Water, that chemically unique, mundanely ubiquitous and increasingly precious commodity of life itself, is the chief passion of Ellen Douglas, associate professor of hydrology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In recognition of her accomplishments and her potential to contribute even more knowledge for building an environmentally sustainable future, she is the recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship.
“Globally, we humans gobble up about half of all accessible freshwater,” says Douglas. “Either directly through agriculture, industrial, and domestic water use, or indirectly in the form of instream uses such as pollution, abatement, and cooling.”
Douglas will travel to Australia in November 2013 in order to continue her work on hydrology and climate change impacts, spending eight months in the cities of Adelaide and Canberra. She will work with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), or Australia’s national science agency, to assign an economic value to the Murray-Darling Basin, a 400,000-square-mile agricultural area named for two major rivers that run through it. Douglas calls the river basin the “bread basket” of Australia.
“The Murray-Darling is highly overused. Everybody wants water, and at some point there’s not enough to go around, so how do you decide who gets water and who doesn’t?” asks Douglas. “One way of doing that is assigning some sort of a dollar value and then trading the value of the water like we do other things that we purchase.”
Douglas further explains, “One of the major reasons for human overuse of water is that conventional economic analyses do not assign a value to freshwater ecosystem services; we use the water for free, typically only paying for the cost of developing and transporting it to where we need it. In order to reverse this unsustainable, and some argue, unethical practice, ecologists and economists have gotten together to properly value our ecosystem services.”
She says conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin are similar to those near the Yakima River in eastern Washington, which she has previously studied. Douglas’s research has involved the analysis of regional to global scale hydrologic processes and the impacts of human water use (particularly agricultural irrigation) on the hydrologic cycle. Specific research activities include quantifying non-sustainable water use globally, identifying the role of water scarcity in social conflict in Africa, and investigating the impacts of moisture fluxes from irrigation on land-atmosphere interactions in India.
“Quantifying the value of freshwater ecosystems, and then incorporating those values into water management models to support water savings, will be the focus of my research in Australia,” says Douglas.
New England, indeed much of the U.S., is facing many of the same water-related challenges but Australia is leading the way in meeting them. Douglas expects that her research with the CSIRO will be directly transferable to water management here at home. As such, her research directly supports UMass Boston’s global mission for cross-cultural and comparative research initiatives.
More importantly, an Intelligence Community Assessment report to the U.S. State Department in February 2012 warned that “water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.” The partnership Douglas hopes to begin developing between the U.S. and Australia during her Fulbright experience may well prove to be one small but important step towards reducing that risk and improving global water security.
The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FSB) is the presidentially appointed 12-member board that is responsible for establishing worldwide policies for the Fulbright Program and for selection of Fulbright recipients. Fulbright alumni have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, university presidents, journalists, artists, professors and teachers. They have been awarded 43 Nobel Prizes.
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