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Water resources

The risk of scarcity

Researchers from six countries are working on new technologies to manage water

MIGUEL BOYAYANGlobal warming is not the only threat to life on our planet. What experts qualify as a “water crisis”  is now under way and is beginning to jeopardize the life and health conditions of a vast part of the population. Estimates are that at least one third of the world’s population is already facing severe to moderate water shortage, especially in the northern and western regions of Africa. More specifically, 1.3 billion people lack access to drinking water and 2 billion, to sewage treatment. In addition, rivers, lakes and other water sources are polluted, causing millions of deaths, especially of children, that could have been avoided.

For millions of years, civilization survived by using up the water available on the planet’s surface. During the course of the last century, thanks to technological advances, humanity  also started using underground water, stored in water tables, aquifers and other sources. The problem is that in the arid regions, semiarid regions and in big cities, water is becoming scarce. The situation is made worse because of the long history of the inadequate use of water resources, the  pollution of springs and irresponsible use. The situation is expected to deteriorate further in the future, since countries are growing, urban sprawl is increasing, and demand for drinking water is on the rise. “In 2025, the world will have 30 huge cities with over 8 million inhabitants, and 500 cities with 1 million inhabitants,”  predicts José Galizia Tundisi, president of the São Carlos Ecology Institute and one of the country’s foremost limnologists.

To deal with this challenge, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) sent a proposal to the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) to gather 96 science academies from all over the world to focus on  projects  to increase  knowledge – namely, the creation of the Water Program, an international research and innovation project on water resources. Since 2005, the proposal has already been embraced by 62 countries. Six countries – Brazil, Jordan, South Africa, Poland, China and Russia – have opened up research and development institutes focusing on new water use technology. Within the scope of the IAP, this gathering of institutes was named the International Center for Innovation, Research and Training on Water Resources.

The IAP’s Water Program is based on the principle that surface and underground water must be treated as a single entity. This principle requires that geologists, limnologists, engineers and ecologists, among others, work together to develop regional approaches and optimize investments, in order to ensure that water can continue to play its critical role in the natural functioning of the planet. Tundisi also emphasizes that it is necessary to follow a very direct scientific approach to manage water resources , in order to educate people to use resources properly, provide less expensive water treatment techniques and encourage the conservation of natural sources. “Good quality water is the basis for development and for improving the quality of life, but the consequence of development is a rising pressure on multiple uses of water,”  Tundisi emphasizes.

Each of the water institutes will focus on a specific line of investigation. In Jordan, for example, the mission will be to develop water recycling technologies; in South Africa, the research will focus on the use of water for subsistence farming; in Brazil, the focus will be on the use of water resources and biodiversity in metropolitan regions.

The Brazilian center, named Instituto de Biodiversidade e Recursos Hídricos (the Biodiversity and Water Resources Institute), was inaugurated two months ago. It is based in the city of Guarulhos, in the São Paulo Metropolitan Area. “The institute is currently housed in an office downtown, but it will soon be transferred to a 40-acre plot of land donated by the Metropolitan University of São Paulo, in Guarulhos,”  says Tundisi, who also heads the institute. The center will be equipped with laboratories and libraries; it will offer housing for researchers from abroad.

Argentina and Mexico are interested in joining the program, and will probably conduct projects similar to the Brazilian one, which conducts research into the use of water in metropolitan areas. To this end, they will have to submit a research proposal on the topic. A research network is also being worked on in the Caribbean Region, comprised of islands with very specific problems, such as infiltration, land degradation and others, says Tundisi.

Funding – Each of the participating countries will have to seek funds to finance the program and the institute’s installation. The Jordan research center, for example, has been able to obtain funding from the Royal Jordanian Society, a government research institute. “In Brazil, we are negotiating funding with the National Bank for Social and Economic Development (BNDES) and with aid agencies,”  says Tundisi. Concurrently, through the IAP, Brazil is trying to get funding from the World Bank to “move” the international network of researchers.  “We need funding for the exchange of researchers from various countries,”  he explains.

Last year, IAP organized four regional meetings: in Brazil, Poland, China and South Africa. Issues related to the program were discussed at these meetings. It has already been defined that the research will emphasize the development of  low-cost water treatment technologies; new water conservation technologies; multiple-use water management integration; water table management; and the monitoring and assessment of surface and underground water resources, among others.

The program also plans to “join efforts”  as explained by Tundisi, with the Biodiversity Convention and the International Panel on Climate Changes/ IPCC, the debate forum on solutions for global warming. “We intend to bring together 15 programs. The projects coordinated by the Instituto Internacional de São Carlos will be included.”