Water sustainability flows through human-nature interactions

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Water’s fate in China mirrors problems across the world: fouled, pushed far from its natural origins, squandered and exploited.

In the August 6, 2012, edition of Sciencemagazine, MSU AgBioResearch scientist Jianguo “Jack” Liu and doctoral student Wu Yang look at lessons learned in China and management strategies that hold solutions for China – and across the world.

The researchers outline China’s water crisis and recent leapfrog investment in water conservancy, and suggest addressing complex human-nature interactions for long-term water supply and quality.

China’s crisis is daunting, though not unique. Two-thirds of China’s cities have water shortages, more than 40 percent of its rivers are severely polluted, 80 percent of its lakes suffer from eutrophication – an overabundance of nutrients – and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water.

Water can unleash fury. Recent floods in Beijing overwhelmed drainage systems, resulting in scores of deaths. Water shortages also may have contributed to recent massive power outages in India, as rural farmers stressed a fragile grid by pumping water for irrigation during drought.

China has dedicated enormous resources – worth some $635 billion – which represents a quadrupling of investment in the next decade, mainly for engineering measures.

Liu said that there needs to be a big picture view of water beyond engineering measures, however, because water is part of coupled human and natural systems.

“There is an inescapable complexity with water,” said Liu, who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and is the director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “When you generate energy, you need water. When you produce food, you need water. To provide more water, however, more energy and more land are needed, thus creating more challenges for energy and food production, which, in turn, use more water and pollute more water.”

Goals often contradict each other, he added.

“Everybody wants something, but most don’t take a systems approach, which is essential in order to see the whole picture,” Liu said.  “Solutions come from looking at issues from multiple points of view at the same time. That’s the way to avoid the unintended consequences that plague China’s water resource and to prevent a water crisis from becoming a water catastrophe.”

In addition to funding from MSU AgBioResearch, Liu’s work is funded by the National Science Foundation.  More details about the research can be found at http://csis.msu.edu/news/global-water-sustainability.

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