ASU's Gober: Developing world far ahead of US in water conservation

By

Scott Seckel

The Stockholm Water Prize is considered the Nobel Prize of water.

Celebrated for 25 years, it is the world’s most respected award for outstanding water achievements.

This year, Arizona State University professor emeritus Patricia Gober was on stage with the honor of reading the citation prepared by the nomination and selection committee.

“It was a majestic affair, befitting the prize,” she said of the black-tie prize ceremony and royal banquet. 

Rajendra Singh accepted the prize from the King of Sweden, His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, as Gober stood by. Singh was honored for modernizing ancient ways of collecting and storing rainwater in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, consequently restoring several rivers and ensuring water for thousands of villagers.

The prize honors individuals, organizations and institutions whose work contributes to the conservation and protection of water resources, and to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. All who have made extraordinary water-related achievements are eligible. Gober serves as a member of the prize’s nomination and selection committee.

She said the prize was the culmination of World Water Week, an annual global meeting in Stockholm for the world's water community. The king and crown princess showed up for presentations during the week’s events.

“We don’t usually have kings and queens at science presentations,” said Gober, interim director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Gober co-founded ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City and was its co-director for its first seven years, and she’s a recipient of the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, Water Resources Management and Protection, another highly prestigious recognition.

While elbowing with royalty was unusual for her, what struck Gober was how far ahead of the industrialized West developing countries are in water conservation.

“We could learn some very good lessons (from them),” she said. “Why should we think our lives will be any different than those folks?”

Developing countries deal with water in terms of prioritizing drinking and sanitation first, not in choosing almonds over lawns.

“Do we grow lettuce or lawns? Those are the choices,” Gober said. “We will have to morph into a more sustainable model. … How do we assess the risk of not having enough water?”

As the drought in California continues and snowpacks around the West shrink, the situation will call for a wholesale change in how we live, Gober said.

“Insurance has tables for flooding,” she said. “We’ll have insurance tables for water availability and drought.”

Although the situation in California has caught the attention of the entire country, it will take corporate awareness to begin bringing about the type of change the developing world has wrought, as exemplified by Singh’s work in India.

“When business sees its activities are being curtailed and they come to the table, we’ll have serious discussions about water,” Gober said. “It’s a big deal for companies like Coca-Cola.”

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is a unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.