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Alumni newsmaker:
> > Gilbert White, SB'32, SM'34, PhD'42, watches the world's water

image: Class Notes headlineOn May 1, Gilbert White, SB'32, SM'34, PhD'42, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will receive the National Academy of Science's Public Welfare Medal for his efforts to improve water supplies worldwide and to protect the public from the hazards of flooding. In a curriculum vitae that includes stints as an adviser to FDR, the presidency of Haverford College, a faculty post at Chicago, and advising the United Nations, there has been one constant: environmental policy. Just last year, at the joint request of several Middle Eastern governments--including Jordan and Israel--he created a report outlining their water problems and offering policy solutions.

image: Flood expert White
Flood expert White

Asked to comment about the changes he's seen in six decades' worth of environmental policy, White voices optimism about what he sees as a more integrated, holistic approach. "In the '30s, the U.S. and most countries around the world laid very heavy stress on engineering work, controlling floods by building a reservoir or a levee," he explains. "But increasingly, people are trying to think of the whole range of actions they can take, including non-engineering efforts, and the effects not just on people who are using the water, but also on the whole environmental system to which they're related."

White was one of the first to consider alternative flood-control solutions. After working for the Mississippi Valley Committee in the 1930s and for the Roosevelt administration in the early 1940s, he decided "there needed to be a careful study of what the range of possible actions was that people could take with respect to floods." The result was his 1945 book, Human Adjustments to Floods (University of Chicago Press), which argued that rather than trying to control floods, society would find it easier--and more effective--to stay out of floodplains altogether or to find productive uses for floodplains, planting only certain crops or using the plains as recreational parks.

After doing relief work in France and Germany during World War II as a Quaker and conscientious objector, White accepted the presidency of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, a Quaker institution. Nine years later, he returned to research, becoming chair of Chicago's geography department and focusing his research on a plan for managing the waters in Asia's Lower Mekong nations.

In 1970, White moved to the University of Colorado, where he helped establish the Natural Hazards Research Applications and Information Center, hoping to bring together not only researchers from different disciplines but also researchers who studied different kinds of natural hazards. "At that point there was almost no communication between engineers, geographers, economists, and so on, who were each working on natural hazards in a particular way," White explains. "The center enables these people with different interests and different disciplines from different parts of the country to share their experience and critical views and come up with better policies together."

One of White's biggest collaborations at the center was a study of East Africa's water supply, which he initiated as a way of studying the everyday decisions that people make in dealing with the environment. In about 60 percent of the world's population, someone, usually a woman, "has to decide where she goes and how much (water) she brings back. That is the most elementary environmental decision that people in the world make, outside of breathing." East Africa offered a chance to study--in a relatively small area--how these basic decisions differed in desert areas, mountain areas, terraced hillsides, rain forests, and modern cities. White's study led to several policy changes in the region and to his 1972 book, Drawers of Water (University of Chicago Press).

Retiring as director of the Natural Hazards Center in 1984, White continues to travel and to develop water-supply plans and policies for countries worldwide, often under the auspices of the United Nations. He is also writing another book on water management. "One big problem today is how society values its social system versus the natural environmental system," he says. "Do you value reducing the flood losses that people have when they live in the floodplain, or do you value the environment, which is affected by building a dam or a levee and changing the whole natural condition? This matter of finding comparable, equal criteria for evaluating what's done to society versus what's done to the environment is one of the great problems we face." --B.B.

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  APRIL 2000

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