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Credit: Simon Berger on Unsplash.

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. …

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Credit: Rachel Towne. Used through a Creative Commons license.

We must address our daunting equity issues for water & sanitation at home — and take advantage of the massive opportunities to create water abundance here and abroad.

The incoming Biden administration will be facing a plethora of challenges next January. But two challenges that cannot drop off its to-do list are 1) addressing equity issues for water and sanitation in the United States, which impact millions of people, and 2) cultivating some of the massive opportunities we have to create water abundance both here and abroad.

Below: My six priorities for the Biden administration in tackling the equity and abundance challenges.

Equity: Priorities

1) The Pandemic & Urban Water Access

What’s the problem?
Many cities face water equity gaps between their richest and poorest areas — gaps that are being exacerbated by the pandemic. With businesses closing and associated job losses, more and more people in 2021 will be getting their water shut off. …

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Photo by Adam Maloney on Unsplash

It’s not about infrastructure. It’s about our ability to manage cost of access.

The number of people in the United States without water access is the equivalent of a large metro area. Imagine if a U.S. city that size lost water access for its entire population. It would be a national scandal, worthy of immediate attention.

So the U.S. water access problem is a national scandal, worthy of our immediate attention.

When we think about U.S. water access issues, we usually think rural — about the rural poor on reservations, in the colonias, in the rural South, in Alaska, in Hawaii. We need federally focused dollars and a research center to address this problem. …

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Catherine Coleman Flowers. Credit: Columbia GSAPP — Legacies of Emergency Management; CC BY 3.0,

2020 MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Catherine Coleman Flowers on how millions in the U.S. lack access to water and wastewater treatment — and what we can do about it

Catherine Coleman Flowers is the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in Montgomery, Alabama and a senior fellow at the Equal Justice Initiative. Catherine is a pioneer in working to address the lack of wastewater in rural communities in the United States — work that has just been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which just announced as a recipient of a 2020 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. …

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Photo by Ferran Feixas on Unsplash

Why Investment in Social Infrastructure is Crucial to the Success of New Tech

Just under 2 million people living in the United States today do not have access to running water in their homes. Instead they collect and trade safe drinking water in buckets and milk jugs. And they’re mostly people of color.

Simply put: Water is a major equity issue here in the US as well as around the world. And it will continue to be if the solutions the federal government and researchers continue to prioritize tech and science solutions without also building the supporting social infrastructure those solutions need to succeed.

Example: Helicoptering shiny, new, one-size-fits-all water treatment kiosks into a place, dropping them off, immediately leaving, and saying, “There you go! …

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Photo by Jonathan Delange on Unsplash

A Conversation with RCAP’s Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes

Technology solutions alone don’t solve water access problems for the 2 million people in the United States who have to get their water at the nearest Walmart or by trading goods and services for milk jugs full of it. We need also to understand which investments in social infrastructure — from new business models to informal governance structures to enforce public health standards — will accelerate uptake of new technology.

That’s why the National Science Foundation (NSF) has just awarded ASU/Future H2O a five-year grant to examine the role investments in social infrastructure play in the success of new water treatment systems in colonias — unincorporated settlements along the US-Mexico border whose residents make up about one-third of the people in the United States without access to reliable water. On the grant, we’re partnering with the NGO Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), which is already deeply embedded with the communities of the colonias from Texas to California. …

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Photo by Zachery Weston on Unsplash

Let’s Pass S.4228 to Build a Much Better Regional Foundation for Climate & Water Management

Last month, U.S. Senator Martha McSally (AZ) introduced S.4228 — the Water-Energy Technology Demonstration and Deployment Act — to the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Senate Committee. If passed and signed into law, the bill will establish a regional water center to advance basic and applied research that promotes the resilience of freshwater supplies in the Colorado Basin.

I think S.4228 should pass, even though some NGOs oppose it for reasons I’ll get into in a second. Simply put: Support for this research would mean a huge win for citizens of the U.S. …

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Photo by Chris Pagan on Unsplash

The ones I keep thinking about & building upon toward a vision of water abundance & opportunity

It’s late summer here in the Northern Hemisphere — traditionally a time for slowing down and escapist reading. (And heaven knows this is one summer we’d all like to escape.)

But with temperatures soaring above 110 here in Arizona, I’ve been thinking about water — specifically, five books whose perspectives on water I continue to think about and build on long after I finished their last pages.

In case you’ve got room in your beach bag for a great water book, here’s my recommended shortlist — and my brief thoughts on they might inflect the conversation about water today:

Marc Reisner: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing…

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If we want sustainable development, we need to build strong social infrastructure. Especially when we’re talking about straightening the Amazon into a superhighway for oil transport.

Iquitos is a jungle city of a half million people — mostly native and Mestizo — located on the Amazon River deep in the Peruvian Amazon. There are no roads that go there, so the only way in is by boat from the Andes or a flight from Lima. …

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Photo by Hunter Harritt on Unsplash

Turning data into decision-making isn’t just one thing — it’s five. Miss some of those steps and you won’t get the insights you need.

In an era of extremes due to climate change, nearly everyone is interested in making better decisions about water using data. And there are a lot of datasets sloshing around, and vendors who will do quick and dirty one-off visualizations of those data for your particular needs.

These trends should lead to better decision-making, right? In most cases, no.

That’s because the current approach to serving up water data for decision making ignores the entire water data value chain — the chain of expertise and science that, running from data aggregation to data visualization, transforms data into useful information.

The way water data are currently being visualized usually ignores the integration of science and analysis. …


John Sabo

Director, Arizona State’s Future H2O

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