On 19 March, the IAI and the Organization of America States (OAS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding during a session on strengthening the link between science and policy to enhance cooperation in integrated management of water resources. The collaboration between the IAI and the OAS aims to establish a framework for cooperation mechanisms between their respective Parties to provide stronger scientific contribution to policy processes and to build human and institutional capacities in the Americas.
In celebration of World Water Day 2019, as part of the IAI Interview Series, we talked to Dr. Gerardo Perillo, lead investigator of the IAI network “SAFER: Sensing the Americas’ Freshwater Ecosystem Risk from Climate Change (CRN 3038)”, that studies the impact of climate change on the freshwater ecosystem and the socio-cultural aspects of water resource management.
Dr. Gerardo Perillo is an oceanographer, a full professor at Universidad Nacional del Sur Argentina and senior researcher at the Argentinian Institute of Oceanography. His researches include a wide range of water-related subjects. He won several prizes including the prestigious Konex Award for his distinguishing work on biological interactions in estuaries and coastal wetlands.
Water is taken for granted, however, we need to see it as essential for us and other living organisms. The question is, do we realize how bad is the situation we are right now?
How would you explain your main research idea and why it is important?
I am an oceanographer, but along my whole carrier I studied a wide range of subjects related to water, such as lakes, rivers and, especially, coastal environments. My main interest is in monitoring water ecosystems to provide adequate information and understand how water plays a major role in the ecosystem. I am particularly interested in advancing the concept of ecological flows ("e-flow"). These are the required flows to maintain adequate ecological conditions along the whole basin.
In this sense, there is probably confusion among people, and many scientists too, that ecosystems are there exclusively to provide services to the people. Although we do need those services, very few people actually think about what we can do for those ecosystems. When we talk to stakeholders, we need to reinforce the idea that we cannot always take away from the ecosystem; we have to give some back.
That seems to be related to our next question: Many people seem to take water for granted or are not aware of their influence on the freshwater ecosystem. People always take away from the ecosystem but don't really think about giving back.
That is true. People don't understand that. We are working with a new concept now, which is the internal value of an ecosystem. In a sense, we want to know how valuable the ecosystem is in itself, rather than measuring how much it is worth for the people: what is normally known as ecosystem services. For example, if we consider the case of a lake: how much is worth the phytoplankton, or the sediment, or the amount of water in this ecosystem for the ecosystem itself, not as services for the people. The interaction between them is based on the energy transfer among various elements of the ecosystem. We can give them an energy value, rather than a dollar-value, which is what normally is being done for the ecosystem services. It is a completely different concept. This is about taking people out of the equation as end receivers of the services, nevertheless, since humans have started to relate with the ecosystems, we also became part of the equation within the ecosystem being either providers or subtractors of the energy.
What is the biggest threat to the freshwater ecosystem, and how can we react to it?
Various kinds of contamination, obviously. Especially microplastics are one of the main issues we are currently addressing. This is a serious issue, a major threat to our health and to all ecosystems. Right now, we don't have the ways to filter them. The problem is that since people can't see microplastics, it is very difficult for them to see it as a threat. It is important to educate people. The proofs are there, but because of economic or political reasons, those problems are not being addressed enough. They are trying to avoid the issue, but in the end, it will catch up, and future generations will be really affected. The stakeholders and decision makers must act promptly to address this issue.
This, and all water related problems, will never be solved through a top down approach. Including from the beginning the stakeholders who are facing the problem, is key, as well as listening to them because, as they know well their region, it is possible that they already have potential solutions that, from a distance, wouldn’t be obvious. Of course, this means a deep cooperation at a local, regional and world level, aimed to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) related to water and sanitation for all. It is impossible to solve the problem of water without the unrestricted cooperation of all governments. Consultation to specialists is essential, for sure, but even more important, a deep and proactive process of education at all levels is needed. If each one of us is not convinced that we need to change our attitude, and don’t take a role of educator and controller for achieving the SDGs, all the actions will be in vain. Without our active participation we will never meet the results needed.
This year’s World Water Day theme is “Water for All”. Not everyone has equal access to safe water. How do you suggest we resolve this inequality?
That is an extremely difficult question. Because it is not only a problem of developing the infrastructure so everybody has equal access, but it is also associated with the climate distribution. This is about the natural imbalance in the planet, and that is not an easy problem to solve. What we have to do, in a sense, is to figure out how to improve the situation for the people that are lacking water resources. There is a case in southern Argentina, which is also a major part of our SAFER project. We have a lake in the center part of Patagonia that basically has disappeared, due to both climate variability and a series of infrastructures that were made to prevent flooding of certain areas but also to improve the irrigation for agriculture
However, the consequence was the disappearance of a very large lake. But it was not only the lake that suffered this situation, there was a river that originated from that lake, which now is completely dry, affecting all the agriculture activities along the path of the river. This exactly what I meant for e-flows, the services taken from the river previous to reaching the lake, affected the e-flow needed to sustain the ecosystems downstream.
This is just one example of many cases where changes in the climate condition coupled with human action produce the reduction of lakes, the reduction of water flows, and much less water going to the sea, which changes the distribution of the flora and fauna in the coastal areas.
The point is that people probably don't realize that the water is not only the typical cycle we all learned in school, but there is a complete interconnection from the source of the river to the last point the water flow, which is the ocean, but there are actions that interfere with such cycle that in the end modify it. We shouldn't pay attention to just one part of the water without thinking about the downstream. We have to consider the whole system.
Could you tell me what you like to do when you aren't doing research?
When you do research with passion, it is not a job. It's a hobby. Of course, I am not saying that I work all the time. Spending time with my family is very important. I was blessed because everyone in my family is a researcher in very close subjects that helps us to interact and even to publish together. Normally, I do a lot of walking, running, and I play golf, too. I do enjoy the beach.
What is one bit of science that you think everyone should know?
You need to know enough to know what’s real science and what isn’t. The information we have does not always come from a reliable source. To avoid misinformation, I would suggest getting information from academic organizations, not from some stranger on the Internet. Before accepting information from the web, it’s best to look for other sources that can corroborate o counterbalance that information. In the end, you can have your own educated opinion about the subject.
Anyway, to me, the main problem we are facing worldwide is the lack of adequate education, especially for the younger generations. People around the world are easily influenced by the incorrect information, in many cases they are not able to differentiate if what they are receiving is correct or not. The problem is that we are losing the capacity to be critical about the data being given to us. A part of the SAFER project was about providing information and data to help the local teachers to develop programs related to water. As you know, we published two books. Those books were directly aimed to provide education to the children in an entertaining way.
Would you tell me your vision/goal for 2019?
My goal this year is to retire but keep going: to continue to have fun by doing research. Then, I will have more time to go to the beach. The nice thing about my beach is that I have a complete set of instruments already installed so I can keep doing my research there. People usually go to the beach and "look" at it, but I actually try "to see" the beach. Those are two completely different concepts. Seeing the sea is very interesting because it is dynamic, you never see the same sea, it is always different and many times, does not repeat again.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?
Probably more math. A deeper understanding of mathematics would have really helped me with my research. Mathematics helps you develop a method of reasoning; it's not just about solving a theorem. I worry about school and university programs that are reducing the number of hours or courses in math, that should be the other way around, even for the social sciences. On the other hand, we need to help math teachers to develop new ways to make math more enjoyable to learn.