By Meg Kramer

March 25, 2019

On Tuesday, March 12th at Perry World House, a full house of interested faculty and students listened to Scott Moore, The Water Center at Penn’s (WCP) Senior Fellow and Director of Penn’s Global China Program and Howard Neukrug, WCP’s Executive Director and former Commissioner of Philadelphia Water discuss the global water crisis. A wide-ranging and lively discussion covered different facets of the global water crisis and key challenges to solving the crisis, including the extraordinarily difficult challenge of assigning a value to water that is both fair and affordable.

Moore began the discussion by pointing out that the world’s water crisis is actually several different intersecting crises including equity, equality and security. Climate change is causing a wide range of repercussions related to groundwater which impacts how and where the world’s water is available and therefore used.

Satellite images from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) show what is happening to groundwater on a global scale. Groundwater has been described as the earth’s last major available source of freshwater. GRACE shows severe groundwater depletion on every continent. This is an extremely serious issue as groundwater supports a large portion of global agricultural production as well as data centers, power plants and a multitude of other industries.

Water availability and distribution are also impacted.  “Water is not always available where and when you want it” Moore pointed out, and although water availability is typically uneven across time and place due to seasonal fluctuations, the problem of insufficient water supply is getting worse for a larger portion of the global population. The majority of the world’s population experiences some water scarcity for at least some part of the year.

Water quality issues are also worsening although they affect different regions in different ways. Agricultural run off causes nutrient pollution in rural areas while urban areas confront exotic pollutants including chemicals that disrupt hormone balance in aquatic life. 800 million people across the world currently lack access to clean water due to these as well as other water quality issues. And water quality issues occur in both developed and underdeveloped countries.

While Moore’s new book, “Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins” finds that we likely won’t see as many conflicts over water as some people predict, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take water issues seriously, particularly the need to identify a shared value of water that is both equitable and affordable.

Moore noted, “Its really hard to get people to use something sustainably, efficiently and effectively if they don’t have some concrete way to value it. The best way to do that is to put some type of price on a resource or a commodity. I hasten to add that water is not like energy or minerals or other resources where you can just leave it at that and let the market do the work. Obviously everyone needs access to at least a minimum quantity of water.”  This is where the significant issues of equity, equality and security come into focus. Ethical issues necessitate that both people and the environment maintain access to sufficient water supply.

When it comes to water pricing what is the answer to the affordability question?  According to Neukrug, “It’s a very difficult paradox – the ultimate paradox. On the one hand, as a water utility leader, you need to ensure that the water is safe to drink but on the other hand, you have to pay to fix crumbling infrastructure.”  Water rates need to increase to ensure access and quality but no mayor or city leader wants to raise water rates.  Moore noted, “Virtually everywhere in the world, water prices have to rise. People may not like it but I think it’s probably a fair statement. But…. you have to get back to the equity and equality considerations and find a balance.”