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The global water crisis

Pool of water

Less than 0.1 per­cent of the planet’s water is avail­able for safe use, and chal­lenges cen­tered on H2O form the nexus of some of society’s most pressing envi­ron­mental issues. As a result, the world’s water crisis is an urgent matter that must be addressed, according to envi­ron­mental policy expert Brian Hel­muth, a pro­fessor of marine and envi­ron­mental sci­ence and public policy at Northeastern.

“The world is becoming flatter but there are still huge dis­par­i­ties in access to clean water,” he said, noting that the average Amer­ican uses 176 gal­lons of water per day com­pared to five for the average African. “A lot of experts have said that access to safe water will be the next deter­mi­nant of global conflict.”

The world­wide water problem is the focus of this semester’s  Myra Kraft Open Class­room series, which will be co-​​led by Hel­muth as well as Joan Fitzgerald, pro­fessor and interim dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, which spon­sors the sem­inar series; extreme weather expert Auroop Gan­guly, asso­ciate pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering; and Lee Breck­en­ridge, a pro­fessor of law and expert in envi­ron­ment and nat­ural resources law.

Titled “Water: Chal­lenges of Extremes,” the series will run from Jan. 8 to April 13 and be held on Wednes­days from 6 to 8 p.m. in West Vil­lage F. Video record­ings of every lec­ture in the series will be uploaded to Cognoscenti, WBUR’s ideas and opin­ions page.

Each semester, one graduate-​​level sem­inar is selected for the series and opened up to the entire campus and the public for free. Reg­is­tra­tion infor­ma­tion can be found here while under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents can take the course for credit.

This semester’s series aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sus­tain­ability. In par­tic­ular, North­eastern is mar­shaling its resources to address the crit­ical need for sus­tain­able urban coastal envi­ron­ments. For example, the uni­ver­sity recently merged the Marine Sci­ence Center with the Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ences to create a plat­form for its edu­ca­tional and research pro­grams in sustainability.

Throughout the spring semester, topics of dis­cus­sion will range from water scarcity, desalin­iza­tion, fish­eries, and aqua­cul­ture to energy, eco­nomics, national secu­rity, and human health.

At the first open class­room of the semester on Wednesday evening, Shafik Islam, the director of the Water Diplo­macy Ini­tia­tive at Tufts Uni­ver­sity, posed a rhetor­ical ques­tion to a score of stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers: “Will water,” he asked, “lead to war?”

The case for such an out­come, he said, is that clean water is a flex­ible, yet lim­ited, nat­ural resource—one that will con­tinue to fuel con­flict among com­peting stake­holders for the fore­see­able future.

“We need to find common ground when a resource is lim­ited and its uses are many,” Islam explained. “In 50 years, access to water will still be a problem unless we begin to think of it differently.”

In addi­tion to Islam, the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary group of guest speakers will include Eric Danner, an ecol­o­gist at the South­west Fish­eries Sci­ence Center; Katharine Hayhoe, at atmos­pheric sci­en­tist and asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence at Texas Tech Uni­ver­sity; and Jen­nifer Pour­nelle, a land­scape archae­ol­o­gist and research assis­tant pro­fessor at the Uni­ver­sity of South Carolina.

The semester’s final two guest speakers— hydrology expert James Famigli­etti and Peter Gleick, the co-​​founder of the Pacific Insti­tute, a non­profit research and policy center focused on fresh­water issues—have been fea­tured in a 2011 doc­u­men­tary on the world’s water crisis called Last Call at the Oasis, which is cur­rently being screened at Boston’s Museum of Science.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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