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USD Just Read: 'The Price of Thirst' Author Speaks on Water's Future

USD Just Read: 'The Price of Thirst' Author Speaks on Water's Future

Karen Piper, at one time, was like most people when it came to thinking about water. "I grew up in the desert (China Lake, CA) so I didn't understand water so much when I was growing up because I thought it was just something that came out of the tap; just like I think a lot of Americans do. When I was younger, I remember asking my parents where we got water and they said 'it comes from under the ground, there's plenty of it and it will last forever.'"

What was once a satisfying answer for a young girl has significantly changed for Piper as a result of personal health issues, research, her educational pursuit of a graduate degree in environmental studies, global travel to see the water crisis firsthand and a master's thesis that was the foundation for her 2014 book, The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos.

"What water means to me now is a very philosophical question," said the University of Missouri professor and author of 2016-17's USD Just Read! book selection. "I think it is a connector in life, a balm. I think it's something that holds the world together."

Water: Life and Death

Water, in many ways and places, is a matter of life or death. One-fifth of the world does not have access to clean water. There's a rise in water privatization sources. States such as California are experiencing drought conditions. Pollution, the loss of groundwater and the effects of climate change threaten water’s future existence.

"Water is going to be a global problem," said Piper, prior to a keynote talk Nov. 10 in USD's Shiley Theatre. "Take Africa for instance. If people lose access to water, what are they going to do? They try to immigrate from Northern Africa into Europe. The major drought in Syria has led to furthering the unrest there and massive immigration. Millions of people have been affected and now it has turned into war, but it started with the drought. It's something that's breaking down borders."

And, Piper said, it's not just an "over there" problem. The United States experiences water issues, even if many still liken their knowledge of it much like Piper’s perception when she was a child.

"There's been more awareness of water issues, but I think it geographically depends where you are in the U.S. as to how you think about it. I suspect the majority of Americans still think of water as something that comes from the tap," she said. "On the west coast I think there's a lot more conversation and thought than on the east coast because it is such a fraught and divisive issue here. Overall, I think people tend to take water for granted until something goes wrong."

Awareness on USD's Campus

Having her book read by the campus community, she hopes, will raise awareness and inspire students to act and work on solutions.

"People need to look outside the box more than they're used to," she said. "Climate change is going to require that we change the way we live and think. Deep, structural changes in our society will be required and it's really difficult to do. The more people can go outside of their comfort zone, the better."

The USD Just Read program, run through the Center for Education Excellence, encourages literacy and deep dialogue on social themes presented through literature to the campus and the San Diego community. It is an opportunity for an interdisciplinary study of water.

The USD Changemaker Hub’s annual Changemaker Challenge is focused on student ideas for water conservation. The book is in use for USD classes this fall, including two political science courses and a Spanish class that is examining the chapter on how a coup opened Chile's water markets. Campus event programming around the book includes discussions, a faculty-led panel, Piper's talk and film screenings.

Michael Catanzaro, director of USD's Office of Sustainability, said USD is doing its part. Earlier this year in a USD News Center video interview, he stated, "USD is on track to use the least amount of water we've used in 30 years. That's due to awareness campaigns, efficiency projects and significant re-landscaping projects. We've removed more than 250 sprinkler heads from campus. We’re really changing the way the campus looks and feels but without compromising the beauty and integrity of the grounds."

Looking Ahead, Post-Election

Last Tuesday's presidential election outcome does affect how the U.S. moves ahead under President-Elect Donald Trump.

"The first thing that needs to happen is adherence to the (Paris) Climate Change Agreement and I don't think that's going to happen since Trump was elected," Piper said. "The most important thing for people to do is to make him stick to that agreement because if we don't, things are going to be catastrophic no matter which way you look at it."

So what she would say to Trump if given the chance to meet with him? "I'd talk to him about his children and whether his children want to have children and talk about what the future will be like. There would be a completely new climate and it can never be undone. By 2050, five billion people will be living in a new climate, living in constant heat stress. It'll be like living with a 103 degree fever all the time."

California has water infrastructure problems and changes because of climate change would lead to "decade-long droughts" here.

"The way we think about water matters a lot. I think if water is seen as a (business) commodity, then you separate it from the land. When you separate it from the land, environmental destruction starts. I think people need to put the world back together in their minds," she said.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Karen Piper, University of Missouri professor, is author of The Price of Thirst, a book chosen as the 2016-17 USD Just Read! selection. She spoke at USD on Nov. 10.Karen Piper, University of Missouri professor, is author of The Price of Thirst, a book chosen as the 2016-17 USD Just Read! selection. She spoke at USD on Nov. 10.

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