Watershed Conference Discusses Values of Water

Ethical and moral principles can steer local and global response to water sustainability.

Too much, too little, too dirty, undervalued. When water supplies are out of sync with human and environmental needs, life suffers. Adequate water for all means adapting decades-old management practices to fast-changing ecological conditions while expanding the circle of participants in decision making: from a narrow technical-managerial focus to an embrace of ethical, moral, and cultural perspectives from all ages and social classes. This broad perspective should be strengthened by scientific and satellite data that reveal water’s deep connection to food and energy systems, and animated by narratives that unite the sacred and the mundane.

Those were central messages at Watershed, an international conference held on March 22 in Rome. The conference, which coincided with World Water Day, was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Vatican’s intermediary for scientific and religious inquiry, and the Club of Rome, a global policy think-tank.

“I am happy that this meeting is taking place,” said Pope Francis, addressing conference attendees during his World Water Day message from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. “For it represents yet another stage in the joint commitment of various institutions to raising consciousness about the need to protect water as a treasure belonging to everyone, mindful too of its cultural and religious significance.”

Four hundred leaders of government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, religious institutions, and research organizations took part in the seven-hour event that was broadcast live on the internet. The following day 80 individuals participated in a planning workshop to develop a roadmap for water values.

Education was a principal theme. The Pontifical Council for Culture is keen to mobilize the Catholic Church’s schools, universities, and religious centers – a network of 1.2 billion people worldwide – to teach members about the importance of water.

“Even cardinals can understand what water is about,” said Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, head of the council’s science and faith department. Trafny, who developed a love of water as a boy in coastal Poland, noted that the Church wants to develop a “new culture of care” for the world’s water, a view that Pope Francis endorsed in his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si, a call to Earth stewardship.

“In this education we find our moral mandate and our sacred legacy,” said Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for relations with states at the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Repositioning water in an ecological and spiritual context means being able to look and listen with all human capacities – the social informed by the technical.

One way of better observation is through scientific investigation. Rabi Mohtar, a professor at Texas A&M University, presented research that traced links between water, food, and energy. Reducing food waste by 20 percent in Lebanon would cut farm water consumption by 3 percent, he said. Reducing food waste by 20 percent in Morocco would save 2 percent of national electricity generation.

Seeing in the data these synergies between sectors “allows us to reduce dependencies” in the real world, Mohtar explained. Less food waste, more water.

Technological tools open another path. Kathryn Sullivan, an astronaut who was the first American woman to walk in space and a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, mentioned that this is the first generation of humans to use satellites to predict the future through weather forecasting, a capacity she called “environmental intelligence.”

Sullivan hoped that the foresight resulting from that technology could be a basis for collaboration – emergency responders, for instance, can be positioned just outside a hurricane’s danger zone to stage supplies before a big storm hits. Farm insurance schemes could be linked to real-time drought monitoring. But Sullivan noted that the skills and computer outputs still require significant refinement. “We’re teenagers at having this space-based ability and being able to bring it into our decision making,” she said.

Cities, meanwhile, must adapt as they go. Already they are designing urban spaces with a dramatically different set of values than those that were expressed in the concrete and asphalt eras of past decades, said Mark Fletcher, global water business leader with Arup, an engineering firm. He spoke of Singapore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and others that are softening the hardscape of urban design.

“I know one thing,” he said. “All of the diagrams I see of future cities, wherever they are around the world, whenever they are drawn up, they look greener and bluer than the existing cities.”

Fletcher mentioned Bosco Verticale, a pair of forested apartment towers in Milan, as a standout example. “Rather than have monolithic concrete skyscrapers we have trees in buildings, going up buildings to capture water, process water,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time.”

Conference attendees challenged each other to incorporate these ideas in their businesses, community organizations, and government policies. Assia Bensalah Alaoui, ambassador at large for the King of Morocco, reminded those in the room and watching online that the stakes could not be higher. “Either we succeed together or we fail altogether,” she warned.