By Allison Elias, Research Associate, Institute for Business in Society (IBiS) and Erika Herz, Associate Director of Sustainability Programs

On Friday, March 21st, organizations from across the University Grounds came together in the Rotunda’s elegant Dome Room to host the U.Va. World Water Day Symposium, in honor of the United Nations’ holiday, which has been observed on March 22nd since 1993. The UN-declared theme for 2014, water and energy, sought to bring attention to the interdependence of the two resources and to shed light on new strategies for using water and energy in efficient ways.

According to Darden Professor Peter Debaere, who co-organized the event along with colleagues from U.Va.’s Center for Global Health, the Department of Environmental Sciences, the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health,  as well as The Nature Conservancy:

“Public understanding of the policy and business implications of water and energy challenges is lacking. We hope this interdisciplinary conference helped educate all of us on root causes, as well as about frameworks for innovative business and government solutions.”

Debaere also teaches a popular MBA elective called “The Global Economics of Water.”

In keeping with the 2014 theme, keynote speaker Jamie Pittock, Senior Lecturer at Australian National University, spoke about sustaining water in an era of climate change and population growth. Pittock’s research led to many insights including:

  • Solutions may appear to be attractive but we must consider the long-term, less overt environmental and economic costs
  • Policy reform is most likely to happen in times of crisis and/or leadership change; reformers must use these moments to their benefit
  • Academic research must become more relevant to decision makers given the uncertain environment

His rich discussion addressed ways that governments and businesses could remain adaptable and find complementary solutions to meet a variety of stakeholder needs given the changing nature of water and energy problems.

A second panel discussion focused on water markets, whereby water use rights are traded through either short- or long-term contracts. Water markets encourage conservation behavior as well as a more accurate valuation of water resources. The state of California, for example, has a water grid infrastructure that facilitates movement of water and enables trading activities. Water trading is helpful for short-term needs, as apparent in Colorado recently when ash from fires contaminated municipal water sources. Due to an already-robust trading scheme, fresh mountain water suitable for drinking was able to be exchanged for the contaminated water, which was used instead for agricultural purposes. Panelists also discussed that natural gas mining through the method of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has driven up the price of water due to the water quantity needed for the process. Water contamination caused by fracking is also a significant issue.

The last panel session of the day concentrated on the health impacts of poor water access using South Africa as a case study. Although improvements have been made, still over 2000 children die per day of diarrheal illness, which often is caused by contaminated water. The speakers looked beyond health to the economic and educational consequences of clean water access. Children who survive such illnesses have to contend with problems such as stunted growth, lower IQ levels, or chronic internal diseases. These cognitive and physical impairments have furthered the cycle of poverty that leaves many children without opportunities to improve their quality of life. One panelist called the issues of inadequate water supply and contaminated water the ‘silent humanitarian crisis’ because public and private resources are often devoted to other crises that are more concentrated in a single location.

The symposium closed with a note of optimism: these problem are solvable if resources are allocated in the most efficient manner. However, public attention, cross-sector alliances, and interdisciplinary research collaborations are necessary to move toward lasting solutions.

The UVA World Water Day Symposium was supported with funding from Darden’s Institute for Business in Society (IBiS) U.Va.’s Office of the Vice President for Research, and other U.Va. departments. To hear interviews with speakers, listen to the Darden GreenPod #27 and the Darden BusinessCast #279.