Ecological Society to hold Conference on Drought and Environmental Justice

Biological and social scientists team up to reduce water conflicts in times of drought

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) will hold the first conference in its Millennium Series, titled “Water-Ecosystem Services, Drought, and Environmental Justice,” at the University of Georgia, Athens on Nov. 9-12. The conference will bring 100 scientists and managers from universities, federal agencies and local governments together to work on the resolution of social issues related to localized drought.

“Understanding how social processes contribute to or ameliorate the effect of drought is crucial for maintaining ecosystem services,” says conference co-chair Steward Pickett, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

The conference will focus on these ecosystem services, or benefits to humans provided by natural ecosystems, that provide clean water to people. Although many areas experience periodic drought, the results of such drought often depend on an area’s government and policy, its infrastructure, and the behavior of its people.

These factors can create differences in vulnerability to water shortages across communities with different racial, cultural and income profiles, says ESA’s Director of Science Programs, Cliff Duke.

“Ecologists have the experience to measure and predict the impacts of drought on ecosystem services, and social scientists can help us understand how human institutions respond to drought,” says Duke. “This combined knowledge can help society address the critical problem of increasing water shortages.”

Conference attendees will present 12 case studies on water shortages and their effect on societies throughout the world. In one study, an urban water shortage in Melbourne, Australia, led to a controversial infrastructure project to transfer water from a similarly water-stressed rural area to the city. In another, Michigan residents are fighting annual water bills as high as $10,000 and the potential privatization of their water resources.

“These examples of water-related social conflicts will help develop insights to reduce conflict among water users,” says co-chair Ted Gragson of the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology.

Live, free webcasts of all keynote speakers will be available at the conference web site atwww.esa.org/millenniumconf/2009/webcasts.php.

The conference will also produce teaching materials archived in ESA’s EcoEd Digital Library and will contribute to a teacher workshop related to environmental justice. 

The Millennium Conference Series highlights emerging ideas in ecology and is intended to address high-visibility, cross-disciplinary issues of wide interest to the scientific community.  This year’s conference is sponsored by ESA, the University of Georgia, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service and the USDA Forest Service.

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