The Weight of Water: an interview with Betsy Otto

The Weight of Water: an interview with Betsy Otto

While LOEBlogger Margaret Scott was interning at the HUD Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation in Washington, DC, this summer, she took the opportunity to drop in on Betsy Otto (LF ’07). Her interview shows how Otto continues to "go with the flow."

“Water is very heavy.” Betsy Otto means this in every sense: in the weight born by infrastructure moving water from place to place. Or in the weight born by society, when water is scarce, privatized or denied. And ultimately, in the weight on the environment from the extremes of drought or flood.

Loeb Fellow Betsy Otto’s gentle, forceful spirit conveys the weight of her words. At the light-filled offices of the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, where she has been global director of the Water Program since 2011, Otto spoke of her work, her path, and her time with the Fellowship.

Otto was always greatly interested in the “natural world and cities.” She entered the field of water resources after an academic and professional background in economics and business. This shift layered logically onto her previous work, as her business background prepared her well for the “dynamic tension” in how global hydrological processes interact with economic activity. Otto spoke poetically and practically of the interconnectedness of water, detailing the “vascular system of the corpus,” or earth, with rivers and streams as connectors. The ongoing conflict between “fragmentation and connection” has long fueled her interest in water resource management.

Though Otto has been committed to the field for over two decades, she acknowledges that water has long been left unaddressed, wrapped up in social and political “inertia.” Now with greater and greater disruptions through weather patterns or natural disaster a tipping point has emerged, particularly for businesses. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report from 2014 cites water crises as one of five “most potentially impactful risks.”

In spite of the urgency of water-related risks and impact, Otto notes that the world’s water challenges are “imminently manageable.” While its scarcity is unquestionable, water is nonetheless a tangible, enduring, and manageable resource that bridges multiple scales, from the local to international, involving a wide range of stakeholders and opportunities for positive intervention.

World Resources Institute has seized on this emerging concern with Aqueduct, one of Otto’s primary projects. As part of the Institute’s commitment to “radical transparency,” Aqueduct advances climate-related data and diagnostic tools and makes them more widely available to a range of partners in business, government and civil society. The database addresses the “bigger picture” in the field, and in spite of some resistance from critics searching for data with a greater level of detail, Otto insists that the database provides an adequate basis from which to begin to implement “low regret strategies.” She argues compellingly that we are now “past the point to take action” and are well equipped to take steps, citing Philadelphia’s commitment to green infrastructure as a prime example. A key to such “low regret strategies” is understanding resilience, which Otto describes as a “weaving together of natural and built infrastructure, in support of human endeavor and resilience to shocks.”

The integration of natural and built infrastructure has long been an interest of Otto’s and sustained a yearlong discussion while she was a Loeb Fellow. She loved the chance to “bat around ideas” and bridge the science and international perspectives inherent to her work. During her time at the GSD, she organized a lecture series on water and design, bringing in diverse voices to the audience of Loebs, the GSD, and the Harvard community. Her attention and commitment to air a range of perspectives in the field has only continued since. Otto says that she routinely reaches out to the “incredible network” of Loeb fellows across the world to answer questions, find answers and build support for her work in water resources.

The impact of Jim Stockard’s leadership has similarly stayed with her in “big and small ways” with his “smart, sharp, laidback, and thoughtful” view of the world. Otto shares a similar reflectiveness, carefully considering her life’s work, her role within it, and the weight of her words. And naturally, the undeniable weight of water.

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