22 March, World Water Day

The Girona University has quite a lot to say about water, since some of its researchers have specialized in this field and are working on studying its environmental context, interpreting its management and foreseeing present and future need for it.

In 1992 the General Assembly of the United Nations established that on the 22 March every year the World Water Day would be celebrated. This day is a unique opportunity to remember that while we ignore or disregard such a basic commodity for our lives, many people in the world have no access to the amount of drinking water they need to survive.

Water, a complex issue

When UdG researchers decide to study some aspect of water, they run into a common challenge in any other research work: finding a balance between basic and applied research. Xavier Casamitjana is aware of the difficulties to solve this successfully and claims for a space at the university where this balance can be found. This environmental physicist, who has worked in the hydrodynamics of the Sau, Susqueda and El Pasteral reservoirs, points out the need for reliable models that allow a better understanding of water uses evolution. Geographer Anna Ribas, who, among other books, has published Las inundaciones en Girona [Floods in Girona], insists on the fact that the biggest challenge is to reduce uncertainty over everything we do not know about water issues, and agrees with Casamitjana that the university must provide understanding to reduce this uncertainty. She also says that research groups are very used to making contributions, but “the challenge is to take multidisciplinary approaches”.

Parallel to this debate, which is one of the more complex, runs another one, to determine to what extent the research done at universities has to be at the service of businesses or institutions related with water, since, according to Sergi Sabater, full professor of Ecology at UdG and deputy director of the Catalan Institute for Water Research (ICRA), “business people claim that we should pay attention to them and to specific problems”. There is a flashpoint in this issue, since according to the university “the client cannot be used directly, but neither can it be forgotten”, he adds. Nevertheless, even if the university is working to offer answers, that does not seem to guarantee that these answers, if they are right, can end up having an application. This is a limitation pointed out by the full professor in Analytic Chemistry Victoria Salvadó, who maintains that those who deal with economic and political issues are the ones who do not pay enough attention to scientists. In her opinion, the example is the United States, a country where there is an agency for water issues giving advice to the Government in decision making since many years ago. Perhaps the drought we have suffered over recent years, she says, “has favoured that certain investments that were being claimed by the scientific sector start to be applied”.


Water:  a scientific or an ideological debate

Nonetheless, this scientist’s position regarding water issues is not one of centrality, as warned by Anna Ribas, who admits that in these so complex debates, “we scientists are just another agent”. However, that does not mean being supporting actors; they must be capable of taking the right stance. In order to stay in its rightful place, the university has made efforts such as organizing the Master’s Degree in Water Management, one of the first in its category in the country, whose mission is to train experts with a broad view about problems so that they can apply it from a specific perspective.

However, the water debate is not only a scientific one. Manel Serra is the vice president of the UdG Social Council and the president of the Costa Brava Consortium, and perhaps because he stands in between the two sides, he finds he is in a position to introduce provoking elements in this discourse. Serra says that when people talk about water, they are using a polysemous term, since “one is not sure whether they are talking about drinking water, water carried by a river, bottled water….”. He goes even further and says that when talking about research, “are we talking about molecules, micropollutants, drought…?”. He recognises the validity of actions like the master’s degree organized by UdG, but he thinks a bigger effort in terms of scientific spreading is needed.


Water is scarce and badly distributed

UdG Environmental expert Renan Goetz finds it strange that the concept of scarcity, regarding water, may come as a surprise for many people. There are other commodities that are scarce and nobody doubts about it. What happens is “water is free and we only have tried to take it wherever it has become necessary, but we have not thought about its management”, concludes Goetz. Water is scarce and it is badly distributed, since it is not enough in some areas and there is plenty in others. And it is not only important that it is available, but also that it has an acceptable quality. This is highlighted by Victoria Salvadó, who sees water pollution as an added risk that should be taken into account from now on. This researcher gives the example of India, where, due to human pressure on resources, very deep wells have been built and as a result, the water taken from them has considerable values of arsenic dissolved, occurring naturally in water, and that entails a risk for people’s health. Manel Serra also recalls the controversy over the water in Caldes de Malavella, which was said to be polluted with fluorine, and as a result, specialists denounce the lack of adaptation of certain political measures that prove not to be adjusted to local realities, that are conditioned by particular factors when it comes to water quantity and quality. 


The university: from a reactive to a proactive attitude

According to the full professor in Chemical Engineering Manel Poch, what the university should do with an issue of this kind is go from a reactive to a proactive attitude. He does not talk a lot about identifying problems and then “making an effort to apply experience”. This chemist suggests, from a strictly local interest, that if Girona wishes to recover the water of the river Ter, the first thing to do is determine what is in danger and, after that, do research to prove it. He does not doubt that water problems are diverse, but he says categorically that “there is leadership, otherwise, we will not advance or solve any problems”.

It seems that the university can not only assume the role of doing research, it should also act as a dissemination centre, although for this to happen, some changes are needed. Renan Goetz says that in the United States, lecturers are asked to do outreach, a sort of contribution to the common good in the form of dissemination activities or social work. This is not very common among Spanish lecturers, who are suffocated with research work, teaching and the burdensome bureaucracy that goes with them. It is true that the media are open to expert contributions, as confirmed by Anna Ribas, since “whenever I have wished to write in newspapers, they have accepted straightaway”, but the model of disseminator lecturer is not getting off the ground, and debates like the one about water remain a current burning issue, as Manel Poch says sententiously, “full of stereotypes that are completely superficial”.

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