Water: More complicated than we thought

On Friday Oct. 13, the Benton Museum holds a panel inspired by their current exhibition 'Unifiltered: an Exhibition about Water." Professors Penny Vlahos, Veronica Herrera and Chester Arnold discuss the political, economic and environmental importance of water.  (Alex Taylor/The Daily Campus)

On Friday Oct. 13, the Benton Museum holds a panel inspired by their current exhibition 'Unifiltered: an Exhibition about Water." Professors Penny Vlahos, Veronica Herrera and Chester Arnold discuss the political, economic and environmental importance of water.  (Alex Taylor/The Daily Campus)

On Oct. 13, the William Benton Museum of Art hosted what may have been “the most scientific thing to happen at the Benton in the past three years,” said James Grindley, an 11th semester English major with a bachelor of science in physiology and neurobiology and an employee of the museum for a year.

Although the event was advertised as “Salon at the Benton Art and Conversation,” the panel discussion had little to do with art. Instead, they used the current exhibition “Unfiltered: An Exhibition about Water” as a springboard for a scientific and political discussion about water.

The event, modeled after the French salons of the 18th century, was centered around its panel comprised of talented university faculty which was moderated by Vice Provost for Academic Affairs John Volin. The panelists included Professor Penny Vlahos, an associate professor in the Chemistry Department, Professor Veronica Herrera, an assistant professor of political science and Chester Arnold, a water quality educator and director of the Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR).

“Water is the new oil,” Volin said to start the discussion. This bold opener set the tone for the following 90 minutes as the panelists fielded questions from the audience of their peers. The complicated questions and more complicated answers revealed that clean water, despite being seen as the most basic and important ingredient to life, is not available to developing regions across the globe. This begs the question that if “two thirds of the world lives in some sort of water stress,” according to Volin, and someone has the technology that these struggling areas need, why don’t they share it?

The answer: politics, power and money. “Our political systems are not designed to deal with long term problems,” Professor Vlahos said. Governments oftentimes seek short-term solutions to long-term problems such as a water scarcity because of the pressure of reelection. “Political terms are four or five years and for politicians there’s no benefit to care about what’s going to happen in 20 years,” Professor Vlahos said. Worse still, the short-term band-aids that politicians enact that make people feel like the problem is being addressed only temporarily solve water problems. After a few years, they create more problems in the future as things fall into disrepair.

“It’s not about construction.. What everyone hates to do is maintenance because it’s not sexy… the reason we have such damaged infrastructure is because politicians have limited political capital and a limited political window,” Professor Herrera said. Water problems are so persistent, Professor Herrera suggests, because politicians will only do what gets them re-elected. Fixing invisible, underground infrastructure does not immediately benefit them nearly as much as building a visible desalination plant would.

However, there is hope.

The University of Connecticut is “becoming a leader in this area,” Volin said. UConn has been hiring experts in sustainability across various disciplines including natural resources and the environment, civil and environmental engineering and intercultural resource economics. “There are probably over 50 experts now at UConn across different disciplines who have expertise in sustainable water resources,” Volin said. This “cluster hire,” as Volin called it, was to promote the kind of interdisciplinary research needed to solve problems surrounding water in our society.

Green infrastructure has been another key aspect in UConn’s steps towards becoming an environmentally conscious university. The red brick along Fairfield way is an example of this low impact development. “The way they’re laid down… when water goes on the sidewalk and starts going off, instead of going down the sewers, it sinks into the ground instead of going into a waterway,” Volin said. “The ground is a pretty natural good filter” so it’s better to have the water be cleaned by a natural process than to have it carry the pollutants down directly into waterways.

In a broader sense, Professor Herrera stressed the importance of organizing and defending your right to a clean environment. “The important thing to remember about political leaders’ decisions is that they are impacted by social and civic organizing and demands… governments do respond to citizens,” Professor Herrera said. In her research, she found that citizens who rallied and organized to defend their rights saw positive outcomes. It’s a matter of making the conscious decision to fight for what matters to you.


Alexis Taylor is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexis.taylor@uconn.edu.