On the 11th of July 2018, the second interdisciplinary Global Governance Symposium was held at the beautiful Villa Mondragone. The two keywords of the event were boundaries and resilience; experts from different academic disciplines came to present their vision and debate about it, giving us students a taste of the true experience of interdisciplinarity.
Professor Huub Rijnaarts, from the University of Wageningen, was a member of the panel debating on the meaning of resilience in the field of environmental engineering. We got a chance to ask him some questions related to his field and we also got a chance to discuss some of the global challenges we are facing. It is essential to understand how delicate these topics are and how important is to pay attention to the technicalities, in order not to spread misconceptions. However, the technical side alone is not enough, in order to solve global challenges is essential to work looking from different points of view, focusing especially on the social and economic scales.
Professor, thank you for giving us the opportunity to interview you. To start off, could you please tell us what is your work mainly about?
I’m a professor of environment and water technology, I work on developing new technologies to make water reusable in circular water systems. I develop technologies to develop all kinds of components from the water that are making the re-use of water difficult including chemicals, pathogenic microorganisms and salt out of water systems. That is what I do from a technical point of view. At the same time, I work in the industrial and urban engineering group in our department and we develop circular water systems, a more design and organizational oriented group.
Since you are part of an industrial and urban engineering group, what could be, in your opinion, solutions for some of the global challenges we are facing?
I think we need to solve problems from different point views, trying to combine different orientations. One orientation is, of course, related to my own field and that is about the need to change urban, industrial, agricultural and food systems; shifting from a linear resource system to a circular resource system. In the industrial cities we live in and in our agricultural systems, resources are depleted on a global scale, creating at the same time, waste and pollution; so, in linear resource systems resources are converted into waste. Therefore the big challenge is to create circular resource systems, where water and nutrients are brought to the cities and people; in this way, out of these waste streams, new resources are generated and brought back to the land, for food production for example. This is a technical procedure, of course. However, the most difficult issue is the social dimension and repercussion. Meaning that, on a social scale, the big challenge and need is to reorganize the existing structures that are based on segments and sectors, structures that sustain this unsustainable linear resource system. Therefore, to make possible and effective the creation of circular system what is needed is a social and institutional reorganization, essential to achieve it. That is why, even if my discipline is mainly about the technical sciences, I also work with the social and economic sciences.
When we talk about the issue of water, there are a lot of misconceptions and a spread fear that there is a real lack of water. Is it more appropriate to say that there is water but that there are severe difficulties in having fresh water useful and essential for human beings? Is the circular system a solution to this?
It depends on where we put boundaries, it depends on the perspective we use. If we look at planet earth in general, there is enough fresh water, but if you look at the local level there isn’t enough fresh water in some part of the world. There is a local-regional unavailability of water and that is the issue. Therefore, creating resilient and sustainable systems and, at the same time, managing the circular systems on a local scale can partially be an answer to this challenge.
What are the main difficulties you encounter when creating resilient cities? Is overpopulation an obstacle to the creation of resilient cities?
The difficulties are on different levels. Overpopulation can be both an obstacle and an opportunity, for example. If you have, for example, a really big and widespread population in a certain region, they can exhaust all the resources and create an unsustainable environment in a wide territory. If you have, a really high concentration of people in only a few big cities you may be able to organize and technically restructure the system, in a way that you can use the city as a circular system, a circular machinery. Therefore maybe, as things are working right now, this overpopulation and growth of cities is a disadvantage and a problem, but maybe this could be an opportunity to introduce in cities the circular economy and thereby also leaving certain regions and rural areas unaffected by human harmful activities.
What is the level of importance of developing efficient water system in facing climate change?
I think that the issue of water is more important than the energy problem right now. Everybody is focusing on energy, but if we would start to seriously focus on solar energy and wind power, the energy problem would be solved. In this way, in one or two decades, with efficient energy technologies, the problem would not be a problem anymore. On the other hand, the real problem is that the essence of life is fresh water. The world will be locally water limited and this is the biggest challenge for the future.
What about desalination? Could it help? If so, how come it’s not being used that often?
Yes, it can help, but it’s not widely used because of the energy and expenses it requires. Desalination can create other problems, for example, with the techniques of desalination there is always a concentration of salt that remains and this will create a more salty sea on the long run. This is already happening in the red sea around Saudi Arabia. There are currently higher salt levels in the sea, deteriorating the coral reefs, the ecosystem is already responding. A real sustainable solution is needed, desalination alone will not be enough to solve the problem.
Rossella Rao and Elsa Maria Festa
Image source: https://www.engineering.unsw.edu.au/civil-engineering/research/our-research/environmental-engineering