Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 29, 2020

Access to water is one of the greatest existential threats facing humanity

By RADLEY FAULKNOR | October 24, 2020

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According to Winston Yu, senior water resources specialist at the World Bank, by 2035 water consumption will increase by 85%. 

The Energy and Environmental Programs Speaker Series hosted its virtual webinar titled “Walking the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Talk?” on Oct. 15. The event explored the topics of water, food and energy, with environmental scientist Winston Yu as the guest speaker. 

Yu is a senior water resources specialist at the World Bank and an adjunct lecturer at the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). As a global environmental specialist who has studied different ecosystems around the world, he has modeled climate change and its impacts on water basins in California and China. Due to his international working experience, Yu can attest to the disparities that exist in developing nations.

Yu started off his presentation by outlining these disparities, speaking about the inadequate access to food, electricity and water that exists in other nations. According to his research, 1.4 billion people are without electricity, 2.4 billion people are without adequate sanitation, two billion people experience moderate to severe levels of food insecurity and 900 million people do not have access to clean water. Yu highlighted how these figures are important because of the widening gaps that will continue to develop as the population grows.

By 2050, the global population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion people. This will ultimately impact the rate at which we consume resources. According to Yu, by 2035, energy consumption will rise by 35%, thus increasing water consumption by 85% conversely.

“There really is no greater existential issue than that of water,” Yu said in an interview with The News-Letter. “If I take a very long civilization perspective on things, it is well known that societies have come and gone based on their ability to manage water. We need water for food, and we need to feed a lot of people.”

Professor Jennifer da Rosa, the moderator of the event and program coordinator for Hopkins Energy and Environmental Programs also added her input in an interview with The News-Letter, speaking on how global warming will affect domestic agriculture.

“If there’s more evaporation going on because of the increasing temperatures, you’re going to have to use more water to grow food. We are already seeing this in many areas of the U.S.,” she said.

Yu noted that the issues of water and energy affect more than just agriculture. They also affect the politics and foreign relations between nations.

He elaborated on this point by citing examples of the resource conflict in Central Asia. Since the dissipation of the Soviet Union, the nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been engaged with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in a battle for water and electricity. 

The upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have water but lack electricity, while the downstream countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have electricity but lack water. Due to unwillingness to compromise on sharing resources, there is a constant state of instability and tension in the region.

“Water and power are interlinked,” Yu said. “Who has the water, who gets the water? Often these are political decisions.” 

Yu acknowledges that the topic of sustainability is a complex issue which must be studied thoroughly in order to find the right solutions. However, despite this, he remains hopeful due to the many advances seen in developing countries. 

During his presentation, Yu described some of these advances. In India, the amount of irrigated land has nearly doubled in recent years, going from 49.6 million hectares in 1973 to 98 million hectares in 2013. Some of this advancement can be credited to the use of cost-effective water pumps around the nation, many of which Yu has helped set up.

Yu also described how irrigation in India has improved because of the innovative solutions that researchers have crafted to conserve water and energy. Researchers with the International Water Management Institute have developed solar-powered water pumps which irrigate farmers’ fields. These highly effective pumps have saved farmers hundreds of dollars and eased the strain of water costs.

While many are unsure about the future, Yu remains hopeful, looking to technology as one of the keys to solving sustainability. 

“Anything we can do to make solar panels cheaper, or anything we can do better with new technologies gives us some silver linings of ways to better manage water,” he said.

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