Water, the miracle of nature: handle with care! Interview to Kenneth Weiss, Winner of Pulitzer Prize 2007

At the Festival for the Earth, which took place in Monaco, Montecarlo, on 9 – 10 November, 2017,the task to draw the conclusions was appointed to the Californian journalist Kenneth Weiss, Winner of Pulitzer Prize 2007 and renownreporter.

By his particularly strongspeech, “Altered Oceans”, Kenneth Weiss fascinated the VIP audience, including also SAS Prince Albert II of Monaco.

Weiss, who spoke particularly about the health state of the oceans and of the earth in general, answered a few questions posed by Vivere Sostenibile Liguria Ponente, that we transcribe hereunder completely.


VS: In water resides the miracle of life. In your presentation, you communicated a lot of worrying data about this vital source for humankind and animals…  Whilst knowing that these data and emotions have to be spread, they are impressive in a negative way. Is there any “however” or special improvement in any domain which can help us to restore hope for the solution of this issue?

K.Weiss: Yes, this is a very important question. I completely agree that humanity needs hope, not just gloom-and-doom stories about the trouble ahead. The problem is that those of us who are lucky enough to like in wealthy places like Italy, France, Germany or the United States can have a hard time recognizing how climate change and a coming shortages of clean freshwater is a slow-motion crisis brewing on the horizon. Those who will feel it first are the “bottom billion” of us, the billion poorest, most vulnerable on our planet of 7.6 billion people. I have focused much of my reporting in recent years on global sustainability. I define that as setting a better course for our planet that will help us provide for all of humanity, but also try to preserve biodiversity, habitat and an important life-sustaining piece of nature. So when I have to give a short speech to people congregating in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, I wanted to make sure I explain that those living in Kiribati, or Kenya, do not have the same wealth-driven capacity as those in Monaco to protect them to the water-shortages and other problems on the horizon. And that’s what we often do best in the news business: point out the problems to get people’s attention. That’s always the first step. Now, there are many, many solutions that we as an ingenious species can develop and scale up to help us provide of our growing numbers and maintaining some semblance of the natural world. When it comes to water, for example, reducing our carbon emission to stabilize the planet is critical and certainly achievable, if we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels, switch to alternative energy like solar and wind and create a future that is carbon-neutral. We may even need to figure out a way to go “carbon-negative,” which means sequestering some the extra carbon dioxide we have pumped into the atmosphere by storing it in trees or the ground. Also, conservation of water can be easily achieved. Right now, too much of the world irrigated crops very poorly. Drip irrigation holds great promise of water conservation. And recycling wastewater, especially in developed countries with limited water, can be a great option for growing food. Scientists are working to develop more drought- and salt-tolerant varieties of crops, especially wheat, rice and corn, which provide about 70% of all calories we consume. If we could grow rice in saltier water, for instance, that could be a tremendous benefit to millions of people who are being forced to migrate away from their homes in coastal, delta regions due to salt-water intrusion. These are just a few of many examples how we might to better at conserving our natural resources. All of these offer hope for humanity.

VS:According to you, what are the main positive results of the Paris Agreement in this domain? At the Festival for the Earth all speakers focusedoninnovation, the spreading and financing of renewable energies, which are likely to improve the whole scenario and, as a consequence, water as well, but is there in this agreement any special commitment which affects the defense of water resources directly?

K. Weiss:The Paris Agreement is a critical step forward in getting virtually all of the nations to work together to keep us from careening into catastrophic, irreversible climate change. No one knows precisely what’s the magic line, but scientists have rallied around keeping mean global temperature from rising global warming under 2 degree Celsius or possibly 1.5 degree Celsius. The agreement itself, is a collection of pledges from virtually all countries, declaring what they intend to do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t address water resources specifically, but water is linked in so many ways to a warming climate. For instance, water atmosphere can hold more moisture and also it has been responsible for shifting rainfall patterns in a way that some places experience flooding and others are locked in a cycle of devastating drought. And with sea levels rising, that can have a big impact on salt-water intruding into freshwater aquifers and surface waters. So trying to keep temperatures from rising are a critical step toward avoiding extreme weather events and conserving what little freshwater we have.  The Paris Agreement is critical to all this. But the critical need of clear, fresh water is perhaps bettered addressed in another effort by the United Nations:  The Sustainable Development Goals. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/  Goal No. 6, out of 17 goals, specifically addresses the need to “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.”


Kenneth Weiss in Montecarlo during the Festival For the Earth. Behind him, a picture of the Italian Artist Rebecca Ballestra, who conceived the Festival.


VS:From your presentation, we understood quite well that drinking water supply is a priority for most people in the world. Apart from the Paris Agreement, don’t you think the priority of most of the remaining R&D funds shouldbe directed to the improvement of water harvesting devices from air, for example, and making them cheaper, therefore affordable to many people in desert areas?

K.Weiss:Extracting water from the air is one of the promising new technologies being developed to help in remote and arid areas. Some technological breakthroughs have reduced the energy required to harvest water from the air, but it requires very expensive materials, such as metal-organic frameworks, to do the job. At least, that’s the case so far. My guess is that there will other technologies that emerge in coming years that can help. So often, though, what we need are simple solutions and technologies that either don’t break or are easy to fix. High-technological techniques do not always function well in poor, remote societies, with little capacity to keep them functioning. So to date, one of the best sources of water is treating and recycling our own wastewater. It can sound disgusting, thinking that we are recycling water from the toilet. But it remains easier, cheaper and takes less energy to treat wastewater that to remove the salt from seawater. Instead of thinking simple must be stupid, we have to realize the simple can be elegant. And it can be more sustainable. I have great hope that our best minds can help some up with solutions. Meantime, we need to work on water conservation and handing our limited resources with the upmost care.