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The global water crisis

Less than 0.1 percent of the planet’s water is available for safe use, and challenges centered on H2O form the nexus of some of society’s most pressing environmental issues. As a result, the world’s water crisis is an urgent matter that must be addressed, according to environmental policy expert Brian Helmuth, a professor of marine and environmental science and public policy at Northeastern.

“The world is becoming flatter but there are still huge disparities in access to clean water,” he said, noting that the average American uses 176 gallons of water per day compared to five for the average African. “A lot of experts have said that access to safe water will be the next determinant of global conflict.”

The worldwide water problem is the focus of this semester’s  Myra Kraft Open Classroom series, which will be co-led by Helmuth as well as Joan Fitzgerald, professor and interim dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, which sponsors the seminar series; extreme weather expert Auroop Ganguly, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Lee Breckenridge, a professor of law and expert in environment and natural resources law.

Titled “Water: Challenges of Extremes,” the series will run from Jan. 8 to April 13 and be held on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. in West Village F. Video recordings of every lecture in the series will be uploaded to Cognoscenti, WBUR’s ideas and opinions page.

Each semester, one graduate-level seminar is selected for the series and opened up to the entire campus and the public for free. Registration information can be found here while undergraduate and graduate students can take the course for credit.

This semester’s series aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global challenges in health, security, and sustainability. In particular, the Marine Science Center and the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences are marshaling their resources to address the critical need for sustainable urban coastal environments.

Throughout the series, topics of discussion will range from water scarcity, desalinization, fisheries, and aquaculture to energy, economics, national security, and human health.

At the first open classroom of the semester on Wednesday evening, Shafik Islam, the director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University, posed a rhetorical question to a score of students and community members: “Will water,” he asked, “lead to war?”

Shafik Islam, the director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University, posed a chilling question: “Will water lead to war?”

Shafik Islam, the director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University, posed a chilling question: “Will water lead to war?” Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The case for such an outcome, he said, is that clean water is a flexible, yet limited, natural resource—one that will continue to fuel conflict among competing stakeholders for the foreseeable future.

“We need to find common ground when a resource is limited and its uses are many,” Islam explained. “In 50 years, access to water will still be a problem unless we begin to think of it differently.”

In addition to Islam, the interdisciplinary group of guest speakers will include Eric Danner, an ecologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center; Katharine Hayhoe, at atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University; and Jennifer Pournelle, a landscape archaeologist and research assistant professor at the University of South Carolina.

The semester’s final two guest speakers— hydrology expert James Famiglietti and Peter Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research and policy center focused on freshwater issues—have been featured in a 2011 documentary on the world’s water crisis called Last Call at the Oasis, which is currently being screened at Boston’s Museum of Science.