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Van-Thanh-Van Nguyen is man in demand – which is no surprise considering his current research focuses on the hot-button issue of how climate change affects water resources. Fresh off a plane from Asia, where he had just delivered keynote addresses in Malaysia and Vietnam, the Endowed Brace Professor Chair in Civil Engineering faced an interview with the McGill Reporter first thing Monday morning. Unfazed by jetlag, Nguyen was keen to talk all things water, turning a 30-minute interview into an hour-long discusion/debate between himself, this reporter and Claudio Calligaris, the photographer. As Director of McGill's renowned Brace Centre for Water Resources Management, no one is more aware of complexity concerning the simple element of water than Nguyen, and no one is more eager to share his knowledge.
What is the Brace Centre?
The Brace Centre is a collection of McGill researchers from different faculties who are involved in understanding and improving water resources management, both in Canada and internationally.
What is Brace's greatest strength?
Our interdisciplinary approach allows us to tackle even the most complex water issues in great depth. We also have a very good combination of people, with senior professors and younger ones recently hired by McGill. Since last year, with the addition of new members, we now cover a wider scope of water issues although our main focus is on water, agriculture and climate change.
We recently held our annual Brace Reasearch Day and I was extremely impressed with the variety of student projects and the quality of their presentations. They covered everything from climate change and new irrigation methods to greywater and greenhouse gases from reservoirs.
Here in Quebec, it is easy to be complacent about a water crisis. How readily available is water?
We are lucky we have so much water, but we also have real issues in Canada. Geographically, precipitation across Canada is not uniform, so we have severe drought problems in the Prairies. Also, most of our rivers run north but the bulk of our population lives south so fresh water isn't nearly as accessible as people think.
Can't we just divert some of that water up north to quench the parched areas of the country?
It's not easy. Personally, the main issue is our ability to maintain environmental sustainability and the natural equilibrium. This natural equilibrium has been established over millions of years; I'm not so sure if we should be tampering with that. If you remove water from one place, what new problems are you creating and how prepared are you to manage those new challenges?
It sounds like it is a very complex issue.
It is, and necessarily so. Everyone is now talking about integrated water resources management. We can't only look at these issues in one way, we have to bring in other factors such as socio-economic and cultural implications, and legal and ethical issues while looking at complete physical and biological ecosystems. As a shared resource, water creates a whole set of extremely complex issues and is just one component of a much bigger system.
Does it get more complex globally?
Absolutely. In many developing countries they just don't have the ability to develop. It's not a question of lack of water – some countries with a lot of water resources don't have the means to develop that resource. Niger is a perfect example – very high water resources, but they don't have the necessary political system governing them.
The management structure of water resources is a big issue. In Vietnam there are so many departments dealing with water that overlap and they don't want to share the knowledge or power. It makes it very difficult to make any progress.
What else is Brace focusing on?
We have a group of researchers looking at extreme weather, mostly floods and how we deal with floods and extreme drought. Part of our research is in predicting or forecasting these types of events and understanding what are the main factors behind floods and drought. We also are looking at managing or minimizing the impact when these extreme weather events occur.
How easy is it to predict extreme weather events or long-term trends?
No two storms are alike, so forecasting is rather difficult. One of our long-term goals is to provide a reliable or physically plausible scenario for things like precipitation or temperature over the next 100 years. This will allow officials to make an assessment and apply this to the planning of things like transportation and public health.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world's water supply?
[Laughing] I'm an engineer and engineers see themselves as problem-solvers. I don't know if I'm an optimist because we are facing some big, big challenges, but I'm still looking for solutions.
But are there really technological solutions, when some of the big problems include the global population growth and no coercive pricing to get people to moderate their water consumption?
Sure, here in Quebec we wash our cars using drinking water because we think it's free. But it isn't. And people in the government are starting to talk about installing water meters in industries to try and control their water use.
Pricing it is a very difficult issue. In countries where people pay for water, when the prices go up, the poor go thirsty. In Malaysia, they hired a French company to manage their water resources and they tried to make a profit.
The question then becomes, is water a public good or an economic good? What happens when you try to make a profit with water?
Again, it comes down to integrated water resources management. You can't just implement water pricing without having a clear understanding of the potential problems that will arise.
Of course, we're back to where we started, aren't we? In order to look at things like climate change and water resources management, we need to take an integrated, global approach that includes issues of property rights, human behaviour and population control.