Skip to main

Dean’s Blog: Transforming our future through water

President Gregory Washington speaks to College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm
President Gregory Washington interviews Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm for the Mason: Our Future Transformed series on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by: Cristian Torres/Strategic Communications/George Mason University.

If you think about your first history lesson, water was in it. Remember the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia? Battles over this invaluable resource have been happening for a long time; they’re happening now, and they will continue to happen in the future. 

As a trained hydrologist and water resources engineer, for decades I’ve studied water and its connection to food, energy, ecosystems, health and economics around the world. A portion of my research considers how humans drive future water scarcity changes across future socioeconomic development pathways. I've also explored climate-hydrology-vegetation interactions and the resilience of the natural systems that provide us with this vital elixir. The vast majority of my work has concentrated on modeling surface and groundwater systems and applying remote sensing techniques to hydrologic cycle processes and water quality.

I recently had the opportunity to join George Mason University President Washington and Mason's Honors College students and University Scholars on the Our Future, Transformed series to think about water as a commodity like oil, and its optimized use and effect on people and communities that rely on it.

Sometimes there’s too much water. And other times, not enough of it. And we’re even trading it for what we might need in the future.

Although most think of rivers and lakes as the places that contain vast amounts of water, the largest amount of water worldwide is actually contained in the soil. Soils and natural systems are the biggest water regulators globally. 

When water becomes concentrated in places where we built too much infrastructure, urban flooding becomes a bigger issue.

Temperature increases due of global warming and deforestation intensify these problems. When we take out trees and clear out land, the water moves through the land much quicker and rivers that naturally drain into coastal areas do so much faster. When we build cities and roads, we are replacing natural systems (that can regulate water flow and can absorb it, and can prevent flooding from happening), with pavements and buildings that tend to concentrate water, and that’s where we are having the flooding problems around the world.

I grew up in Miami where they experience something called ‘sunny day flooding.’ That means it floods when there is no rain. It’s just the water coming up and flooding significant property. With more freshwater coming in and sea level rising, the result is a grand challenge of significant increase in coastal flooding here in this country-- and around the world. 

Or consider other disasters when the opposite occurs, when water is scarce in the soil due to a drought. We know, for example, this can result in wildfires spreading more quickly. A possible solution to that is to build systems that can store water and regulate the moisture content of the soils. STEM professionals of today and tomorrow are trying to find ways to allow natural systems to store water in a way to prevent these things from happening.

Actually, one of the biggest things we do when we don’t get water optimization right is to extract water from a source like a river or a well, and use it, and then throw it away. And then we get more water, use it, and throw it away.

A pioneering process called water reuse basically lets us take the water, use it, clean it, use it again, clean it, and use it again. This is much more efficient and sustainable. First of all, the water is already there. One need not go to a source to get it. And we can treat it in real time as we use it. This allows us to preserve the water sources for when we really need them. Water scarcity and optimization is going to be a continuous challenge, but I think water reuse needs to be a big part of how we approach it.

A couple of years ago in Nature Climate Change, I characterized Water as ‘the middle child’ in global climate policy. In this and other research, improved management of water has important benefits in both climate adaptation and mitigation. As such, I suggested water must be explicitly considered in climate policy, on par with its energy and land ‘siblings.’

Water is an integral part of most ecosystems around the world. The moment our human activities--growing food, producing energy, and distributing water --, interrupt the natural process of the hydrologic cycle, we disturb ecosystems in a big way. The water crisis is not just about water, it’s about everything. Water touches everything including the very systems in which we live. If scientists can get this right, we truly can transform our future.