Like disasters, life is far from predictable. In 2009, during my Fulbright U.S. Student grant, I was living in a resettlement outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, populated by people who had been displaced by severe flooding from Hurricane Mitch (1998). Now, where I live in California, which faces the worst drought in 1,200 years, we are wrestling with too little water. My research on the social implications of drought builds on what I learned in the impoverished re-settlements of Honduras, and has led to recognition by the White House.
My invitation to submit a policy brief on drought, and a subsequent invitation to the White House Water Summit, came as a surprise. Hundreds of water/drought academics and organizers are conducting excellent research and implementing creative programs to address water scarcity concerns throughout the nation. Why would they choose me?
When I posed this question to my contact at the National Security Council, he expressed his admiration that I had hosted the Disaster by Drought Summit, co-sponsored by California Polytechnic State University, the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU), and MunichRe Foundation. For a week, UNU affiliated scholars from around the world came to California to discuss the drought with counterparts from the Western United States. Participants listened to lectures from engineers and architects, businesses and non-profit organizations, farm owners and laborers, and also visit a local vineyard to see the impact of drought. Not only were new collaborations formed, we also produced a policy brief for the White House and the California State legislature.
Disaster by Drought was not the first conference I had hosted. In 2010, Beth Tellman (a fellow 2009 Fulbright U.S. Student working in El Salvador) and I met during an enrichment seminar. We found we had overlapping interests and decided to bring together the at-risk survivors of Tropical Storm Ida with the Honduran resettlement residents who had survived Hurricane Mitch ten years previous. With funding from the International Social Science Council, I invited fifteen Salvadoran community leaders to Honduras for a week to meet with residents, and discuss resettlement strategies. It was inspiring to watch how bringing people together can lead to knowledge sharing and innovative idea generation.
The White House Water Summit I attended had similar goals. It brought people together with the intention of creating a collaborative network of leaders who can share information and best practices. Disasters can be devastating – watching one’s home destroyed by flooding, or one’s crops wither due to a lack of rain, can be ruinous. However, disasters also provide a break in the status quo, enabling us to re-evaluate relationships and find new opportunities to build a better world. Climate change, then, is an opportunity for us to evaluate contemporary social, political and economic injustices in order to create a more equitable and sustainable world.