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Local professor helps U.N. create ‘milestone’ water plan

Mark Parker



The International Science Council (ISC) selected Dr. Heather O'Leary, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg anthropology professor, as one of 40 delegates for the 2023 Water Conference at U.N. headquarters in New York City. Photo provided.

Dr. Heather O’Leary, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg anthropology professor, recently shared her expertise at the first United Nations conference on water in 46 years.

It concluded with the Water Action Agenda’s adoption, a “milestone” strategy that received nearly 700 commitments and $300 billion in pledges. U.N. officials called their first water-related symposium in a generation a “watershed moment” to mobilize members and stakeholders to create policies and set goals for sustainable development.

The International Science Council (ISC) selected O’Leary as one of just 40 delegates for the 2023 Water Conference held at U.N. headquarters in New York City March 22-24. According to the landmark event’s website, countries’ “progress on water-related goals and targets remains alarmingly off track, jeopardizing the entire sustainable development agenda.”

O’Leary noted that while many think of faraway lands when they hear “United Nations,” every issue discussed throughout the event directly affected Florida.

“So we have questions about inadequate infrastructure,” O’Leary said. “Well, Florida is a rapidly growing state, and we’re trying to build so much water infrastructure to serve populations that just keep coming and coming.”

In addition, she said local leaders must simultaneously contend with hurricanes, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion contaminating the aquifer. Hurricane Ian highlighted potable water scarcity during natural disasters, and O’Leary noted relief programs do not provide adequate menstruation and hygiene kits for underserved female populations.

People think the state and region are well-developed, but O’Leary said related infrastructure is lacking.

“We can see a lot of questions that sometimes we might brush off as, ‘oh, it’s not a Florida issue,’ are actually affecting us in pretty profound ways,” she said.

The U.N.’s Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals call for nations to develop alternative, sustainable food systems and re-evaluate water as a powerful economic driver – as it is regionally and statewide. Local leaders have recently looked to establish the city as a leader in the “new blue economy.”

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s College of Marine Science as seen from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Photo by Mark Parker.

General Assembly President Csaba Korosi said $300 billion in pledges to support the Water Action Agenda would unlock over $1 trillion in socioeconomic and ecosystem impacts. “The outcome of this conference is not a legally binding document, but it still turns the pages of history,” he said.

“You have reconfirmed the promise to implement the human right to water and sanitation for all.”

O’Leary’s resume is extensive. She is an executive with the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, heads the Council of Scientific Commissions, is a co-founder and chairperson for the Commission on Anthropology and Environment and serves on the Steering Committee for the World Anthropological Union.

She spent over a decade researching water politics and rights, gender equity and economics in India’s tenements and “slums.” A book documenting her findings is under review.

As an ISC delegate, O’Leary helped develop a policy brief to help inform decision-makers at the conference. She said having an anthropological outlook is “incredibly important” to mitigating water issues.

“Because humans affect water, and humans need water,” O’Leary added. “If we’re only looking at water as a physical, raw material, then we’re not understanding how humans can change the way it flows through cultures and societies, how it flows through cities … and how different groups within cities might use water in very different ways.

“Social scientists are incredibly important to water and other environmental decision-making because we’re experts in what it means to be human.”

USFSP Anthropologist Heather O’Leary at the U.N.’s 2023 water conference – its first since 1977. Photo provided.

She and a colleague from the University of Central Florida received a multiyear National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant to study the economic and social effects of Florida’s 2017-2019 red tide outbreaks. While O’Leary could not comment on the results yet, she said they were able “to put a dollar amount” on tourism industry impacts.

She called that “a huge breakthrough” that will inform political decisions and aid requests. The preponderance of red tide funding goes toward mitigation, prevention – and to a lesser extent, restoration technologies – but O’Leary said understanding red tide’s effects on humans and their economies are equally important.

Their findings are under review and will publish by summer.

O’Leary said the most significant obstacle to sustainable local water resources is balancing the U.N.’s triple bottom line: Profit, planet and people. She explained that residents, interdisciplinary scientists and politicians must genuinely collaborate or face inequitable situations “that we will not be able to hold for the long term.”

When asked if her inclusion in the first U.N. water conference would directly benefit USF and St. Petersburg, O’Leary said, “Oh my goodness, yes.” She noted that 90% of a changing climate’s effects involve water, and that the city is on a peninsula on a peninsula.

“Having heard all of the trends and the things that are going on at such a high level, I’m able to bring that back to the City of St. Pete,” O’Leary said. “At the same time – in the classroom – I’m teaching the next generation of environmental, water and political activists.

“It is of the utmost importance to me to not only tell them what the state of the art is right now, in terms of water policy and security, but I’ve made so many connections that now my students can go back to those people – these international heavy-hitters – and ask them for internships. So, my students benefit from it, my city benefits from it, my research benefits from it and in all the partnerships to come, I can draw on this experience.”

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