How ASU is raising awareness of the water crisis for World Water Day — and beyond

A crowd of people gather around a pipe to put their hands in the water that flows from it.

From deep underground, up to the skies and everywhere in between, water can be found in a variety of forms across our planet. But despite its seemingly vast abundance, approximately 771 million people globally do not have access to safe water.

This year’s World Water Day, recognized on March 22, focuses on generating urgent change and solutions to solve the global water and sanitation crisis. 

The focus was inspired by the sixth goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals series: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

In 2015, the world committed to the implementation of this goal by 2030. Now, in 2023, many experts feel humanity is falling significantly behind. 

World Water Day serves as an opportunity for water experts and leaders to advocate for sustainable management of water resources and the importance of freshwater. Arizona State University is no stranger to the importance of water solutions, being located in a landlocked state surrounded by desert where crucial conversations about Colorado River shortages and drought are especially prominent.

A university in action

In November 2022, Arizona state officials tapped ASU to lead the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative, a multiyear initiative housed in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, to provide actionable and evidence-based solutions to ensure a thriving water future for Arizona. One member of the initiative’s strategy team, Jay Famiglietti, said the efficient use of water is essential in managing the regional water crisis for decades to come. 

Famiglietti, a hydrologist and Global Futures Professor with the ASU School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures, is attending the UN 2023 Water Conference as a speaker. The event marks the first water conference of its scale in 46 years and will feature water-focused events and speakers. It runs March 22–24 in New York City. Notably, the conference ends with an actionable agenda. 

“Something I am focusing on at the conference is raising awareness around groundwater, which is directly tied to the sixth Sustainable Development Goal,” Famiglietti said. “Groundwater is one of our largest sources of water around the world and needs to be a part of the greater water conversation if we are going to reach that goal.” 

Famiglietti’s research has focused greatly on developing satellite methods to see underground, in addition to developing remote sensing of groundwater. This work has highlighted for Famiglietti that groundwater is disappearing, and not only in places such as Arizona and California.

While access to water is undeniably crucial, Famiglietti said it can be overlooked in conversations about humanity’s future. He is not alone in this thought process. 

Olcay Unver, a professor of practice at the environmental resource and management program at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said the topic of water has not gotten enough attention on its own. 

“Water is everywhere,” Unver said, “and when something is everywhere, it's nowhere.” 

Unver, who is also a Global Futures Scientist with the Global Futures Laboratory, will speak and engage at multiple events throughout the conference. His work at ASU revolves greatly around water policy and management. 

Unver said that the topic of water is often rolled into other conversations about food security, energy, climate and biodiversity. This has led to a lack of true focus on water — “and look where that approach has gotten us,” Unver said. 

Unver and Famiglietti both share the hope that the world will not have to wait another 46 years to see another large-scale conference about water. 

“It’s meetings like these that put decision-makers, scientists and water managers from around the world in the same space,” Famiglietti said. “These are the people we have to reach in order to make change happen.” 

Catalyzing water solutions beyond World Water Day

While World Water Day is an annual event, water is a year-round conversation at ASU — and it shows. ASU was ranked first in the United States and seventh in the world for impact on Sustainable Development Goal six by Times Higher Education.

University experts including Famiglietti, Unver and countless others make up a wide-ranging collective of researchers studying potential water outcomes. 

One such expert is Kathryn Sorensen, the director of research at ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. Her work recently has focused on the shortages from the Colorado River in central Arizona.

In examining the shortage situation, she reviewed and sorted through documents, contracts, leases and agreements spanning back decades that detailed where Colorado River water resources go when, in her words, “there isn’t enough water to go around.” 

“These documents, we learned, often contradict each other,” Sorensen said. “We took all of our work in sorting out the documents and put it into a mathematical model to create a visualization of that data so people can better understand the impact of the Colorado River shortage on their particular community.” 

The visualization was done in collaboration with ASU’s research and technology tool, Decision Theater. The product created is called the ASU Colorado River Visualization Enterprise (CuRVE) Project, which assists users to visualize where their water comes from and gives insight into what water shortage outcomes will look like for their communities. 

Sorensen said that a day such as World Water Day calls attention to the work that has been done in support of water outcomes, but also the work that still needs to be done. 

“Water is the foundation of public health, economic opportunity and quality of life, particularly in our desert cities,” she said. “It is our most precious resource. It is our obligation to steward it so that it provides for our needs tomorrow, but also so that it provides for future generations as well.”

Top photo: ASU School of Sustainability students worked with residents in Nepal to secure year-round irrigation for their crops using solar power to keep their groundwater wells flowing during dry seasons. This program was part of the school’s global studies program made possible with funding from the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative. Photo courtesy Arizona State University

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