Five Big Water Questions on My Mind This Year
We must start the year off with the right questions — not predictions — if we’re serious about creating water abundance in the U.S. and abroad
If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that predictions aren’t helpful. Instead, I’m starting 2021 off by sharing with you the big water-related questions I think we need to focus on this year to jump-start water solutions and opportunities to create water abundance in the U.S. and abroad.
1. How will the Biden administration’s 2021 China policy impact the opportunity for data sharing across all the countries of the Mekong, whose economies depend on the river?
Optimizing the Mekong for all the countries that depend on it for food and energy will require China to share its data about the river’s condition with downstream stakeholders in a timely fashion. In order to create and fund the mechanisms that support data sharing, we need diplomacy that focuses on cooperation and hand-shaking, not arm wrestling. Over the past two decades, the U.S. State Department has focused on soft power to counterbalance China’s expansion on the Mekong and encourage handshakes. My hope is that trend continues and is funded adequately.
2. Is 2021 the year corporations walk the talk of science-based collaborative strategies on water?
Could 10 big corporations (not necessarily in the same sector, and not necessarily current collaborators) pick a river basin in 2021 that they don’t necessarily have operations in — and then formulate a coordinated investment plan for that basin to create water abundance there? I’m talking about using the best available science and data to pick the best projects, bundle the capital and then roll up your collective sleeves to make the watershed work for all its stakeholders.
Creating water abundance for a larger future customer base could prove the best strategy for business sustainability: think Texas, Florida or California. Internationally, the Indus and the Ganges are good starting points for this kind of thinking.
3. Will Texas be the first state in 2021 to integrate data, water planning, and flood planning into a comprehensive state protection plan?
From longer droughts to more frequent hurricanes, the impacts of climate change across the country will only make solving states’ water issues more complicated — and Texas has the opportunity to become a model for the rest of the U.S. on how these challenges might be solved. Texas leads the nation and is decades ahead of other states when it comes to integrating data with state water law and regulation — but the state has yet to use data to its maximum potential. Right now, the Texas state water plan and the Texas state flood protection plan are managed by siloed groups within the same state agency. Both groups, however, rely on the same data to formulate their plans. Can Texas weave everything together into an integrated five-year plan that allows for a unified strategy and approach to flood protection and water storage in the state — and the opportunity to create resilience by gaming the extremes?
4. Will the pace of hydropower planning in developing countries like Brazil and China continue — or will the economic impacts of COVID-19 force these countries to shelve them?
Prior to the pandemic, basins such as the Amazon, the Mekong and the Congo all were slated to be choked with dams. My eyeball estimate says that more than half of those planned dams for each basin are now on the shelf in the wake of the pandemic. As we recover (health and economically), will we have an opportunity to use science to prioritize where infrastructure is built and to triage projects that don’t make sense?
5. Will 2021 be the year that water starts getting the kind of attention carbon gets? Will water be rolled into climate policy on an equal footing with carbon?
Water is life, just as much as carbon. But we now tend to think about water sustainability as a consequence of carbon decisions — which is true to a certain extent. However, we are making independent decisions about how we use water that exacerbate those carbon decision impacts. Will we coordinate policy in 2021 on water management and climate mitigation, or will we continue to treat water like an afterthought?