right on Aaron, these transboundary issues—I mean, you think of the United States, big country, and it has different levels of water security, right? There’s parts that are wet and parts that are dry. But at the borders, you know, we have, you know, the Colorado, which is dry right now. And we have an agreement with Mexico on delivering water to Mexico from the Colorado. That is not being met. And, you know, when we think about the transboundary issues, we often think of—like you set up the question—countries in conflict.
We are very lucky that we are not in conflict with Canada in the north nor Mexico in the South. Because, you know, we share the Great Lakes with Mexico—or—with Canada. And there are talks when the Mississippi gets low, can we pull a little bit from the Great Lakes? Just a little bit? And it’s like, nah, we don’t want to do that. We want to keep our friends to the north under the terms around our water. We think about Alaska—and Aaron set it up really nicely—about food products. Well, this year in Alaska the salmon runs were very low, at the time when they were supposed to peak. And so Canada—we share that salmon with Canada, right?
And so these transboundary issues will look different in the richer countries than they do in the poorer countries. When we talk about the Gulf of Mexico and we talk about the low water, we’re talking about low water on the Mississippi right now. We’re talking about such low water that we’re dredging more, to the tune of billions of dollars, to make sure that channel stays open. If we go back in time, we go back to the flood of 1927, and all the decisions that came after that to make sure that those ports in southern Louisiana, the Port of New Orleans in particular, has enough flow to convey that $60 billion every single year down the Mississippi and out through the Gulf of Mexico.
But the water—I am a trained hydrologist, right? But the water really wants to go to the Atchafalaya, but we’ve moved it. We have put up structures at the old river to make sure that water gets to the big port in New Orleans. And we’re all grateful for it, right? We get the grain, we get the steel out. When we talk about low water flow in this region, we’re talking—in the Gulf of Mexico—it comes out kind in water quality, sediment levels and salinity levels, right? And so when you think about the Gulf of Mexico—now, we share this body with Cuba and Mexico. And we all have really big fisheries as an economy in this region. Gulf of Mexico feeds, like, 40 percent of the U.S. seafood. Sixty percent of commercial fishing comes out of Alaska. So these six states give most of the United States its seafood. You change the salinity, now you change the oyster production. You change other shellfish. And you change the production of the big one, the red snapper, right?
So when we look at that and we’re talking about—the United States is a massive producer of national food, global food. And we’re starting to see the changes in the chemistry of the water, the turbidity of the water, sediment loads, salinity. And it’s changing the food economy. So these transboundary issues thankfully, here in North America, are not related to conflict. (Laughs.) We are very, very grateful for that. But they’re not unsolved. These are not problems that are unsolved. And so—and they present differently because these are three relatively rich countries.
GOODMAN: Great. That was terrific. So let me ask—I’m going to ask each of you to weigh in on this question. Maybe, Matthias, we’ll start with you now. What—particularly since you’re heading up—have got a lead role in the U.N. Global Water Conference coming up next year—what global hot spots concern you most? And what would you like to see us doing about it?
BERNINGER: So it’s the first, obviously, U.N. high-level conference on water—it’s the first U.N. conference on the topic of water since 1997. Without disclosing too much, I just start a primary school when folks met in Argentina to kind of discuss it. So most people have never experienced, actually, U.N. conference on water. So I see that as a huge opportunity for us to rally around a topic, and to create the effect that we really include the dimension of water in all of our decisions in ways that we have obviously not done before.
The good and the bad of that conference, and it happens without a framework. So we all know UNFCCC, the climate conferences, as I said earlier, the Montreal Conference on Biodiversity, Chinese-led by hosted by Canada at this moment in time, they have frameworks. They have rules of the game. We have a water conference where the result will be the report about the conference. So that could get terribly wrong, or it could be very exciting.
We have an opportunity next year to create a framework almost, since we have the holidays, the Christmas tree, and then all the things we do on board are the ornaments we can position nicely on that. That is—that is what’s in the cards at the moment. So that’s the first part of your question. Business community, multinational institutions, donor institutions on the financial side, and governments, as well as NGOs, can rally around something in ways that we haven’t done in a long time.
What concerns me the most? I have to say it is the Horn of Africa, it is East Africa. We are now experiencing the third La Nina weather event or phenomenon in a row. That happened before, but it’s kind of more intense. We already see—and it’s been ironic—flooding in Australia, drought in Argentina, pointing towards quite a dramatic La Nina. And the consequence for East Africa will be another year of drought. Now, I hope that that highly probable prediction does not happen, but we already have a famine in many countries there. Somalia is often mentioned.
And if you listen to David Beasley, he is starting to lose it. I mean, two years ago his organization received the Nobel Peace Prize as the World Food Program. Two years later, he has, like, record famine to deal with. And it is all related to water.
GOODMAN: Right. So we can’t—and if we’re going to go there, then we have to bring in the consequences of the war in Ukraine for affecting global food supplies. That is intimately connected with water. So given all of that, let me ask you then, Aaron, what do you think is needed to better prioritize water in U.S. and international policy? I mean, you could say that over the last decade, we’ve seen much more attention, obviously, to climate change, as a global security threat.
We’re probably at the high-water mark right now—water—(laughs)—pun intended—of addressing that as an international system. Biodiversity, even though it hasn’t gotten quite as much attention as climate—and I take your point, Matthias, it doesn’t include water—also growing—sort of ecological security growing in attention. You might say water is still sort of a lagging, although it is very much part of the climate discussion, but not the full dimension of it. And in some ways, it’s not as politicized, at least in the U.S., as climate. So where do want to go on the priorities there? What would you advise the administration now, Aaron?
SALZBERG: Well, you know, in some respects, just to reinforce the point that you made, I think water’s still an orphan issue. And it is, in many, many different fora. And the COP is a good example of that, right? I mean, there really is—there are full sections—if you look at the outcome document for COP27—there are full sections dedicated to oceans, to forests, to agriculture. Water is essential to all of them. There’s no section on water. And then that’s traditional, right? The COP just doesn’t bring water in, in what I think is a full way, into the climate agenda.
I mean, there are a couple of nuggets that optimists might cling to from the last COP related to water. You know, one was the focus on early warning and climate information services. I mean, this could be read as trying to strengthen hydrological monitoring, monitoring and forecasting networks which, in my view, are absolutely essential to ensuring water security going forward. And so that’s a plus. But the water wasn’t mentioned, hydrology wasn’t mentioned, within that context.
The other, of course, is this conversation around losses and damages. And we can all admit most of that is going to be attributable to water-related types of phenomena. But, again, you know, you also have to read the language really carefully here, because, you know, countries didn’t agree to establish a mechanism to compensate countries for loss and damages. And that’s, of course, what everybody’s saying and what we’re hearing a lot about. that’s not what we agreed to do.
What we agreed to do is to put in place funding arrangements to respond and address the losses and damages associated with climate change. And that’s fundamentally different, but that does open up the door for greater investments in water-related adaptation and in, you know, investing in early information, early warning systems, and ways of ensuring water security to prevent the losses and damages that might directly result from hydrological variability.
In terms of the leadership, you know, at the U.S. level, you know, again, I think we’re giving a lot of nods to water, but we’re not taking the hard steps that we need to, to really prioritize water. Water is still not addressed in the National Security Strategy in a robust way. And that’s really the document that U.S. government agencies use to budget their resources and to set their strategic priorities. And that’s unfortunate. So there really isn’t a clear call by the administration to prioritize water highly in the documents.
You know, I think that, you know, water security in particularly is lagging behind and doesn’t get the same budgetary support within the United States architecture as, let’s say, drinking water and sanitation do. And I don’t want to knock that, right? We do need to invest in providing basic services as part of our humanitarian efforts to ensure that people can move along the development continuum. But if we’re going to be serious about water security, we need to communicate that. Congress needs to communicate that.
And it needs to be an integral part of our policy strategies and our budgeting to work with governments to increase their capacity to build the infrastructure, to build the institutions that allow us to manage water every single day. Not just provide humanitarian responses, but to put in place the tools that we need to do this daily work every single day. And this is where I think the U.N.—you know, I’m grateful for the meeting, and we do need this global attention. But at the end of the day, you know, we’re going to see a collection of these initiatives that different partners will put together.
But, look, we need governments to lead on this. We need every single government to develop their own national security strategy around water, how they’re going to ensure their own water security. And they need to work through a process where they can mobilize the partners to be able to implement that long-term plan and strategy. And this isn’t something you do in a year or in five years. This is ten, twenty, thirty years. And this is theoretically what the HLPF was intended to do, right? The follow-up mechanisms to the SDGs.
And we should really be using some of these other institutional mechanisms within the U.N. system to hold countries accountable to developing those long-term plans and strategies, and to hold other countries accountable, and partners accountable, to supporting them underneath national government leadership. And I fear that this U.N. conference is going to be an opportunity for people to check the box and say, oh, great. We had a great meeting, we did everything we’re supposed to do. But then, shy away from doing the hard work of developing those long-term plans and strategies and investment in strategy that needs to be done to get us to where we need to go.
Sorry, that was too much.
GOODMAN: OK, well, that was—that was great, Aaron. And that was very important commentary on kind of where we are, and what we could be doing more of both particularly in terms of the early warning systems and predictive capabilities that are on the front lines of saving people’s lives in an increasingly drought-inflicted world.
So at this time I’d like to invite our participants, our CFR members, to join the conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. And, Alexis, may we have the first question, please?
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Marisol Maddox.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. My name is Marisol Maddox. I’m with the Wilson Center. Sherri, Aaron, really great to see you.
So, I mean, these issues are more important than ever and, clearly, we have limited time to make decisions that can really have an impact. And, Aaron, I really appreciate your point about the importance of not just checking a box with, you know, the array of issues that we’re dealing with right now. So at the same time, there’s also a growing recognition of the threat that greenwashing poses, because it distorts our ability to find good solutions. And to that point, Congress just released a report on some of those threats around greenwashing.
So I do feel like there’s kind of this level of cognitive dissonance with having Bayer on this panel, because they own Monsanto, which has been flooding our waterways and soils with Roundup, the main ingredient being glyphosate, right, which has been found to cause cancer, among other very deleterious health and environmental impacts. And Bayer is still pushing the use of Dicamba, which is a catastrophically destructive poison that contaminates water supplies, kills the crops of neighboring fields through pesticide drift, as well as wreaks havoc on biodiversity.
So if we continue to allow these false solutions to be put forward, we’re really ensuring to not get this right. And, honestly, like, we have too much to lose at this point for that to be an option. So the business community is crucial to getting this right but, like I said, we have to navigate the threat of greenwashing. So I would be genuinely interested to hear the thoughts of other panelists on how we can mitigate that risk, to make sure that we’re choosing solutions that really address these issues and actually help to build resilience for the decades to come.
GOODMAN: OK, Matthias, you’ve got to take that question.
BERNINGER: In any given week I at least once get accused of greenwashing and once of being a woke company representative. So I’m quite used to that. And, Marisol, thank you for addressing the topics. And I really mean it.
We have to reduce the overall amount of pesticides being used. One of the interesting facts is that the number-one place where biodiversity loss happens is actually not the oceans, it’s not land, it’s actually sweet water environments. So I’m fully with you on that. And we’ve got to reduce our overall pesticide use quite significantly. We innovate also in alternatives to some of the chemicals you talked about. Currently all the herbicides we use in agriculture, you named two of them, I can add 2,4-D, I can add Glufosinate, all of the herbicides we use have been developed before Pearl Harbor. So they are, like, really, really old.
And the question is, can we get to a new generation of herbicides? Can we work more on biologicals? Can we find ways we are not producing fertilizers, but our value chain depends on it? To also reduce the amount of fertilizer being used in agriculture to address one of Lauren’s nightmares. And that is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of runoff of fertilizer. So I’m with you on that. We are working on that. We are investing heavily behind it. And our leadership gets rewarded for moving in that direction.
I disagree that we should not participate in that conversation. The reason being that with a $2.5 billion R&D budget, we spend three times more on innovation than all other CGIR publicly-funded research institutions in agriculture. We need to work on that stuff together. And that’s why I’m engaged on the topic. And that’s also why I’ve been asked to work on it. So, no, I don’t smell like greenwashing detergent. But, yes, the problems you address are real problems and we need to take them.
GOODMAN: Thank you. OK. Let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Laurie Garrett. Ms. Garrett, please accept the unmute prompt.
Q: Yes, hi. Thank you for this important session.
Real quick question: If you look across the landscape of available drinking water, what percentage is in the form of sold plastic-encased water? And how does that compare as a trend over time and as a per drop or milliliter, or however you want to put it, price point to the consumer compared to, say, gasoline prices? And how do you deal with the criticism that major soda companies, like Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, and Nestle, are buying up safe drinking water supplies all over the world, and then reselling them at tremendous profit? Is there a way to reconcile all these issues and still go forward with equitable global access to water? Thank you.
GOODMAN: Laurie, as always, a great and incisive question. Who would like to answer that?
SALZBERG: Well, this is a tough one, so we’re all kind of shying away a little bit. I don’t know the percent of water that’s being delivered in plastic that’s ending up in people’s homes for—to meet their basic needs. I’m not sure what that number is. And clearly in places like the United States, where we buy a lot of that stuff, it’s going to be different than in others. But what I will comment is on the privatization issue, because I think this is an important one and one that we need to be careful about how we talk about.
You know, the private sector can play a critically important role in providing services, right? We have both public and private service providers that provide drinking water in many places around the world. And finding the right mix is important. And making sure that communities and stakeholders are involved in determining that relationship with private service providers is critically important.
That said, the idea of private ownership of water rights is something that I do think we have to be particularly sensitive to. And in any place where those relationships are being set up, I think there’s got to be a great deal of oversight to make sure that the right checks and balances are in place, that the right ownership rights are attributed, and that we’re being very conscious of the long-term risks that our water supplies will be under, and whether or not we’re compromising our ability to respond to some of those risks by those private agreements.
And so I think as we develop PPPs, public-private partnerships, we’re going to have to be very careful about the contractual arrangements that we put in place so that we don’t tie the hands of governments or communities to respond to risks that are going to emerge from climate change, a long-term drought, or something like that, to reprioritize those allocations of waters and to do some of the transfers that you were talking about, Sherri, either transboundary or that Lauren was talking about doing internally. You know, we need to be able to have that flexibility. And so I do think we have to look very carefully at these PPP arrangements going forward.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Adam Philipp of Cedar Brook Partners, who asks: This is a fascinating issue for me, living in Cleveland, a Great Lakes city. As water’s importance becomes more and more apparent, how do you see the Great Lakes region changing? I’ve seen books and numerous studies asserting that some of the best places to live amidst climate change are Great Lake states. Curious if you have particular thoughts on water and climate change-oriented trends that may shape the future of the Great Lakes region.
GOODMAN: Lauren, over to you.
AUGUSTINE: I would say that the Great Lakes will become even more important—recognized as—they will—they will increase in their recognition of being important sources of fresh water, not just in North America, but for the world, right? This is the biggest collection and source of fresh water we have. These Great Lakes move a lot of water from way up in Canada, all the way out through the St. Lawrence seaway. And as commerce, transportation, hypoxia, sediment, all these things, particularly in North America, start to take—start to elevate and become more acute on—for agriculture, all these things, I think there’ll be a lot of recognition on the importance of the Great Lakes.
I also think that when we—engineers can do amazing things, right? And so we can move water. We do it all the time. And so there will be more pressure, I can foresee, on the Great Lakes to provide more water to other places. In terms of living there, I’m from Rochester, New York. So I’m a Great Lakes person too. I don’t know what the living experience will feel like or look like as that pressure kind of increases. We do see, under conditions of climate change, for my brethren in Buffalo a couple of weeks ago, getting six, seven feet of lake-effect snow. We will start to see how these lakes might become weather generators, particularly under these conditions of altered climate patterns.
So I don’t know the answer to your question, but I feel your—I feel the interest in it. But I think, in terms of water scarcity and water supply, the calls for borrowing from the Great Lakes could possibly increase. And that is, in fact, not a decision the United States can make alone. We do have a pact with Canada for that. So that goes right back to Aaron’s transboundary issues there too. I don’t know. I mean, these are great questions and, wow, these are hard to answer. But those are some thoughts on what you’re asking.
GOODMAN: It’s a great question. I will say that I had the privilege a few years ago of traveling to the Middle East with a delegation of water managers from the Great Lakes to share their experience, Canadian and U.S., in transboundary water management with water-parched countries in the Middle East, just for this purpose. And the level of cooperation—of course, we have an abundant resource in the Great Lakes. We’re so blessed. The level of cooperation detail is remarkable. And the problems are increasing. But the cooperation level is also quite extensive here.
AUGUSTINE: Can I add one thing to that, Sherri? You know, the one thing I would also say is that at least in the United States, and most places I’ve worked around the world, water management is done at a hyperlocal level, right? I mean, we get our water locally. Most of us can’t afford to move it too far. But water transcends these boundaries. I mean, this is where the Great Lakes become kind of front and center, right, because they’re a source of water under conditions of scarcity.
So this connection between the local management, regional, national, global, transboundary supply, that’s one of the pieces that Aaron was alluding to that create this complication of how do we manage this important resource? We manage it hyper local, then we can see differences in inequities. We manage it at a higher level, where maybe we can be a little bit more equitable, but it takes much, much more connection and coordination.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question as a written question: Could you speak to the state of water stress in indigenous communities in the U.S.?
SALZBERG: Yeah, no question it’s not great, for a whole bunch of reasons, right? You know, it’s not just indigenous communities, but many Black communities in the United States as well. You know, we had historical practices that really limited access to some of these services for these communities, both for the Native American population but also for Black communities here in the United States. And, you know, it’s amazing when you see, for example, the progression of municipal services, how in some cases they actually wrapped around these areas. And you have doughnut holes where people are still on wells and on septic—on on-site septic systems because they were never brought into the municipal service network.
And this is a real challenge. And, you know, Kudos to the American Recovery Act, because there’s a lot of resources there to hopefully address some of these challenges, and hopefully—you know, I’m certainly seeing states beginning to make lots of investments in correcting some of those longstanding historical practices and extend services into those communities. But that also comes with challenges, right? Paying for services is a complicated process. And this isn’t going to be easy.
You know, on some of our tribal areas and tribal lands, they still also lack what we would consider to be, you know, typical service providers. And they’re relying on on-site systems that are not providing good water quality and/or are not providing good septic systems, which are contaminating water quality as well. And so this is a perennial problem that needs greater attention and focus. And I think whenever we talk about the United States meeting its SDG commitment, it’s really focused on how do we ensure access in those areas, and how do we scale up and make sure we’ve got sustainable supplies of safe water?
You know, it goes a little bit as well to Marisol’s point. You know, the fact that we have, what, over one hundred thousand chemicals in manufacturing in the United States. And I would venture to guess all of them are inside of our water in some way, shape, or form. And so just keeping up with the challenges of ensuring water quality is hugely complicated. And in many areas, especially out in the West where we’ve got a lot of our superfund sites and things like that, we’ve got some real water challenges that have not been addressed that affect those communities. And I think tribal communities in particular are affected by that.
AUGUSTINE: If I could just add, I mean, Aaron is hitting this right on. And I work in the Gulf of Mexico region—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. And I would say that there’s kind of two sides to this. I do want to bring in the Black communities and Latino communities. And just the under-resourced, disenfranchised, in addition to the native peoples, culmination in Louisiana, Jackson, Mississippi, Flint, Michigan. We are seeing—we are seeing examples—we are seeing it play out that decisions on water infrastructure investments, they take years, decades, generations to play out.
But that’s what we’re seeing in these places, right? We’re looking—you know, in my region we have cancer alley, kind of between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. We have the Houston ship channel communities, kind of from Galveston to Houston. These are not water scarcity issues, right, but these are water infrastructure issues. There are contaminants. There are decisions that have been made, maybe a long time ago, that are being meted out now. You’re seeing it in health outcomes, high cancer rates. We’re seeing it in, you know, sanitation issues.
And, you know, these are—these are, in fact, policy decisions about where public investments do and do not go. So at least in the United States, which is what you asked about, I can’t speak for indigenous populations across the whole country, but what I see in the Gulf of Mexico region I think is pretty reflective that these underserved communities, one, are underserved for a reason. Two, they’re usually not accidental. And three, it can take decades to see the results of these decisions and poor investment.
So we have a long way to go. And I think we’re kind of hitting the end of the design life of some of this infrastructure and all these issues are really coming up right now, right? Like, now, we’re, wow, it’s that bad. And so we’re kind of lucky in the sense that we have the IIJA, the Investment Infrastructure and Job Act, that’s really at the precipice of being able to at least rectify through new investments of infrastructure. Because I think a lot of the answers to your questions is around infrastructure.
SALZBERG: Yeah, and just to put a fine point on this, because—sorry, I’m passionate about this, and I can tell Lauren is too—this is a key part of addressing systemic inequalities here in the United States.
AUGUSTINE: That’s right.
SALZBERG: And, you know, when you look at the impact of lead exposure on lifetime economic earnings, you have to understand that, you know, putting communities in a position where they’re drinking water that’s not safe for them actually impacts them, and their kids, and it goes on and on. And so this is a real serious problem that I just don’t think we’ve come to grips with yet.
GOODMAN: Thank you, both. Thank you. OK, Alexis, our next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question as a written question: Can you speak to the potential of groundwater in supplementing agricultural water supplies, and what barriers exist to fully utilizing it?
GOODMAN: Oh, go ahead, Lauren, and then I want to bring Matthias in on that.
AUGUSTINE: I would just say this goes back to a statement I think we all made at the beginning, that you can move water, but not without unintended consequences. So you can take the water out of aquifers. And it happens all over the United States. It happens all over the world. And you do see impacts of collapsing aquifers, increased overland sheet flow, lack of absorption. These issues are longer term for the short-term gain of being able to irrigate. Usually, you know, it’s for agriculture, right? There’s usually—there’s a mass balance here. You can’t just take the water and think you’ve solved the problem. But I will let others talk, because I can talk too much on this one. (Laughs.)
BERNINGER: I think looking at irrigated agriculture is critical in the water debate. And then the factor of energy plays a very important role. So one thing that worries me in the kind of task for transitioning rice production in India is that electricity there is highly subsidized. So in other words, that depletes groundwater in a really, really fast pace, and also means that we will have a water crisis in some of the especially northern Indian states much faster than many predicted.
The same is true for the Midwest. You fly over and you see suddenly fields are all round. They are no longer looking like you would think an agricultural sort of land would look like. On the one hand, it looks like a piece of art, and on the other hand it’s clearly indicating that they have a challenge. So I believe that we need to move away from extracting groundwater in order to ensure our food supply, which also means—and that goes back to what Aaron said earlier—we need to have really good strategies as to where we produce food, how we produce food, what kind of food we are consuming.
I think as long as we are consuming the amount of mammals we consume today as humanity, we’ll have a much bigger water problem than when it was a different diet. And these are all the questions that need addressing. My biggest worry is when in the midst of the water crisis also energy is subsidized in ways that just accelerates the depletion of major aquifers.
SALZBERG: Yeah, I think just to add to that, at the end of the day it’s about reconciling demand with renewable supplies. And so ensuring that whatever extractions you’re making from groundwater or any sources are being replenished, and are being replenished at the same rate that you’re extracting. It’s balancing those two that’s critical. And groundwater is going to be an important part of climate resiliency going forward.
Recharging of groundwater—you know, groundwater storage is a great way of—it’s much easier and much more resilient to store water underground if you can, than to sell it in big, large reservoirs that might be subject to evaporative losses. And so it’s an important component. But we really do over-extract it at a rate that’s just not sustainable in many places in the world. And in many critical places in the world—you know, the breadbasket in India—that we’re going to be in serious trouble if we continue to allow those trends to continue. Sorry to be redundant.
GOODMAN: OK. Alexis, I think we—I understand we have two questions left. Let’s take both those questions and then we’ll ask all of our panelists to answer them and provide their final comments in our last four minutes.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Joseph Bower.
Q: A very simple question. First, thank you. It’s been fascinating.
I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more talk about pricing water. That really one of the—it is obvious that you would then have to provide the poor some way of paying for it. But the simplest way of getting control of this is to price it. We’re taking groundwater and other water and giving it as if it were cheap, rather than expensive. And I mean, Israel had a terrible water problem until they priced it. And then they had to do other things as a matter of policy. Thank you.
GOODMAN: OK. Let’s take our next question as well, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question as a written question.
NASA just announced a mission to survey global water sources from space. What are your expectations for this mission and what it means for your understanding of water flows?
GOODMAN: OK. Great questions. OK. Lauren, can you start with the answers to both those questions and your final comments?
AUGUSTINE: I cannot comment on the pricing of water. I could guess and I could extemporize, but I won’t. On the—on the space question, you know, this is—this is one of these wonderful examples of human innovation and engineering prowess. But if we think it’s hard to move water through pipes on Earth, I think it will be extremely expensive and difficult to do it from space. Not impossible, and maybe that is the final frontier. I think it’s an exciting idea and we’ll have to see where and how we can be creative in basically creating new water. And so maybe an extraterrestrial source is in our future. I don’t know.
BERNINGER: Let me start with the pricing. There’s a reason that’s similar to the reason for carbon pricing why in the political world folks have difficulties to kind of really impose high prices on both carbon and water. And that is because they get hammered in the elections for doing that. The business community has a bit more freedom here. And we have introduced an internal price for carbon, started with our own operations. We are now moving to our suppliers. And we will do the same on water. And I think that’s a way in the business community to really bring water into the boardroom conversations in ways it is currently not.
On the second topic, the GRACE mission NASA is undertaking, which helps us to really understand water flows as well as the current state of aquifers, is the one that excites me much more. Because it helps to put a much stronger focus on depletion. And if you add to it the IPCC work on soil moisture, which is both scary but also very helpful, you really have two very good data points in managing water. And it’s a good foundation for what Aaron talked about, much better water information systems.
Last point, I’m actually more optimistic that the topic will get more attention because in Sharm El-Sheikh people decided to combine mitigation and adaptation. Whereas mitigation is all about carbon or carbon equivalents, adaptation is all about water. So as this topic now reaches much more prominence on the climate agenda, I do believe you will also see more energy to focus on water in different ways.
SALZBERG: Yeah, so just to follow up, yeah, I’m not sure I share Matthias’ optimism. But on costing, look, this is a really big challenge with water, as to whether it’s an economic good or a public good. And we have this tension that exists. And it’s a real, real problem. I mean, one thing, though, we have to recover the full costs of providing water services. And so whether that’s through the charging of tariffs, whether it’s through taxes, whether it’s through transfers of resources from one sector to another, we’ve got to recover the full costs. And service providers need to be able to operate sustainably—financially sustainably. And that’s critically important.
What I’m more concerned about is that we don’t internalize the costs of other production processes on water. And so, for example, we’ve talked about farming. We’ve talked about chemicals. We’ve talked about industry, and stuff like that. We have to remove those things from water to make water palatable to drink again. And so how do we tax then and make sure that the goods that we’re buying—you know, if we’re buying a mug, or if we’re buying a computer, that the costs and the impact that that’s had on our water supplies is integrated into the cost of that product, so that it can get back to those then people who are responsible for cleaning our water.
Thank you to whoever asked the question about SWOT. Sorry, if people don’t know about SWOT, you really do need to know about SWOT, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography Mission, which is supposed to be launched today. It’s been postponed for twenty-two hours due to some condensation issues. Hopefully it gets launched tomorrow. This is going to transform our view of the world’s water resources. We are going to know, down to an Olympic-sized swimming pool, what water exists, what surface water exists everywhere on the planet. And everybody will be able to see it. And if we do the right calibrations, we’ll be able to measure discharge rates for every river system—something that we’ve never, ever been able to do.
Imagine what that’s going to mean for our transboundary disputes, right? That means Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos will know what the reservoir levels are for every single dam in China and how China is managing those dams. Pakistan will be able to do the same thing for India. Egypt will be able to do the same thing for Ethiopia. All of a sudden, a veil is going to get lifted across the world overnight. And I think that’s going to be transformational.
It's also a huge, missed opportunity by the United States. The United States, France, the U.K., Canada, they’re all responsible for this mission. That’s four of the G7 countries. You know, they should—SWOT should be a major initiative within the G7. The SWOT and its data products should be a major initiative that’s launched up at the U.N. in 2023. And we should be mobilizing partners from across the business sector—IBM, Google, and others—who can provide the graphical user interfaces for the consumers on the ground to utilize and access that data, all the way through to the universities, the University of Massachusetts, UNC, others who are providing the software to be able to translate the NASA data into meaningful water metrics.
It's a huge opportunity that’s being lost right now by the administration not jumping on it. And I guess if that’s the last message I have to leave with, leadership—there’s really a lack of leadership here. And if the United States is going to capitalize on what’s going on in the U.N. and elsewhere, we need to step up.
GOODMAN: OK. Thank you all very much, to our panelists and our participants, for joining us today with such an exciting discussion. We went a few minutes over, but thank you all for staying with us.
AUGUSTINE: Thank you.
BERNINGER: Thank you.