AAAS AMA: We're a research team working to prevent population-related disasters like the 'Cape Town: Day Zero’ water crisis. AMA!

Abstract

By the year 2050, populations in some urban centers in the United States could easily double, meaning that already-stressed and limited natural resources will need to be available for tens of millions more people. We’re part of an interdisciplinary team of more than 100 researchers from across The University of Texas at Austin that’s embarking on the university’s first-ever grand challenge initiative. Our mission is to find ways to make our region more resilient and better prepared in the face of rapid population growth and to share what we learn with researchers from around the world.

We hope that our work will be instrumental in preventing the next 'Cape Town: Day Zero’ crisis, where entire communities face critical shortages of resources like water and energy following steep population increases.

Our team includes engineers, architects, geoscientists, archeologists, health experts, humanities and legal scholars, and more. Specific areas of research also include air quality/air pollution in megacities, which can have an impact on human health.

Ask Us Anything about a race against the clock to shore up dwindling resources in the face of rapid population growth.

Richard Corsi, Professor and Joe J. King Chair of Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering, Co-Director, Center for Sustainable Development

Katherine Lieberknecht, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture

Adam Rabinowitz, Associate Professor, Department of Classics, Assistant Director, Institute of Classical Archaeology

Lourdes Rodriguez, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Place-Based Initiatives, Dell Medical School

Michael Young, Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist, Bureau of Economic Geology

Are resources really so limited, or is it more a matter of being able to distribute resources?

I think it is important to make the distinction, because how we go about solving the problem of resource shortages depends on the answer to the above question.

alcanthro

LR and KL here. Resources are limited and unequally distributed. Think about Flint, Michigan. It is relatively close to lake Superior, a high quality source of fresh water. Yet, the people of Flint didn't have access to this resource. On the flip side, thinking about population growth, in Austin we currently have enough water but our population is expected to roughly double between 2000 and 2030. As we plan for the next 15 years, it is paramount we think about equitable distribution of resources to ensure a JUST and beautiful city.


Are resources really so limited, or is it more a matter of being able to distribute resources?

I think it is important to make the distinction, because how we go about solving the problem of resource shortages depends on the answer to the above question.

alcanthro

(AR): This is one of the reasons we're looking at societies in the past as well as the situation in the present. In many cases, even major moments of crisis for past societies weren't the result of absolute shortages, but of barriers to distribution. We're hoping to understand the social effects of these barriers (e.g. inequality or conflict) better by integrating historical and environmental information.


Are resources really so limited, or is it more a matter of being able to distribute resources?

I think it is important to make the distinction, because how we go about solving the problem of resource shortages depends on the answer to the above question.

alcanthro

RC: This is an important question. Resources, e.g., water, often become depleted as populations grow rapidly, particularly when coupled with climate extremes, e.g., drought. There are certainly resources "elsewhere", but access and transport of those resources can be very costly in both dollar and ecosystem costs. There is a lot of fresh water in Antarctica. Towing ice to the US Southwest is technically possible, but would be costly in more than one way.


When will California become the next Cape Town? Do you foresee water shortages occurring in the Pacific Northwest do to diversion of resources, summer drought, low snow pack? How much time until the water table is tapped?

japosey

RC: Very interesting question. The situations are similar in some ways and very different in other ways, e.g., California's substantial water infrastructure born form its agricultural history. There will certainly be water stress due to drought in California's future, and it will take great ingenuity to deal with future crises well before they happen. Fortunately, California has tremendous intellectual resources and researchers there and elsewhere are working on the problem now.


It's great that you have an economic geologist, but it puzzles me to find only that tangential reference to economics and economists in your intro. It seems to me that economics is a vital field of study when addressing resource shortages. Cape Town wouldn't be running out of water so quickly if the consumers of water were instead paying in proportion to their true impact on the common good.

Why are there no economists explicitly listed on your team, neither in the prominent position I would expect, nor even in the general classes of "engineers, architects, geoscientists, archeologists, health experts, humanities and legal scholars"?

drsjsmith

(AR): This is a great question, and one that we've actually discussed as we have developed our research plan. We have several team members in the broader group who deal with economics, but we're actively looking for additional UT collaborators who specialize in this area. This will be particularly important as we start building predictive and exploratory models to look at Texas' future.


It's great that you have an economic geologist, but it puzzles me to find only that tangential reference to economics and economists in your intro. It seems to me that economics is a vital field of study when addressing resource shortages. Cape Town wouldn't be running out of water so quickly if the consumers of water were instead paying in proportion to their true impact on the common good.

Why are there no economists explicitly listed on your team, neither in the prominent position I would expect, nor even in the general classes of "engineers, architects, geoscientists, archeologists, health experts, humanities and legal scholars"?

drsjsmith

(MY): several economists are involved in the project, but you are correct that no economists are on the main organizing team (which was chosen by UT). I'm involving several economists in my group at Bureau of Economic Geology at UT. They're involved throughout the project.


I was talking with a few friends the other day about the water crysis at Cape Town. In the middle of the discussion, I said that even being a coastal city (access to sea water) they would still have problems with water since desalination is still expensive, which renders sea water “useless”. My question is: why governments don’t invest on the development on desalination technology and methods, in order to make it a viable and low-cost alternative to have access to water? It seems like an obvious fix to water crysis worldwide and I don’t understand why we won’t develop this technology further. Thanks!

Hydragy

This is Dr. Richard Corsi (RC). Great question! Desalination will be an answer in some circumstances. Two big problems with desalination are a fairly substantial energy requirement and the disposal of large amounts of brine waste. Disposal near shore can adversely impact ecosystems. Desalinating for large populations means large amount of brine and energy requirements.


What are you doing to prevent rapid population growth?

And what are you doing to combat for-profit abuse and over consumption of our valuable resources like the business of bottling up massive quantities of our fresh water and selling it back to us?

Sheeple_Shepherd

LR here. I'm not doing this work, but I can say that in public health, reproductive health researchers and practitioners spend a lot of time making the case for slowing down population growth. Some folks use behavioral economics (i.e. think about the cost for your household of an increased number of births) as a way to make the case for reduced number of births per household and spacing of pregnancies.


After Cape Town, what city or area could be next?

Newsletter94

RC: We missed this question. It is a great one, and not easy to answer. Being able to project such things is an ultimate goal of Planet Texas 2050. The data structures and models that we will be developing over the next decade ought to be valuable for applications in other regions of the world.


[deleted]

[deleted]

(KL): great question. I'm not sure if you are referring to the Cape Town region or another region specifically. Our research is focused here in Texas, but we believe our research will have application in other parts of the world, so I can answer your question from that perspective. You point out a definite limitation of using groundwater-- the risk of salt water intrusion into the aquifer. There are others, as well. In Texas, given the limitations of using more groundwater, and the projections of reduced surface water availability over time due to climate shifts, we are working to develop a more diversified water supply portfolio-- starting with water conservation, but also thinking about other water sources, such as brackish groundwater, reclaimed/recycled wastewater, stormwater, desalination, aquifer storage and recovery, etc.


My brother told me that Tucson,AZ will be out of water by 2050 and will be a ghost town, something he researched in college. Have you guys looked at Tucson at all? Why Tucson and not Phoenix? Phoenix has same (actually slightly worse) climate and there is grass everywhere there compared to Tucson and you always see it being watered.

Acbraun79

RC: Great question. We have not looked at this issue. I believe that Phoenix and Tucson both get water from Lake Mead, but that Phoenix also uses groundwater as a fraction of their water supply. Not sure of the distribution or supply.


I have heard rumours that much of the water that was available to cape town had been used for local animal agriculture. This could be completely fake news as it is a heated topic for many. I'd like your confirmation about this. Could the people of Cape town avoid this sort of disaster in the future by limiting animal agriculture?

redditoomanytimes

MY: I don't know the actual numbers for Cape Town, but in general, agriculture does account for most of the water use. In Texas, ag accounts for 70% of water use, and some of that ag is for irrigating crops that are then used for cattle feed. the water footprint for meat is much higher than the water footprint for vegetables for food, and both of these are much higher than the water used (in general) for urban centers. so it really depends on HOW the water is used in animal ag (is it providing water for the cows, or is it water for ag that provides food for the cattle). that makes a big difference


I have heard rumours that much of the water that was available to cape town had been used for local animal agriculture. This could be completely fake news as it is a heated topic for many. I'd like your confirmation about this. Could the people of Cape town avoid this sort of disaster in the future by limiting animal agriculture?

redditoomanytimes

RC: I am not sure about the specific role of livestock in Capetown. However, agricultural is typically a MAJOR consumer of water in the US and elsewhere. Further, livestock and the harvesting and production of meat is a MAJOR contributor to environmental degradation and climate change. At an individual level, one of the major things that someone who is concerned about climate change can do is switch to a vegetarian diet.


In the eventuality that this can be reduced this far down, what is the ratio between population growth and lack of access to resources? What main factors can potentially put a dent in this or move towards sustainably establishing structures and systems that adequately provide and distribute resources? How can this be done through locally initiated efforts, or at least through ones customized to the particular needs, circumstances and capacities of each city? How much do regional factors play in to the problem?

I realize this is a waterfall of questions; happy to hear your thoughts on any of them.

Deli_berative

(KL): These are all terrific questions. I'll focus on one of your last ones: how can sustainability or resiliency be achieved through local efforts and/or context-specific solutions? Both of these aspects that you mention-- bottom-up approaches and context-- are critical for success. Our research program, Planet Texas 2050, aims to incorporate both of these aspects of planning into our work. For instance, this spring, before we begin our active research phase, we are beginning with a 'listening tour' of stakeholders, municipal and business leaders, community members, etc. to find out just some of those things you've asked about--- existing local efforts, circumstance and capacities, concerns and challenges, etc. And as our active research phase wraps up, we will be developing what we are calling the Resilient Texas Implementation Plan, which will be a collection of tools, policy suggestions, etc. that communities can access, adapt, and choose to adopt.


In the eventuality that this can be reduced this far down, what is the ratio between population growth and lack of access to resources? What main factors can potentially put a dent in this or move towards sustainably establishing structures and systems that adequately provide and distribute resources? How can this be done through locally initiated efforts, or at least through ones customized to the particular needs, circumstances and capacities of each city? How much do regional factors play in to the problem?

I realize this is a waterfall of questions; happy to hear your thoughts on any of them.

Deli_berative

LR here. This is a really cool thread. We are developing models using data from the present, data from past societies and hope to get to the population growth/resource (water,energy) question that way. Follow us on PT2050


As our global population continues to increase, and more and more countries start to become developed with more of the world gaining access to resources like running water, electricity etc, how are we going to be able to handle this demand. We have the ability to get renewable energy, but what about demand for food resources? Water resources? Are there steps and technology in place to match these or is this going to be another impending crisis?

MajorDisrespects

AR: I thought this recent piece by Charles Mann in The Atlantic offered a very interesting perspective on what's going to happen with food in the coming century.


As our global population continues to increase, and more and more countries start to become developed with more of the world gaining access to resources like running water, electricity etc, how are we going to be able to handle this demand. We have the ability to get renewable energy, but what about demand for food resources? Water resources? Are there steps and technology in place to match these or is this going to be another impending crisis?

MajorDisrespects

RC: This is another great question. We WANT more people to have access to resources that improve their quality of life, but MUST find strategies/new technologies to do this is a sustainable manner. To do so is complex and requires "systems thinking" and a bringing together of people from disparate fields. Water, energy, air pollution, and food are all connected to one another and should not be addressed in isolation.


Are you working on a super flu to decimate the human population as a means to prevention? I am just trolling no need to answer.

Crydal

AR: Trolling acknowledged, but you also might like this book by historian Walter Scheidel.


How is climate change impacting your work? How do you foresee it to?

233C

LR here. My work focuses on ensuring cities are JUST and BEAUTIFUL places for all, not just playgrounds for the rich (and hyper rich). I am worried that climate change will disproportionally affect poor people and people of color (i.e. poor populations concentrated in flood prone areas). I hope that answers your question.


How is climate change impacting your work? How do you foresee it to?

233C

RC: I do research on air pollution and specifically indoor air pollution since American's spend 70 of their 79 years of life (on average) inside buildings. As but one of many examples, climate change leads to more wildland fires, which have a HUGE impact on outdoor and indoor air quality. An important question is how to reduce population exposure to related air pollution by design and operating homes, schools, and other buildings better. The same is true to increasing dust storms in the US southwest.


How is climate change impacting your work? How do you foresee it to?

233C

MY: PT2050 is directly focused on the extreme climate events, like droughts and floods, that will impact natural resource availability (either too little water or too much water), and we're looking for how these events might affect the energy supply and land resources too. Climate change forecasts are directly being considered in these key elements of PT2050


Did any of your inspiration / research come from California's Salton Sea?
Will we likely see more issues like the Salton Sea?

_no_one234

RC: Great question. Having grown up in Southern California, the Salton Sea is something that started being an issue when I was quite young. It is CERTAINLY a case study of things gone bad. It should not have been there in the first place; it was an accident. Once it was formed it became a dumping ground (runoff and direct discharge) for a lot of agricultural chemicals and sewage. As it shrinks it becomes an important source of hazardous air pollution. This is all a fairly unique combination of circumstances, but is seen in other areas such as Central Asia.


Did any of your inspiration / research come from California's Salton Sea?
Will we likely see more issues like the Salton Sea?

_no_one234

MY: one of the inspirations for PT2050, from my perspective, was the glaring contrasts between the 2011 drought in Texas and the 2017 flood from Hurricane Harvey. These events, which have occurred in the past and will occur in the future, will become more expensive and damaging if planners don't account for them.


Your aim is to "make regions more resilient and better prepared in the face of rapid population growth", but does that mean you will be focusing on the main cause as well (the population growth itself)?

Since you take Cape Town as an example; I'm from South Africa, more precisely Hoedspruit, a little town wedged between one of the last remaining wildlife havens of this planet (Kruger) and communities that are literally exploding (The Oaks, Bushbuck Ridge, Acornhoek,...).

Of all the bad things the white man supposedly brought to this country, strangely enough religion does not seem to be one of them. But it is religion that is largely responsible for this population growth. Specifically catholicism, with it's "preservatives are against God's will, abstinence is better" message.

Do you consider an "effects of religion" awareness campaign to be part of the possible solutions?

TheAfricaBug

LR here. I too am the daughter of a colony (I am Puerto Rican), so I hear you my friend. As a public health practitioner who happens to be Catholic, I think about the ethics of reproductive health work a lot. I see a problem with both extremes. In Puerto Rico, forced sterilization under Law 113 was practiced well into the 1970s. And for all intents and purposes, Puerto Rico is a majority catholic country. So the balance is somewhere in the middle, were reproductive choices are informed by the need to keep population growth in check. AND YES, we need either an Ethicist, or an expert in Religious Studies in our team.


When a city runs out of water, what happens next? Is it better for inhabitants to relocate or to transport/harvest water?

WoolyXolo

AR: I can give you an answer related to what has happened historically (at least in the pre-modern period) when the water runs out. People tend to leave, or at least the density of settlement thins out. On the other hand, cultures like the Nabateans, who lived at sites like Petra and formed in conditions of scarcity, found innovative and sophisticated ways to harvest small amounts of water to sustain large settlements. So it may be a question of how long the city has to plan for, and adjust to, new circumstances.


Have you guys looked into lab grown meat? Once this becomes a mature technology, economies of scale kick in and should largely decouple food production from land and water use (for both meat and plant products). This would radically change resource use projections.

macguffin22

RC: Great question. Our team has not yet looked at or projected the effects of this technology. However, I agree that it could one day have a very positive environmental impact by minimizing the significant impacts of the meat industry.


What would be the one scenario that you have researched that you would never want to see come to pass?

wilkins1952

(AR): For a long chunk of the period I'm most interested in (the Greek world between 800 and 400 BCE), most of the people in that world could assume that their community would be sacked in the course of violent conflict during their lifetimes (or, if not theirs, their children's lifetimes). This has actually been the case in the Mediterranean area up to pretty recently, and I'd very much prefer that we don't see that back again. Also, pandemic plagues.


What would be the one scenario that you have researched that you would never want to see come to pass?

wilkins1952

LR here. Sorting out of cities -- be it by segregation, gentrification, or other socioeconomic processes scares me. When we sort out our cities, we homogenize the networks we are linked to and that leads to lack of empathy and "othering". It is hard to build solidarity and the will needed for making changes to protect resources, ensure sustainability and promote health if we are pinned against each other (othering).


How does one get into this type of field as a recent graduate. Is it possible or is this the type of job that requires a PHD and 10 years of experience?

levetzki

AR: This isn't as much a field as a broadly interdisciplinary research initiative. We're including graduate students across departments and schools at UT in our projects, and depending on how those projects take shape, we may well involve undergrads as well. Our immediate collaborators are inside the UT academic community, but we're also reaching out to external partners in both the non-profit world and industry. I would imagine that there are opportunities in the non-profit and international development areas for recent BAs.


How does one get into this type of field as a recent graduate. Is it possible or is this the type of job that requires a PHD and 10 years of experience?

levetzki

RC: I am glad you are interested! It does not require a PhD and 10 years of experience. My advice is to start small. Get involved at the local level, either in an employed position or doing volunteer work. Develop experience and expertise. Stay focused. Keep studying issues and thinking big as you progress in your career.


How does one get into this type of field as a recent graduate. Is it possible or is this the type of job that requires a PHD and 10 years of experience?

levetzki

(KL): I just wanted to add on to RC's reply. He's exactly right...you don't need a PhD and 10 years of experience...you just need to get started, and I hope that you do, because figuring out how everyone-- including the most vulnerable-- can have access to a vibrant economy, a healthy, safe environment, and fair social outcomes is a defining question for our era. We need all the help we can get!


Is any of your work focused on how to create cities that can thrive even under conditions of catastrophic climate change and overpopulation by more effectively integrating with their surrounding, supportive ecological systems?

mrtorrence

RC: This is a really good question. Some of our work will deal with the interface of natural and urban lands as cities rapidly grow. Protection of ecosystems and ecosystem services are both important in this context.


Is any of your work focused on how to create cities that can thrive even under conditions of catastrophic climate change and overpopulation by more effectively integrating with their surrounding, supportive ecological systems?

mrtorrence

(KL): Absolutely. One of our core four research areas is ecosystem services-- the benefits that ecosystems provide to humans, like clean water or flood protection (mrtorrence, I know you know this term, but I'm just defining it for others, just in case). We will be researching several scales of ecosystem services that support human population centers-- benefits flowing from rural areas into cities and benefits being generated by ecosystems located within cities themselves. Please check back to our website and follow our progress by checking our website


Which are the indicators you use to evaluate the vulnerability of a metro area?

bernard09

LR here. I think about infrastructure, connectivity and equity (which are closely interrelated). Infrastructure is about ensuring that resources can move efficiently from where they are produced to where they are needed. Connectivity is about how people can easily access the things they need to thrive. Equity is about ensuring that infrastructure and connectivity are meeting the needs of all.


How will this effect current race relations in South Africa? Will we see a rise in segregation once the water is gone?

_gh0st_

RC: This is an interesting question. Resource depletion generally causes divisions in populations, often along economic lines. Let's hope that environmental crises that humankind will see in the future will bring people together as opposed to dividing people.


Do you think that nations will ever fight wars over clean drinking water?

FindCoffee

(MY): nations often fight over natural resources, and water is perhaps the most important one. even within the US, states have engaged in conflict over water (SW United States, Lake Lanier in Georgia), but thankfully we talk about solutions over coffee and in the courts and not through armed conflict


Do you think that nations will ever fight wars over clean drinking water?

FindCoffee

AR: I think it's unlikely that the wars will be over drinking water, specifically, but I think that there's a good chance that there will be violent regional conflicts over rivers and watersheds necessary for agriculture and transport. Dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have been key issues in the conflict there, and water supply for agriculture could easily be a flashpoint there in the future.


Are you looking into industrial and home sized things like this http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/new-solar-powered-device-can-pull-water-straight-desert-air for taking water from the air, I think this would be the future, along with desalination,

Although I have read that the local aquifers are a prime target, which I beleive would only lead to longer term and more disasterous problems.

multia-z

RC: I have great faith in younger generations and their entrepreneurial spirit and desire to make the world a better place. There will continue to be many great new technologies developed in the future to reduce conventional resource consumption. Extracting liquid water from water vapor is one example, understanding that this is not THE answer to water supply problems given the scale of the issue and water vapor content in arid regions. However, it is one of many, many answers we ought to be striving to develop.


Any companies we should invest in that will benefit when these droughts come??

usdfg

RC: The business angle of crises is interesting, but not something that our team is focused on or qualified to address.


Desalination: How will desalination help cities cope with population growth - and what are the environmental downsides? Does desalination of ocean water have a negative impact on ocean water quality?

MascogoMan

RC: Desalination will be used in the future to provide water for some populations. But it is important to realize that it comes with two important issues. First, it requires a substantial amount of energy. Second, it produces brine as a waste product that has to be disposed of. If Desalination is of brackish reservoirs under land, it can also produce other harmful chemicals, e.g., arsenic. Dumping brine into coastal waters can have a very negative impact on coastal ecosystems.


If Capetown really runs out of water. How can u transport that much water, it's millions of gallons..

Ihavenofriendshehe

MY: Yes, this is crux of the problem. Water is very heavy and transporting large amounts of water is either super expensive or just not technically feasible. Cape Town is facing a significant problem if the rains don't return soon


I suppose a followup question to my original one, have you estimated a maximum worldwide population that could be sustained with our current level of technology, and if so, what is it?

alcanthro

AR: We're less focused on the global scale than on the tension between population, urbanism, and environment on the regional or local scale. We're not planning to model a global carrying capacity; we're more interested in using Texas as a microcosm to understand how sustainability plays out on a smaller scale.


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