Article

Sandra Postel is a freshwater conservationist.

Photograph by Becky Hale

By National Geographic Education Staff

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sandra studies the relationship between water resources and agriculture, industry, health, and security. She shares this information with the public through writing and lectures.

As founder of the Global Water Policy Project and lead expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, her goal is to promote the conservation and sustainable use of Earth’s freshwater resources.

EARLY WORK

Sandra says she grew up in New York as a “Long Island beach kid.” She was always aware of the “solace, peace, and balance” offered by the natural world, especially aquatic environments of wetlands and rivers.

In college, Sandra studied both the natural and human environments and how they interact with each other. She earned her undergraduate degrees in geology and political science from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Sandra went on to earn an M.E.M. degree from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. (M.E.M. stands for “Master of Engineering Management.” M.E.M. degrees combine the technical and scientific aspects of engineering with business and economic aspects of management.)

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Learning about people, developing solutions to big problems.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“So much to do, so little time!”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“The study of place, including social and ecological systems . . . the whole package! . . . I look at the world through a water lens, so geography also incorporates how water is being affected in a certain place.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Before starting work on a project, Sandra considers an area’s “geography of water”: the amount of water in the area’s aquifer or basin, the population, and the agricultural use of water.

The geography of water helps Sandra determine an area’s water stress. Water stress is the situation when a community is “using more water than nature made available.”

Communities can stress their water supply in many different ways: “Irrigation depletes rivers; populations rise, requiring more safe drinking water; the amount of water needed to supply food to a population—agriculture—grows,” Sandra explains.

Sandra first became aware of the concept of water stress after reading Swedish hydrologist Malin Falkenmark’s book Water for a Starving World. This groundbreaking work linked water use, food, and population.

As Sandra began to understand water stress, she realized it “affects everything,” from a community’s development to its political security. “So many great civilizations developed alongside rivers and lakes,” she says, pointing to the ancient civilizations of Ur (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), Egypt (which developed on the Nile), and the Indus River Valley.

Today, Sandra points out, more than 200 rivers are shared between two or more nations. Dams and other river management techniques implemented by nations upstream have a huge impact on nations downstream. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have their sources in Turkey, for example, but their basins are in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. River management from Turkey would impact the freshwater available to these countries for drinking, hygiene, industry, and transportation.

Water management has become part of many nations’ foreign policy. Sandra points to the Mekong River Commission. The headwaters of the Mekong River are in China, although the basin is nearly 800,000 square kilometers (308,881 square miles) and includes the nations of Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many governments are members of the Mekong River Commission, which promotes sustainable development of the water supply. China is not a member.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . CONSERVATIONIST

“Spend time outdoors. Find out which science you’re interested in, find your niche.”

Sandra also recommends at least some engineering classes. “When you find out how things work, you find out how to change to make it better.”


GET INVOLVED

“Know your watershed!”

Knowing where your water comes from creates a “connection to a place in nature, and what’s happening in nature . . . and how that affects you.”

Sandra also encourages everyone to be aware of their water footprint. There are four parts of a water footprint: household use, diet, energy, and materials. Household use includes water used for showering and washing clothes and dishes. Diet is the food we eat, including drinking water and the water used to grow foods, such as corn and tomatoes, and raise animals, such as cattle and pigs. Energy use includes the water used to build and operate cars, buses, and planes. Materials includes the water used to make clothing, furniture, and electronics.

Calculate your water footprint here.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

agriculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture

ancient

Adjective

very old.

aquatic

Adjective

having to do with water.

aquifer

Noun

an underground layer of rock or earth which holds groundwater.

Encyclopedic Entry: aquifer

aspect

Noun

view or interpretation.

basin

Noun

a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

Encyclopedic Entry: basin

beach

Noun

narrow strip of land that lies along a body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: beach

cattle

Noun

cows and oxen.

civilization

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Encyclopedic Entry: civilization

concept

Noun

idea.

conservation

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

Encyclopedic Entry: conservation

dam

Noun

structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

deplete

Verb

to use up.

development

Noun

construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

diet

Noun

foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

Encyclopedic Entry: diet

downstream

Noun

in the direction of a flow, toward its end.

ecological

Adjective

having to do with the relationship between organisms and their environment.

economic

Adjective

having to do with money.

electronics

Noun

devices or tools that use electricity to work.

energy

Noun

capacity to do work.

engineering

Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

food

Noun

material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

Encyclopedic Entry: food

foreign policy

Noun

courses of action or thought that guide a nation's relationship with other nations.

furniture

Noun

moveable articles, such as chairs and shelves, for furnishing a residence.

geography

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Encyclopedic Entry: geography

geology

Noun

study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

government

Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

groundbreaking

Adjective

innovative or pioneering.

headwater

Noun

source of a river.

health

Noun

condition of an organism's body and mind.

hydrologist

Noun

person who studies the distribution, circulation, and properties of water.

hygiene

Noun

science and methods of keeping clean and healthy.

impact

Noun

meaning or effect.

implement

Verb

to carry out plans.

incorporate

Verb

to blend or bring together.

industry

Noun

activity that produces goods and services.

interact

Verb

to work with or meet.

irrigation

Noun

watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation

lens

Noun

transparent substance used to alter a person's vision.

nation

Noun

political unit made of people who share a common territory.

Encyclopedic Entry: nation

niche

Noun

role and space of a species within an ecosystem.

political science

Noun

study of political systems and the structure and conduct of governments.

population

Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

promote

Verb

to encourage or help.

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

river

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

Encyclopedic Entry: river

river management

Noun

the art and science of controlling the flow, path, and power of rivers.

science

Noun

knowledge focused on facts based on observation, identification, description, investigation, and explanation.

security

Noun

safety or stability.

solace

Noun

something that gives comfort or respite.

sustainable

Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

sustainable development

Noun

human construction, growth, and consumption that can be maintained without damage to the natural environment.

technique

Noun

method of doing something.

transportation

Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

undergraduate

noun, adjective

having to do with the first (bachelor's) degree earned in college or university.

upstream

Adjective

toward an elevated part of a flow of fluid, or place where the fluid passed earlier.

Ur

Noun

one of the earliest cities in the world, established as an urban center on the Euphrates River and the Persian Gulf as early as 3000 BCE.

water

Noun

chemical compound that is necessary for all forms of life.

water footprint

Noun

total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community.

watershed

Noun

entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

Encyclopedic Entry: watershed

water stress

Noun

situation faced by a nation or community when the amount of available water is less than 1,700 cubic meters per person.

wetland

Noun

area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: wetland

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Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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