CERN Colloquium


by Andrea Rinaldo (Laboratory of Ecohydrology ECHIO/IIE/ENAC, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

Video only (CERN)

Video only



Will future large-scale water resources management plans be capable of making a compelling argument for including the reduction of the loss of biodiversity in river basins worldwide? Could the structure of river networks be a template for large-scale spread of waterborne disease infections? Are we capable to provide solid economic arguments for preventing water development schemes in the light of the social and economic cost of predicted increased burden of disease they would bring? Can biological invasions, including the Neolithic transition and historic population migrations that shaped human community compositions as we see them now, depend on physical constraints like the fractal structure of river networks acting as the substrate for their dispersal? Any kind of social discounting applied to public policies concerning the preservation of the natural capital needs quantitative assessments, and thus theory capable to produce reliable scenarios. Key to master all the above is our capability to assess and reliably predict the spread and survival of species, populations and pathogens under different scenarios -- of economic and water developments, of human mobility and awareness of the mechanisms of infection, of proper educational systems, of improved or worsening water, sanitation and hygiene conditions.


While the impact of improved agriculture is perceived directly by the GDP of the region implementing the related water resources use schemes, the social and economic cost of the increased burden of the disease is hard to quantify, let alone predict. While contemporary economics is considering the proper manner to account for the social and economic cost of future loss of workforce, immaterial factors pitch in and an assessment seems still unlikely anytime soon. As an economy's GDP could be made to grow, and its related societal indicators made to apparently improve for a time, by mining natural capital (say, by decimating forests, damaging soil, destroying key ecosystem services like depleting renewable resources or reducing biodiversity), there is no excuse for not using what we have learned to assess true costs and benefits of development thinking, and to rethink distributive justice, where a large share of the basis for environmental thinking could be made quantitative – and there is some physics behind it. My talk is focused on reflections on progress in this area that, it is my belief, is ready to be used for the betterment of society at large, as well as to help in the assessment of the wealth or poverty of Nations.

Organized by

M. Pepe-Altarelli

Colloquium 9 December 2021
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Angela Ricci
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