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← We need to track the world's water like we track the weather

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Showing Revision 6 created 09/24/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. We need to build
    a weather service for water.
  2. Yet, until we collectively
    demand accountability,
  3. the incentives to fund it will not exist.
  4. The first time I spoke at a conference
    was here at TED, eight years ago.

  5. Fresh out of grad school,
    little did I know
  6. that in those few minutes onstage,
  7. I was framing the questions
    I was going to be asked
  8. for the next decade.
  9. And, like too many 20-somethings,
  10. I expected to solve
    the world's problems --
  11. more specifically,
    the world's water problems --
  12. with my technology.
  13. I had a lot to learn.
  14. It was seductive,

  15. believing that our biggest
    water quality problems persist
  16. because they're so hard to identify.
  17. And I presumed
  18. that we just needed simpler, faster
    and more affordable sensors.
  19. I was wrong.
  20. While it's true that
    managing tomorrow's water risk
  21. is going to require better data
    and more technology,
  22. today we're barely using
    the little water data that we have.
  23. Our biggest water problems persist
    because of what we don't do
  24. and the problems we fail to acknowledge.
  25. There's actually little question
  26. about what today's water data
    is telling us to do as a species:
  27. we need to conserve more,
  28. and we need to pollute less.
  29. But today's data is not going to help us
    forecast the emerging risks
  30. facing businesses and markets.
  31. It's rapidly becoming useless for that.
  32. It used to carry more value,
  33. but it's never actually told us
    with any real accuracy
  34. how much water we have
  35. or what's in it.
  36. Let's consider the past decade
    of water usage statistics

  37. from each of the G20 nations.
  38. Now, what these numbers do not tell you
  39. is that none of these countries
    directly measures how much water they use.
  40. These are all estimates,
  41. and they're based on outdated models
  42. that don't consider the climate crisis,
  43. nor do they consider its impact on water.
  44. In 2015, Chennai,
    India's sixth-largest city,

  45. was hit with the worst floods
    it had seen in a century.
  46. Today, its water reservoirs
    are nearly dry.
  47. It took three years to get here,
  48. three years of subaverage rainfall.
  49. Now, that's faster than most nations
    tabulate their national water data,
  50. including the US.
  51. And although there were forecasts
  52. that predicted severe shortages
    of water in Chennai,
  53. none of them could actually help us
    pinpoint exactly when or where
  54. this was going to happen.
  55. This is a new type of water problem,
  56. because the rate at which
    every aspect of our water cycle changes
  57. is accelerating.
  58. As a recent UN warning
    this month revealed,
  59. we are now facing one new
    climate emergency every single week.
  60. There are greater uncertainties
    ahead for water quality.

  61. It's rare in most countries
    for most water bodies to be tested
  62. for more than a handful
    of contaminants in a year.
  63. Instead of testing, we use
    what's called the "dilution model"
  64. to manage pollution.
  65. Now, imagine I took
    an Olympic-sized swimming pool,
  66. I filled it with fresh water
    and I added one drop of mercury.
  67. That would dilute down
    to one part per billion mercury,
  68. which is well within what
    the World Health Organization
  69. considers safe.
  70. But if there was any unforeseen drop
    in how much water was available --
  71. less groundwater, less stream flow,
    less water in the pool --
  72. less dilution would take place,
  73. and things would get more toxic.
  74. So this is how most countries
    are managing pollution.
  75. They use this model to tell them
    how much pollution is safe.
  76. And it has clear weaknesses,
  77. but it worked well enough
    when we had abundant water
  78. and consistent weather patterns.
  79. Now that we don't, we're going to need
    to invest and develop
  80. new data-collection strategies.
  81. But before we do that, we have to start
    acting on the data we already have.
  82. This is a jet fuel fire.

  83. As many of you may be aware,
  84. jet fuel emissions play
    an enormous role in climate change.
  85. What you might not be aware of
    is that the US Department of Defense
  86. is the world's largest
    consumer of jet fuel.
  87. And when they consume jet fuel,
  88. they mandate the use
    of the firefighting foam pictured here,
  89. which contains a class
    of chemicals called PFAS.
  90. Nobody uses more of this foam
    than the US Department of Defense,
  91. and every time it's used, PFAS
    finds its way into our water systems.
  92. Globally, militaries have been using
    this foam since the 1970s.
  93. We know PFAS causes cancer, birth defects,
  94. and it's now so pervasive
    in the environment
  95. that we seem to find it in nearly
    every living thing we test,
  96. including us.
  97. But so far, the US Department of Defense
    has not been held accountable
  98. for PFAS contamination,
  99. nor has it been held liable.
  100. And although there's an effort underway
    to phase out these firefighting foams,
  101. they're not embracing safer,
    effective alternatives.
  102. They're actually using
    other PFAS molecules,
  103. which may, for all we know,
    carry worse health consequences.
  104. So today, government accountability
    is eroding to the point of elimination,

  105. and the risk of liability
    from water pollution is vanishing.
  106. What types of incentives does this create
    for investing in our water future?
  107. Over the past decade, the average
    early stage global investment
  108. in early stage water technology companies
  109. has totaled less than
    30 million dollars every year.
  110. That's 0.12 percent of global
    venture capital for early stage companies.
  111. And public spending is not going up
    nearly fast enough.
  112. And a closer look at it reveals
    that water is not a priority.
  113. In 2014, the US federal government
    was spending 11 dollars per citizen
  114. on water infrastructure,
  115. versus 251 dollars on IT infrastructure.
  116. So when we don't use the data we have,
  117. we don't encourage investment
    in new technologies,
  118. we don't encourage more data collection
  119. and we certainly don't encourage
    investment in securing a water future.
  120. So are we doomed?

  121. Part of what I'm still learning
  122. is how to balance the doom
    and the urgency with things we can do,
  123. because Greta Thunberg
    and the Extinction Rebellion
  124. don't want our hope --
    they want us to act.
  125. So what can we do?

  126. It's hard to imagine life
    without a weather service,
  127. but before modern weather forecasting,
  128. we had no commercial air travel,
  129. it was common for ships to be lost at sea,
  130. and a single storm could produce
    a food shortage.
  131. Once we had radio and telegraph networks,
  132. all that was necessary
    to solve these problems
  133. was tracking the movement of storms.
  134. And that laid the foundation
    for a global data collection effort,
  135. one that every household
    and every business depends upon today.
  136. And this was as much the result of
    coordinated and consistent data collection
  137. as it was the result of producing
    a culture that saw greater value
  138. in openly assessing and sharing everything
    that it could find out and discover
  139. about the risks we face.
  140. A global weather service for water
    would help us forecast water shortages.

  141. It could help us implement rationing
    well before reservoirs run dry.
  142. It could help us detect
    contamination before it spreads.
  143. It could protect our supply chains,
  144. secure our food supplies,
  145. and, perhaps most importantly,
  146. it would enable
    the precise estimation of risk
  147. necessary to ensure against it.
  148. We know we can do this because
    we've already done it with weather.

  149. But it's going to require resources.
  150. We need to encourage
    greater investment in water.
  151. Investors, venture capitalists:
  152. a portion of your funds and portfolios
    should be dedicated to water.
  153. Nothing is more valuable
  154. and, after all, businesses are going
    to need to understand water risks
  155. in order to remain competitive
    in the world we are entering.
  156. Aside from venture capital,
  157. there are also lots of promising
    government programs
  158. that encourage economic development
    through tax incentives.
  159. A new option in the US
    that my company is using

  160. is called "opportunity zones."
  161. They offer favorable tax treatment
    for investing capital gains
  162. in designated distressed
    and low-income areas.
  163. Now, these are areas
  164. that are also facing
    staggering water risk,
  165. so this creates crucial incentives
    to work directly with the communities
  166. who need help most.
  167. And if you're not looking
    to make this type of investment

  168. but you own land in the US,
  169. did you know that
    you can leverage your land
  170. to conserve water quality permanently
  171. with a conservation easement?
  172. You can assign the perpetual right
    to a local land trust
  173. to conserve your land
  174. and set specific water quality goals.
  175. And if you meet those goals,
  176. you can be rewarded with
    a substantial tax discount every year.
  177. How many areas could
    our global community protect

  178. through these and other programs?
  179. They're powerful because they offer
    the access to real property
  180. necessary to lay the foundation
    for a global weather service for water.
  181. But this can only work if we use
    these programs as they are intended
  182. and not as mere vehicles for tax evasion.
  183. When the conservation easement
    was established,
  184. nobody could anticipate how ingrained
    in environmental movements
  185. corporate polluters would become.
  186. And we've become accustomed to companies
    talking about the climate crisis
  187. while doing nothing about it.
  188. This has undermined the legacy
    and the impact of these programs,
  189. but it also makes them
    ripe for reclamation.
  190. Why not use conservation easements
    as they were intended,
  191. to set and reach
    ambitious conservation goals?
  192. Why not create opportunities
    in opportunity zones?
  193. Because fundamentally,
    water security requires accountability.
  194. Accountability is not corporate polluters
    sponsoring environmental groups
  195. and museums.
  196. Those are conflicts of interest.
  197. (Applause)

  198. Accountability is:

  199. making the risk of liability too expensive
  200. to continue polluting
    and wasting our water.
  201. We can't keep settling for words.
    It's time to act.
  202. And where better to start
    than with our biggest polluters,
  203. particularly the US Department
    of Defense, which is taxpayer-funded.
  204. Who and what are we protecting
    when US soldiers, their families
  205. and the people who live near
    US military bases abroad
  206. are all drinking toxic water?
  207. Global security can no longer remain
    at odds with protecting our planet
  208. or our collective health.
  209. Our survival depends on it.
  210. Similarly,

  211. agriculture in most countries
    depends on taxpayer-funded subsidies
  212. that are paid to farmers to secure
    and stabilize food supplies.
  213. These incentives are
    a crucial leverage point for us,
  214. because agriculture is responsible
    for consuming 70 percent
  215. of all the water we use every year.
  216. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff
  217. are the two biggest sources
    of water pollution.
  218. Let's restructure these subsidies
    to demand better water efficiency
  219. and less pollution.
  220. (Applause)

  221. Finally:

  222. we can't expect progress
  223. if we're unwilling to confront
    the conflicts of interest
  224. that suppress science,
  225. that undermine innovation
  226. and that discourage transparency.
  227. It is in the public interest
  228. to measure and to share everything
    we can learn and discover
  229. about the risks we face in water.
  230. Reality does not exist
    until it's measured.
  231. It doesn't just take
    technology to measure it.
  232. It takes our collective will.
  233. Thank you.

  234. (Applause)