University of Virginia Global Water Initiative: Learning from Water Challenges & Solutions Around the Globe

This is part of our Campus Feature on Water Centers & Institutes.


The lead-poisoning of children in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that erupted in 2015 put a spotlight on the crumbling state of U.S. water infrastructure. Recurrent and prolonged droughts in California have highlighted water scarcity in an affluent state, intensive water use by agriculture, and the question of how to navigate the equitable and efficient use of limited water resources. The water challenges the United States faces are, however, not unique.

Fresh water is a precious resource that is without substitute. It is essential for life. Ecosystems and societies need water to thrive. While water is bountiful on earth, only 3% is fresh water and not all of it is accessible. Fresh water is very unevenly distributed around the globe and not always available when and where it is needed most, which is likely to worsen with climate change. Increasingly, cities, rural areas, and the environment have to compete for water. To feed an ever-increasing world population, agriculture uses the vast majority of the world’s water. More than half of the cities that generate most of the world’s income lie in water-stressed river basins. With heightened competition for water, rivers, lakes, aquifers, and wetlands are often sustained only with water that is leftover or polluted, and the world’s most vulnerable populations, more often than not, lack ready access to pure drinking water. Across the globe, societies and communities must begin designing strategies to manage the water challenge.

While governments are, to varying degrees, waking up to the water challenge and the UN’s global sustainability goals testify to the growing global awareness of the water challenges that we face, much work needs to be done. We need to map out water needs; find creative social, political and technical solutions; and mobilize resources and opinions. The current water situation hence calls upon civil society, and this includes universities.

The Global Water Initiative (GWI) is an organically growing community of scholars and students at the University of Virginia that coalesces around water expertise. As water pervades everything we do, the premise of the GWI is that water challenges are not always best addressed by narrowly focusing on hydrology or some other narrow focus. The GWI promotes scholarship, education and policy development, especially at the confluence of the many academic disciplines at the university that have a role studying water. We seek to leverage the complementarities of disciplines and integrate the social sciences, business, law, architecture and the humanities in discussions that historically are often grounded in environmental science and engineering. Our faculty comes from environmental science, engineering, economics, history, anthropology, business, law, architecture, and nursing.

The ultimate goal of the Global Water Initiative is to improve the management and allocation of limited freshwater resources and to increase awareness of the challenges and solutions. The perspective that we take is explicitly global. Education increasingly takes place in a globalized context. Water problems have, in some instances, an explicit international dimension, and we seek to learn from the challenges and solutions across the world, while valuing explicit comparisons of water management approaches across countries.

The Global Water Initiative is hosted by UVA’s Darden School of Business and runs a series of water-related research seminars in cooperation with departments across the university, organizes colloquia and conferences, and promotes interdisciplinary courses. We organize field trips with graduate and undergraduate students, do river cleanups as well as annually hold a series of “World Water Events” to raise awareness about important water issues for interested nonspecialists. The GWI is building partnerships with research multipliers (nonprofits, corporations, and other universities) and works together with other initiatives at the University of Virginia, such as the Yamuna Project and the Environmental Resilience Institute. The GWI also has a Global Water Blog to feature and disseminate in accessible language research output from our affiliated faculty or to report on talks, policy discussions, publications, or events at the University of Virginia and beyond.

The GWI serves as a catalyst that brings together researchers around three clusters of topics. Below are a few examples of the clusters of topics and ongoing research of the GWI and its affiliated faculty

  • The cluster Water Quality, Infrastructure and Innovation operates against a backdrop of often inadequate, outdated or nonexistent water infrastructures in advanced and emerging economies. We analyze challenges and solutions that ensure water’s quality and guarantee safe drinking water for all as preconditions for healthy and productive societies.

For example, a group including UVA faculty members Teresa Culver, Jay Shimshack and Peter Debaere undertook a data-intensive project that spans engineering, policy and business, investigating U.S. ambient water quality data. They characterize the millions of observations and investigate the social, economic, and environmental justice aspects of data collection. (e.g., Are there fewer monitoring stations where polluting industries are located?). They ask whether existing data are sufficient to credibly assess U.S. overall ambient water quality.

Faculty affiliated with the GWI also execute field-oriented work. For many years, a group led by engineering professor Jim Smith has developed point-of-use water purification technology (MadiDrop) and has been studying its effectiveness in South Africa in collaboration with local universities. Another group formed by economics professor Sheetal Sekhri has a similar focus in India in collaboration with local partners, studying fluoride water contamination and how to combat its effects. This group is also ascertaining whether comparable effects exist in the U.S. well-drinking population.


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  • The cluster Water Productivity, Water Markets and the Environment starts from the observation that increased competition for scarce resources calls for increased water productivity. In a world that depends on economic growth, we have to do more, with less water.


We investigate how price and non-price mechanisms can affect water’s use and allocation, how those interventions impact well-being and poverty, and the effectiveness of corporate social responsibility (Kitzmueller & Shimshack, 2012). By way of example, a group with Paolo D’Odorico, Peter Debaere and Brian Richter is studying the effectiveness of water markets, collaborating with the Nature Conservancy. Research led by UVA environmental science professors Larry Band and Mike Pace is studying the various mechanisms to implement green infrastructure in urban sectors and how to integrate design, water availability, quality, and economic incentives.


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3) The cluster Water Scarcity, Agriculture, and Climate Change primarily focuses on water scarcity and, especially, on how water scarcity relates to food security in a world in which agriculture uses over 70% of its water. Faculty affiliated with the Global Water Initiative look for strategies to feed a growing population in a world whose climate is changing by asking questions such as: Can we relieve some of the water stress through transboundary virtual water trade? (Debaere, 2014). What is the impact of choosing to grow the right crops in the right (water-scarce) places (Davis et al, 2017)? What can be the role of fallowing? (Richter et al, 2017). It is here also that engineering professor Geoff Geise’s research lab on desalination that extends the water supply through extracting fresh water from brackish or salty water finds its place, as well as architecture professor Tim Beatley’s work on city planning, and environmental science professor Deborah Lawrence’s climate change group and its investigations into how a changing climate affects the water cycle.


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Leadership Team

Teresa Culver is associate professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and the director of the Undergraduate Program in Civil Engineering at the University of Virginia. Culver’s research focuses on the development of techniques for effective water resources management, including nutrient management for complex watershed-stream-aquifer systems and sustainable urban stormwater designs.

Peter Debaere is a professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business and director of the Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia. An international economist by training, Debaere studies the efficiency of water allocation both internationally and more locally through water markets. His recent work also looks at water quality measurement in the United States, and the social/economic pattern of its availability.

Mike Pace is a professor of environmental science and chair of the Environmental Science Department at the University of Virginia. Pace is an aquatic ecologist with broad interests in lake, river and estuarine ecosystems. His current research includes work on leading indicators of regime shifts, harmful algal blooms, and effects of invasive species.



Photo:  | Shutterstock
Published on December 11, 2018.


Davis, K.F., M.C. Rulli, A. Seveso, and P. D’Odorico (2017). “Increase in food production and reduction in water use through optimized crop distribution”, Nature Geosciences,

Debaere, P., “The Global Economics of Water: Is Water a Source of Comparative Advantage?, ”American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2014, April, p. P. 32-48

Kitzmueller. M. and J. Shimshack, 2012, Economic Perspective on Corporate Social Responsibility, Journal of Economic Literature, March, 50, 1, p. 51-84.

  1. Richter, J. Brown, R. DiBenedetto, A. Gorsky, E. Keenan, Opportunities for saving and reallocating agricultural water to alleviate water scarcity, Water Policy (5 April 2017), 19 (5): 886–907.


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