While everyone was distracted by yet another school shooting last week, the National Academy of Engineering put out a list of 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering facing us today. Engineering is a bit of a misnomer; most of these challenges require a healthy contribution from scientists and others as well.
You can even vote for your favorite from this intriguing list on their Web site. I suppose I'm biased because I've read extensively about the subject, but I chose "Provide access to clean water" as the most important. The two most popular so far, "Make solar energy economical" and "Provide energy from fusion," were my second and third choices. To me, the bottom line is that water is essential to human existence whereas energy is not (although, theoretically, finding a way to generate cheap, abundant energy would make water solutions such as desalination plants more feasible).
Alas, most Americans still have their heads in the sand regarding water issues. A report from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography last week said that there's a 50-50 chance Lake Mead will be dry in 13 years, putting the millions of people in Las Vegas and southern California in jeopardy. And they used "conservative estimates of the situation," so things might be even worse. Of course, drought conditions continue in the traditionally moist Southeast, too. My cousin who lives near Atlanta claims the water is "fine" -- she's one of the many Americans who won't believe there's a problem until the kitchen tap literally runs dry. Check out this map, updated weekly, to see how much of the United States is short of water. Even if your state is fine now, what will happen when the Southwest dries up? Will California, Nevada, and Arizona try to get your water? Then realize that the United States is much better off than many populous nations in Africa and Asia, and you will begin to see the imminent global water crisis.
Most of the other engineering challenges pale in comparison to clean water and cheap energy. Secure cyberspace? Advance personalized learning? Enhance virtual reality? Those would be nice, sure, but our continued existence doesn't depend on them.