What is the global water crisis and how do we solve it?

After posing that question recently to an audience of nearly 300 at UCF, environmental advocate Alexandra Cousteau provided part of the answer. Some 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, which is “a human tragedy of epic proportions,” she said.

Cousteau, granddaughter of oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau, was among the specialists in environmental issues addressing UCF’s annual Summit on the Environment and Global Climate Change. The event was a co-curricular component of the UCF General Education Program Unifying Theme, “The Environment and Global Climate Change,” organized in cooperation with the UCF Global Perspectives Office.

Dr. Linda Walters, a professor of biology at UCF, delivered the opening presentation on how humans have affected the biological state of our water. Walters connected several imminent threats – including ocean acidification, diseases, invasive species and habitat destruction – to commonly accepted activities, such as over-fishing and agricultural runoff. Walters encouraged interested UCF students to volunteer with her on Earth Day, April 22, at Canaveral National Seashore, to help restore oyster reefs. Students can email her at linda.walters@ucf.edu for details.

In her keynote presentation, Cousteau spoke about preserving and sustaining a healthy environment on “this blue planet.”

Cousteau described a non-stop, 138-day exploration of water issues across the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2010 that helped her realize how, in addition to water quality, water fragmentation is a key component of the global water crisis.

For example, she suggested that the audience consider the current state of the Colorado River in the United States and Mexico, a water system that has been greatly disconnected because of the creation of dams to divert and redistribute water. As a result, she said, an extensive mudflat now stands where the river once met the Sea of Cortez just south of California in Mexico. Cousteau noted that “It takes only one generation to destroy a river.”

The effects of the river’s fragmentation are also felt in Mexico, she added. With the aid of a short video from the expedition, Cousteau explained that a river must meet the sea so that estuaries are created to provide a habitat for birds and fish. Without these estuaries, fish are unable to reproduce, and nearby residents struggle to survive in the face of declining fish populations. This problem can be reversed, though; according to Cousteau, “just one percent of water from the Colorado River would be needed to make it meet the sea again.”

Cousteau said everyone needs to understand the interconnectivity of our water systems and how humans are affecting them. “The global water crisis is happening in our own back yards, and turning off the tap when brushing your teeth is not enough,” she said.

In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, sponsors and partners included the UCF Office of Undergraduate Studies, Lawrence J. Chastang and the Chastang Foundation, the Orlando Area Committee on Foreign Relations, the UCF Political Science Department, the UCF Book Festival 2012 in association with the Morgridge International Reading Center, UCF Focus the Nation, UCF LIFE and the Global Connections Foundation.