VT News Story

BLACKSBURG, Va., May 19, 2015 – A Virginia Tech ecologist provided potential solutions to the world’s water problems in an article published recently in the United Nations’ Chronicle.

The report will assist the United Nations in finalizing its post-2015 sustainable development goals, which include ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

The goals were proposed by world leaders at the Rio+20 conference held in Brazil in 2012 and were meant to set realistic, action-oriented targets for global sustainable development.

Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Fralin Life Science
Institute affiliate, partnered with Justin Brookes, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Adelaide, to prepare the report.

The report focuses on four objectives:

  • Separation of drinking water from wastewater;
  • Access to treated water in the home or within a short walk;
  • Protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems that have been degraded by human activity; 
  • Development of water-sharing agreements to ensure equitable access for all water users.

“Justin and I had a lot of long discussions about how best to put the report together, and evaluated a list of possible solutions that the U.N. is considering,” said Carey, who is also affiliated with the Interfaces of Global Change interdisciplinary graduate education program and the new Global Change Center at Virginia Tech.

“We recognized that it is impossible to complete all objectives, given the enormous economic and cultural barriers, but felt strongly that our recommendations must be grounded in strong science,” Carey said. “Our goal was to recommend solutions to the U.N. that were able to contribute both to the protection of the natural environment as well as ensure a good quality of life, following the premise that water sustains life, but clean, safe drinking water defines civilization.”

Less than half of the world has access to safe drinking water, a problem that increases with human population growth, climate change, pollution, disease, land-use change, nutrient pollution, and other pressures.

Although 70 percent of the Earth is made up of water, only 2.5 percent of it is freshwater and most of that is locked up in glaciers, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The United Nations estimates that about 3.5 million people, mostly in developing countries, die each year because of inadequate water supply, sanitation, and hygiene.

Carey focuses primarily on lakes and reservoirs because they are critically important for drinking water, fisheries, industry, and recreation. She wants to know if warmer temperatures and increased nutrients interact to promote algal blooms, and, if so, which lake management techniques could offset future decreases in water quality.

Carey teaches undergraduate freshwater ecology courses as well as a graduate class entitled “Freshwaters in the Anthropocene,” which explores global water sustainability issues.