Reflections on Three Decades of Working With Water

Reflections on Three Decades of Working With Water

A Q&A with Jason Morrison, President at the Pacific Institute. Guiding the conversation is Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Director of Communications and Outreach at the Pacific Institute.

December 12, 2023

Key takeaways: 

  1. We’ve made significant progress in advancing water solutions over the past 35 years, but the next few years are absolutely critical to transforming water resilience in the face of climate change.  
  1. The biggest challenge is implementing water resilience solutions fast enough given the magnitude of the challenge. We need to swiftly scale our work to rapidly put solutions in place. 
  1. The profile of water has been elevated globally – but the pace of progress needs to improve. This is particularly the case for frontline communities that are disproportionately impacted by water stress and intensifying water-related disasters such as floods and droughts. 
  1. Advancing water resilience is key to solving a wide range of challenges related to poverty, food security, gender equity, climate, nature, and more. 

As we close out the Pacific Institute’s 35th year, Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Director of Communications and Outreach, sat down with President Jason Morrison to hear his reflections from this pivotal year and three decades of working with water.  

Jason is celebrating a personal milestone – 30 years of working for the Pacific Institute. His passion for water stems from the fact that it’s connected to every aspect of our society, economy, and the environment. He believes that solving the world’s water crisis will help address many other issues facing our society today. Whether it be human health, gender equality, education or biodiversity – all hinge upon our ability to solve for water.  

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Keep reading for more on how the Pacific Institute is leading the global transformation to water resilience, and why it’s never been more important to change the future of water. 

Amanda Bielawski: You’re celebrating 30 years of working for the Pacific Institute, which is quite a milestone. What keeps you motivated about the Pacific Institute’s work?  

Jason Morrison: For me, it’s about the impact that we have on an issue that I’m passionate about. I don’t think I could find another organization that has the potential for me to be as impactful as I have been in my career at the Pacific Institute. Our ability to shape decision making at the highest levels globally through our work is exhilarating. We truly are a trusted leader on water, with 35 years of providing respected, authoritative research, as well as decision-support resources and recommended policy solutions to decision makers.  

We have an outsized influence across the globe. This gets me out of bed and to my desk every day – leading transformative work that will have lasting impacts for both the people and planet. 

AB: As you close out the Pacific Institute’s 35th year, what achievements are you most proud of this year? From the past three decades?

JM: This year, I would have to say the historic UN Water Conference in New York, which was the first water-focused conference put on by the UN in 47 years. I’m very proud that the Pacific Institute team had such a strong presence at the conference, shaping numerous events and influencing significant outcomes. When the United Nations released its list of key outcomes from the UN Water Conference, two of the top outcomes listed were those driven by our work here at the Pacific Institute.  

Our team also made remarkable progress scaling core water resilience strategies this year across geographies—in the Colorado River Basin and US West, across the United States, and in river basins around the world. Most recently, the Pacific Institute released a major update to its Water Conflict Chronology, adding over 350 new instances of conflicts associated with water resources and water systems identified from news reports, eyewitness accounts, and other conflict databases. Here in the United States, the Pacific Institute was a founding member of the new Vessel WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) Collective, a collaboration between NGOs, funders, and the public sector to improve access to safe water. On a national US scale, we also co-authored a US Environmental Protection Agency Report on Water Efficiency and Reuse strategies called “Lessons for Optimizing the Adoption of Water Reuse in Underserved Communities.” Our leak detection project reached a new milestone. We deployed water efficiency upgrades in affordable apartment buildings owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) and launched a toilet leak-detection program in Phoenix, Arizona, joined by Mayor Kate Gallego. Finally, we launched an updated Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) for Watersheds Guide that aims to mainstream and increase implementation of NBS with benefits for water resilience. 

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Considering our history more broadly over the past three decades, we have reimagined water and reshaped how others see the issue. During the Pacific Institute’s most recent strategic planning process in 2019, we made a decided shift to focus more on the connection between water and climate, knowing that the tangible water impacts – intensifying flooding and droughts – will be the most profound ways in which people, communities, and nature will experience climate change. 

During that process, we recognized the need for more resilient water systems and created an organizational goal to catalyze the transformation of water resilience across the globe in the face of climate change by 2030. As we started researching the topic, we could barely find the term “water resilience” used on the internet, yet we made it the cornerstone of our 2030 ambition. Fast forward four years, and water resilience is now a concept referred to widely, especially in relation to climate change.  

AB: You and other members of our team have represented the Pacific Institute on the world’s largest stages this year, drawing attention to both water challenges and solutions. Any reflections on what themes or trends have you noticed about the world of water this year?
JM: Whether in Latin America, Europe, Asia, or Africa – water is front page news. I don’t think that was the case 10 years ago. The profile of water has been elevated globally. This is primarily due to the attention and increasing understanding of how climate change—through the water cycle–is impacting communities across the world. We see it every day in the news: intensifying water-related disasters such as floods and droughts. Water is now top of mind wherever you go and for good reason. That also means the Pacific Institute’s work has never been more impactful – or needed. 
I’ve also been struck by how little progress we have made – compared to what is needed – in the areas around the world experiencing the most water stress. In many areas of the world, you will find severely polluted waterways, informal settlements formed along those waterways, and people living without access to safe drinking water or sanitation services. Approximately 2.2 billion people lack safe drinking water, and around 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation. Tens of thousands of Native Americans across the United States lack reliable access to safe drinking water, while along the United States-Mexico border, an estimated 60,000 people live without water or sewer. 

We talk a lot about the progress made – which is significant. But we are not progressing at the pace we need to be in frontline communities most impacted by the world’s water crisis.

Frontline communities, including rural and low-income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous peoples, are impacted first and worst by water insecurity and climate change. Through collaborative research, the Pacific Institute is developing ground-breaking research on the effects of climate change on small and medium-sized water and sanitation systems in frontline communities across the United States We are then advancing climate-resilient strategies to address the humanitarian water crisis in the context of current and future climate change. 

AB: You’ve expressed that now is a pivotal moment in changing the future of water. What makes this specific moment so critical?

JM: The Pacific Institute has developed a number of solutions to water challenges. Solutions don’t make an impact unless they are implemented and put into action. So, the biggest barrier to progress right now is actually implementing water resilience solutions. To achieve that, we need to swiftly scale our work to engage and influence decision makers from the public and private sector and local governments – with the ultimate goal of rapid implementation of solutions. 

The great news is that the Pacific Institute is poised to lead this transformation. But, to do so, we will need to significantly grow our organization’s capacity to reach decision makers both here in the United States and across the globe.  
We don’t have a lot of time with climate change, which is having real and devastating impacts in front of our own eyes. We need to take more urgent action.  

AB: The world is facing a particularly challenging season of challenges, many of which intersect with water to some degree. As you look ahead, what gives you hope?

JM: I believe that people can be spurred to action quickly, and once activated, change can also happen swiftly. I think water’s time has arrived. My hope is now that decision makers are truly recognizing the importance of water, we will be able to act quickly, and speedy progress can be made. 

We’ve made significant progress in changing the future of water over the past 35 years. The next few years are critical for us to advance water equity and resilience in the face of climate change during this critical window of opportunity before we reach concerning tipping points. 

Recognizing the urgent need to increase action, members of our Board of Directors are matching up to $100,000 in donations made by December 31st to accelerate our water resilience strategies. We are calling on our community to help surge our impact in this next critical season of growth.  

Imagine the transformative impact on water we can have together – donate now

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