Guest Column | March 25, 2014

Earth's Main Challenges Concerning Water And Climate Change

A Q&A with Prof. Pavel Kabat, director and CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria

Interviewed by Christian Loderer, AQUACONSULT GmbH

Prof. Pavel Kabat
IIASA is an interdisciplinary research institute with three core research themes — Energy and Climate Change, Food and Water, and Poverty and Equity. What position does IIASA occupy in the global science and research landscapes?

I believe the mission of this institute is unique. Historically speaking, IIASA was established in the Cold War as a scientific bridge between the former eastern and western blocs.  Its mission was simple — to bring together the best brains from different countries to focus on the big challenges of our time.  Today, we are one of, if not the leading institution working on fostering cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding the Earth system. So working at IIASA is immensely prestigious for scientists — and for me as well. No fewer than 11 Nobel Prize winners have conducted their research at IIASA since the Institute's foundation in 1972.

You and your colleagues have submitted a paper to the journal Nature entitled: “European Water Futures by 2050: It Is Not Only Changing Climate.”  What has your research determined?

The paper looks at possible scenarios, not only on the climate front, but also on population growth and other important factors like industry.  What you find, of course, depends on how broadly and deeply you look into the scenarios.  However, to give one example of a persistent issue: the Mediterranean region is considered a real problem hotspot for the future because of the fall in winter rainfall frequency over recent years. This has led to lower refill of the necessary water reservoir.

Is raising awareness of issues like water footprint, carbon footprint, and virtual water on the part of producers and end users one way in which science can help solve global problems relating to water and food?

Yes, you can use such instruments to reach a better understanding of water or carbon usage:  you can make input-output balances of the different processes. However, there is no system that I know of where the water footprint idea has been embodied in any law, agreement, or practical arrangement — that is, in an economic sense. But, although it isn't currently part of any pricing arrangements, it is a fundamental issue for future water governance.   

Do you think there is a lack of information about the water footprint? 

I think the water footprint question is currently secondary to that of water price. Because whatever people may say, the price being paid by industry or agriculture for water is still too low. For example: to produce 1 kg of meat, approximately 3,000 liters of water are needed compared with the 300 liters required to produce 1 kg of grain. But the production companies are getting irrigation water so cheap that the cost of water reflected in the final product is more or less negligible. This is the economic view. Environmentally, water is an environmental service which should also be taken into account; and it is not a plentiful resource.  

So, in general, while the water footprint perspective is so useful for academic purposes, there is no example of implementing the water footprint into price.

IIASA is building stronger relationships in the Middle East, Southeast and Central Asia, South America, and Africa. What key role will those countries have in the near future in efforts against climate change?

IIASA's broad membership base is ideal for building partnerships to address the knowledge and institutional gaps that are impeding efforts against climate change.

We’re looking at far too many problems worldwide to mention them all here. However, IIASA research shows Asia is the water problem hotspot of the coming decades. And we're not just talking water shortages. Climate change is causing salinity problems, for example, in the Bay of Bengal area, where rising sea levels and coastal land subsidence are causing salinity intrusion up to 100 km inland.  Thousands of people have become "salinity refugees."

In another study we tried to calculate how long it would take to improve water infrastructure in sub-Saharan countries, to the level of South Africa. Under pretty much optimal conditions, we found it would take 50 years. 

In the 1970s we had this idea of exporting our knowledge, R&D, and technology to the developing world. We are now shifting that paradigm into building fully engaged partnerships: North­-South, South-South, to circumvent the traditional barriers to scientific progress.  

What’s your personal statement concerning the world environmental situation?

As an earth system scientist I look at the state of the Earth as a whole. There is no doubt that some of Earth's systems have approached tipping points from which there may be no way back. Environmental awareness has increased exponentially over the last 50 years, but ultimately it will be the job of scientists, in closest possible consultation with policymakers, to safeguard the planet's future.   In this connection, I firmly believe in the power of the work we do at IIASA — high-level international interdisciplinary systems analysis — to ensure that the world environmental situation becomes, first and foremost, a sustainable one.

Image credit: "Earth hanging on a water drop, literally," © 2013 Yogendra174, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/