The Paradox of Water
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

Last year, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence ranked water scarcity on a par with terrorism as a national security threat. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it would cost more than $380 billion to repair America’s aging and inadequate water infrastructure over the next 20 years. Yet analysts say that even an effort of that magnitude might not be enough to address the profound and imminent “water stress” that plagues many cities and towns.

In recent years, water security in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America has contributed to violent conflicts in Cameroon, Chad, Darfur, and Sudan; shortages and political upheaval in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru; and civil war in Syria. And, as the saying goes, oil and water do not mix—some of the world’s most oil-rich nations are also some of the world’s most water-stressed, including Bahrain, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

On the other hand, the world’s coastal regions suffer from a surfeit of seawater. As polar ice and glacial reserves have melted at an alarming rate over the last decade, sea levels have risen at an equally alarming rate—eroding coastlines, compounding the deleterious effects of hurricanes and typhoons, and threatening ill-prepared cities and towns. These regions are poised not only for near-destruction, but for a population shift on an unimaginable scale. From Miami to Mumbai to Mauritius, sea level rise will change the landscape and our habitation of cities.

In light of all of this, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when Time magazine published an infrastructure round robin on March 30, architects were billed as “visionary thinkers” at the center of the debate—along with their colleagues in engineering, landscape architecture, planning, and sustainability. Seizing the moment to act is not the domain of one leader, one government agency, one NGO, or even one nation. It must be a collective effort guided by vigorous debate about the dire paradox that water presents to our time and our stewardship of this planet for future generations. As millions of Americans recover from last month’s devastating hurricanes, here are some water-related lines of inquiry by experts in key disciplines.

• John Englander, oceanographer, on planning for the inevitably rising seas
• William Morrish, professor of urban ecologies, on the need to understand water
• David Rifkind, associate professor of architecture, on Miami's opportunity to transformation
• Dana Bourland, vice president of JPB Foundation's environment program, on water as a basic human right
• Henk Ovink, principal of Rebuild by Design, on water's place in our uncertain future