Reflected in Water: Notes on Development, Resilience & Inequalities

Event Date: March 31, 2021
Time: 12:00 - 1:30 PM (EST)
Location: Zoom
Priority: No
School or Program: College of Engineering
College Calendar: Show


While the impact of improved agriculture is perceived directly by the GDP of the region implementing the related waterresources use schemes, the social and economic cost of the increased burden of the disease is hard to quantify, let alone predict. A debilitating disease, schistosomiasis is a poverty-reinforcing neglected disease owing to its low mortality and impact on thepoorest alone. While contemporary economics is considering the proper manner to account for the social and economic cost offuture loss of workforce, immaterial factors pitch in and an assessment seems still unlikely anytime soon. Pricing environmentalservices is essential. A price tag means discounting the environment, and pricing is necessary inasmuch as declaring that somegood is priceless is tantamount to assuming that its worth is next to nothing. Others contend that price is not value, andaccepting that it is impossible to price all ecosystem services may be the vehicle for them to be given a non-monetary value.Material and immaterial values should then be considered in their own units (say, the number of species rescued from extinction,or the number of averted cases in epidemics, for the latters). Not surprisingly, therefore, pricing biodiversity and ecosystemservices has been termed "the never-ending story". This has to do with urban transformations, of course. Jonathan Ledgardlectures on technological futures of Africa as a hotbed (and a test) for contemporary thought, stating that within the next 15 years800 million people will live in cities that do not exist yet. Key to master all the above is our capability to assess and reliably predictthe spread of the disease under different scenarios -- of economic and water developments, of human mobility and awareness ofthe mechanisms of infection (hinged on proper educational systems), of improved or worsening water, sanitation and hygieneconditions. My talk is focused on reflections stemming from the considerations above. Progress in this area, it is my belief, is readyto be used for the betterment of society at large, as well as to help in the assessment of the wealth or poverty of Nations.

As an economy's GDP could be made to grow, and its related societal indicators made to apparently improve for a time, by mining natural capital (say,by decimating forests, damaging soil, destroying key ecosystem services like depleting renewable resources or reducing biodiversity), there is noexcuse for not using what we have learned to assess true costs and benefits of development thinking, and to rethink distributive justice, where a largeshare of the basis for environmental thinking could be made quantitative. From this particular angle, I shall give the students my idiosynchraticreflections on resilience, inequalities and development. Will future large-scale water resources plans be making compelling arguments for includingthe reduction of the loss of biodiversity across scales in river basins? Could the structure of river networks be a template for large-scale spreading ofwaterborne disease infections? Are we capable to provide solid economic arguments for preventing water development schemes in the light of thesocial and economic cost of predicted increased burden of disease they would bring? Do biological invasions, including historic population migrationsthat shaped human community compositions as we see them now, depend on physical constraints like the river networks acting as the substrate fortheir dispersal? Social discounting applied to public policies concerning the preservation of the natural capital needs quantitative assessments, andthus an "engineering" capable to produce reliable scenarios. Evaluations of the effects of learning-impairing disabilities brought in by neglectedwaterborne disease are neither ethical primitives nor market values observable like return rates of an investment. They need reliable projections,evaluations of management alternatives, proper cost-benefit analyses. This is only possible if we are capable to evaluate material/immaterial andpresent/future commodities. Our ignorance of the true economic value of the natural capital is often an unsurmountable barrier to proper policyanalysis. Contributing to lift this veil of ignorance seems like a worthwhile endeavor because no economy can survive without natural capital.

In the case of the ecosystem services provided by the waters of the hydrologic cycle, that is all that is reflected in water, I contend that time is ripe forretooling our decision-making basis and our notions of resilience, development and its effects on inequalities.

Presented By

Andrea Rinaldo 

Professor of Hydrology & Water Resources. EPFL. Lausanne

Andrea Rinaldo is Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources and the Director of the Laboratory ofEcohydrology at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland. He is also a Professor of Civil andEnvironmental Engineering at the University of Padova, Italy. He received his PhD (1983) in civil engineeringat Purdue University. He is world-renowned as an authority and co-founder of the field of Ecohydrologyand for his theory of self-organized fractal river networks and efficient transport networks and as ecologicalcorridors. He is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy ofScience, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the recipient of the Horton Award from theAmerican Geophysical Union, and the Dalton Medal from the European Geoscience Unions.