Archive for the ‘Water Crisis’ Category

The Future of Africa’s Water Security

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Special thanks to Kavitha Pramod for co-authoring this essay

This map, published with the original MacDonald, et.al., study, depicts potential ground water resources on the African continent. Areas in blue represent the most water-abundant areas.

Not long ago, the BBC reported (here) on vast reservoirs of ground water resources underlying the African continent and the critical use that this water could have for populations now and in the future. While the so-called “discovery” of this water wealth may be questionable (see WaterWired’s Michael Campana explaining what we already knew here), the resurgence in interest in fresh water for Africa is a critical development in itself. The MacDonald, et.al., study that started this latest brouhaha can be found here.

Africa remains one of the poorest regions in the world in terms of access to fresh water resources. A recent report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (here) indicates that approximately 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are without access to safe and clean drinking water. Of the countries reported to have less than fifty-percent coverage in water supply, almost all are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, only some thirty-percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is blessed with improved sanitation coverage, making the region one of the most underserved in the world.

In the year 2000, the world’s major leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration (here). The Declaration was intended to create a global partnership aimed at reducing extreme poverty throughout the world. Targets, known as the Millennium Development Goals, were set to achieve the Declaration’s aim, with a deadline for the year 2015 (see here). In sub-Saharan Africa, where some of the worst poverty and water scarcity conditions exist, only nineteen of the fifty existing countries are expected to meet the Goals’ drinking water targets by the year 2015.

This UNECA chart compares water availability for countries throughout Africa from 1990 to 2025. By 2025, all countries in the region are expected to be in a state of water vulnerability, with most being in states of water stress or water scarcity.

Of further concern for the sub-Saharan African region is that according to the United Nations, over the next ten to fifteen years, as populations continue to expand, per capita water supplies will diminish significantly to the point where available supplies will no longer be able to meet the water needs of many of the region’s nations.

Given the troubled state of Africa’s water circumstances, a renewed focus on the significant sources of ground water underlying much of the continent comes at a very important time. In addition to concentrating attention on a dire situation, it provides opportunities for the region and the global community to explore means of overcoming the water challenges facing Africa and for sustainably developing and managing these underground resources. One of these opportunities is directly tied to the fact that many of Africa’s aquifers are transboundary, underlying two or more nations. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, for example, is situated below Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan; the Iullemeden Aquifer System underlays Mali, Niger and Nigeria; and the Baggara Basin aquifer is underneath Central African Republic, Sudan, and South Sudan, including the parched and war-ravaged Darfur region.

As the availability of fresh water decreases across the continent, competition and tensions over transboundary resources are likely to rise. To date, however, none of the transboundary aquifer countries in Africa have entered into an aquifer sharing or management arrangement. The only transboundary aquifer-related arrangements on the continent are two rudimentary consultative and data-sharing agreements formulated for the Nubian Sandstone and Northwestern Sahara aquifers in North Africa (you can find the texts for these arrangements here and here).

More than seventy aquifers and aquifer systems in Africa have been identified as “transboundary” by the United Nations’ International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center. IGRAC’s Transboundary Aquifers of the World 2012 map is available here.

An attempt also was made to develop an extensive consultative and management regime for the Iullemeden Aquifer System. In 2009, the overlying nations (Mali, Niger and Nigeria) signed the Declaration of Bamako (here) and an accompanying Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of a consultative mechanism for the management of the Iullemeden Aquifer System (here) whose goals were to: (1) identifying transboundary risks and uncertainties, (2) formulate joint risk mitigation and sharing policies, and (3) facilitate the sustainable development of the Iullemeden Aquifer System’s resources. While the arrangement contained rather progressive and thoughtful approaches and mechanisms, the effort appear to have stalled.

Given the levels of water stress and scarcity that African countries are currently experiencing, and which are predicted to increase rapidly, the need for action is immediate. Although ground water resources in Africa are vast and provide great opportunities for overcoming the continent’s water scarcity problems, the lack of information, technical capacity, adequate funding, and cooperation prevents many African nations from overcoming the water challenges facing them. Accordingly, it is crucial that all of Africa – from the national level to the most local community – develop programs that will expand the exploration of water resources, push for data-generation and sharing, and encourage cross-border cooperative and sustainable management initiatives. It is also critical that the United Nations, as well as the developed world, offer their assistance for this worthwhile effort.

The mere discovery of a new source of fresh water underlying one of another nation will not ensure it a future free of water scarcity. Only by cooperating and carefully and sustainably managing such resources will Africa’s nations be able to secure the much needed water for its communities and environment.

 

Groundwater depletion rate accelerating worldwide

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Here is a connection that may not be so obvious – accelerating ground water depletion worldwide is adding to sea level rise. That is the finding of a forthcoming study – A Worldwide View of Groundwater Depletion by Dr. Marc Bierkens of Utrecht Universityslated for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

How might that be possible? Well, the water has to go somewhere. Once its pumped out of the ground and used for its intended purpose, much of it ends up in the oceans, either through evaporation and precipitation or direct flow into the seas. Yes, some of it does infiltrate back into the soil and recharges underlying aquifers. Yet, according to the study, as much as 25% of annual sea level rise can be attributed to ground water withdrawn by human ingenuity.

Dr. Ramón Llamas, Emeritus Professor of Hydrogeology at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, has termed the growing global exploitation of ground water resources a silent revolution for its stealthy expansion and the lack of attention in both national and international water law and policy. It is high time that governments and policy-makers begin focusing on both domestic and transboundary aquifers and their sustainable management, not only to protect these dwindling and threatened sources of fresh water, but also to consider the global impact that their utilization is having on communities, dependent ecosystems, and now sea level.

You can read more about this forthcoming study in the press release AGU just issued. Here is an excerpt:

In recent decades, the rate at which humans worldwide are pumping dry the vast underground stores of water that billions depend on has more than doubled, say scientists who have conducted an unusual, global assessment of groundwater use.

These fast-shrinking subterranean reservoirs are essential to daily life and agriculture in many regions, while also sustaining streams, wetlands, and ecosystems and resisting land subsidence and salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies. Today, people are drawing so much water from below that they are adding enough of it to the oceans (mainly by evaporation, then precipitation) to account for about 25 percent of the annual sea level rise across the planet, the researchers find.

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Applying these techniques worldwide to regions ranging from arid areas to those with the wetness of grasslands, the team finds that the rate at which global groundwater stocks are shrinking has more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, increasing the amount lost from 126 to 283 cubic kilometers (30 to 68 cubic miles) of water per year. Because the total amount of groundwater in the world is unknown, it’s hard to say how fast the global supply would vanish at this rate. But, if water was siphoned as rapidly from the Great Lakes, they would go bone-dry in around 80 years.

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The new assessment shows the highest rates of depletion in some of the world’s major agricultural centers, including northwest India, northeastern China, northeast Pakistan, California’s central valley, and the midwestern United States.

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Most water extracted from underground stocks ends up in the ocean, the researchers note. The team estimates the contribution of groundwater depletion to sea level rise to be 0.8 millimeters per year, which is about a quarter of the current total rate of sea level rise of 3.1 millimeters per year. That’s about as much sea-level rise as caused by the melting of glaciers and icecaps outside of Greenland and Antarctica, and it exceeds or falls into the high end of previous estimates of groundwater depletion’s contribution to sea level rise, the researchers add.

Terry Spragg Comments on Water, Peace and the Middle East

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Terry Spragg, inventor of the Spraggbag, sent me an e-mail responding to my previous posting on Water, Peace and the Middle East. I thought it worth sharing.

 

Dear Gabriel,

 

Using waterbag technology to transport Turkish water to Israel and Palestine can eliminate many of the political and economic issues raised in your recent editorial, and by Dr. Shuval, in your comments on the excellent NEW YORK TIMES editorial, “Water for Peace” (July 13, 2009) written by Stanley Weiss.

 

(Your readers can visit YouTube and insert the words, “Spragg Bag” in the selection box to see a video of television news coverage of a demonstration of this technology, or link to www.waterbag.com for photos and more information.  For more a more detailed analysis of the economic and political possibilities that will result from a successful waterbag operation in the Middle East, your readers may want to read the selections from the novel, WATER, WAR AND PEACE, that appear on this website.)

 

“Spragg Bag” technology can be visualized as a modular fabric pipeline that can easily and inexpensively move large quantities of water through the ocean in an environmentally safe manner, using large waterbags connected together in long waterbag trains with the world’s strongest zipper.  Waterbag economics are easy to calculate.  Waterbag technology is easy to demonstrate.  It is the politics of waterbag technology that is the most difficult issue that needs to be addressed.

 

As Prime Minister Netanyahu has correctly analyzed, Peace will not come to the Middle East without the development of a viable Palestinian economy.

 

A viable Palestinian economy cannot be developed without a reliable and economic water supply.

 

Transporting Turkish water to Israel and Palestine using waterbag technology is the least expensive and most politically viable way to develop a new water supply for the region.

 

This is an easy and inexpensive theory to demonstrate and calculate.

 

Dr. Shuval’s $0.50/m3 cost for desalinated water produced at the Ashkelon plant does not include capital costs, which would almost double this $0.50/m3 cost for desalinated water.  An email from Saul Arlosoroff (Director of Mekorot and Chairman of its Finance/Economic Committee) to David Brooks (Friends of the Earth, Canada) confirms this statement.  The Ashkelon plant received special financing considerations and natural gas concessions which are not available for the development of the new desalination plants currently under construction and being proposed in Israel.

 

Using Dr. Shuval’s economics, waterbag technology could deliver water from Turkey to Israel and Palestine in the $0.30/m3 to $0.40/m3 range.

 

Israel would prefer not to rely on Turkey as a source for some of its water supply.  All nations would like to be water independent.  However, military and trade relations between Turkey and Israel remain strong (setting aside the brief discussion between Erdogan and Peres at the recent World Water Forum in Israel).

 

Israel transports most of its energy from sources outside its boundaries using the seas.  Water transports using the seas should be no different.  The United States seems to be willing to protect Israel’s energy supplies.   Protecting Israel’s water supplies should be no different.

 

Israel proposes to build desalination plants to produce water for the Palestinians.  If the Palestinians are expected to rely on Israel for the development of a new water supply it would seem that Israel should be comfortable in relying on an outside source for a portion of its water supply. 

 

Waterbags delivered directly to the Palestinians can avoid this dependency issue.  The United States should commit to defending both these water supply transport systems in the name of national security.

 

Israel can use shipments of Turkish water directly to the Palestinians as a test case for Israel’s analysis of the economic and technical reliability of waterbag technology before it makes a commitment to purchase Turkish water.

 

The Palestinian concern that by accepting water from another source before it resolves its dispute with Israel over control of the West Bank and Gaza aquifers can be put to rest by using waterbag technology.  Israel should agree that transporting Turkish water to Palestine is only a test case to prove the economic and technical reliability of waterbag technology for both parties.  The acceptance of Turkish water by the Palestinians should have no relationship to the current dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the water in the West Bank and Gaza aquifers.

 

As the drought in the Middle East continues this argument should gain more acceptance by both parties.

 

Past failures of waterbag technology can easily be overcome by implementing a demonstration voyage of “Spragg Bag” technology between Turkey and Israel.  This demonstration voyage plan has been presented by Gershon Baskin (co-founder [1988] of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information [IPCRI], and a representative of Spragg & Associates) to various Israeli, Turkish, Palestinian, Jordanian and American government and business representatives.  If the political leaders in the region will publically announce their support for a demonstration of “Spragg Bag” technology in the Middle East to the media, then a demonstration of this technology should be able to be implemented with ZERO COST to the region’s governments.

 

Stanley Weiss is 100% correct in calling for the United States to take a leadership role in helping to develop a secure water supply for the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Water is becoming the most critical national security issue facing the nations of the Middle East, and therefore a critical national security issue for the United States.

 

The insidious nature of drought in the Middle East poses a major challenge for America’s security interests throughout the region.  American political and business leaders must be wise enough to anticipate these events.

 

As the drought in the Middle East continues, and recognizing that water may become the most explosive issue to be faced between the Israelis and the Palestinians, perhaps the Business Executives for National Security, lead by Stanley Weiss, will be able to take an active leadership role in gaining America’s political and technical support for demonstrating how water can be transported as a tool for helping to bring “Water for Peace” in the Middle East.

 

Terry also sent me a number of documents related to his comments. These include:

·         a letter from Israeli President, Shimon Peres to Terry;

·         a letter from research engineer, Cliff Goudey, of the MIT Sea Grant College Program to Terry regarding the control and stability of navigating such large bags across oceans;

·         a number of press clipping on the possible transport of water from Turkey to Israel and the Palestinian Territories; and

·         an e-mail from IPCRI’s Gershon Baskin to Terry discussing his July 2008 meeting with the Head of the Palestinian Water Authority, Dr. Shaddad Atilli.

Water, Peace and the Middle East

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Stanley A. Weiss offers a grave perspective of the water situation in the Middle East. He writes that “the region is headed toward a water calamity that could overwhelm all efforts at peace.” Ominous words, but sadly, true.

 

Weiss, however, also offers a prescription for averting the tragedy.  Among his recommendations, water-rich Turkey should become a purveyor for the parched nations of the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan, Syria, the future Palestine, and possibly others. While such solutions have been proffered in the past, couched in the language of “peace pipeline” and “water plan for peace,” the politics of the region have always thwarted their realization. My sense is that they will continue to do so into the future.

 

While Turkey does have prodigious amounts of water in relation to its land area and population, and certainly in comparison with its neighbors in the Middle East, transporting water from Turkey to where it is needed will require negotiations of Herculean proportion. As Weiss notes, a water carrier from Turkey will have to run through Syria and possibly Lebanon. Unfortunately, neither of these nations is known for their stability or international cooperation.  In particular, the ongoing tensions between Syria and Lebanon (e.g., over the murder of Former Prime Minister Hariri), Syria and Israel (e.g., over the Golan Heights), Lebanon and Israel (e.g., over Israel’s 2006 conflict with Hezbollah), and Israel and the Palestinians (e.g., over security, human rights, and independence) make any cooperation over water seem illusory.

 

Yet, it must be stated that the reason that such a scheme is unlikely to materialize anytime soon is not just because of regional politics. It is also due to a historically ingrained lack of trust among the region’s countries. In order to implement the Turkish water solution, the nations of the Middle East would have to become comfortable being dependent on Turkey having ultimate control over an indispensible resource. Iraq’s and Syria’s ongoing water relations with Turkey suggest anything but comfort with Turkey’s management of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (see my prior post). Similarly, given the route of the water carrier, some nations would also have to be reliant on the amiability of countries in whose territory the carrier would run.

 

It has been said multiple times: water is life. Without it, life ceases to exist. Hence, the question: what country would willingly place its life, its peoples’ lives, in the hands of a neighbor, especially one who may be unfriendly? I suppose nations in Europe and North America might be more inclined to accept such a precarious situation in order to ensure their water supply. These, though, are nations with a history of cooperation over security, shared resources, migration, and other issues. I have my doubts, however, about the nations of the Middle East. With their long record of enmity and conflict, any accord that creates dependency would necessitate a significant calamity (such as widespread famine), immense international pressure, or some advantage that the subordinate State could not refuse (no, I cannot think of any examples).

 

Pessimism aside, Weiss’ other recommendations do hit the mark. Israel should be convinced to share its water expertise and technology with its Arab neighbors. Israel has long been a leader in water management techniques and technology and such an overture would not only help alleviate water scarcity problems in the region, but also serve as a basis for further cooperative opportunities. The U.N. also should mobilize a global effort to improve desalination efforts to make them less expensive, less energy intensive, and more environmentally friendly. Lastly, a new effort on water management should be brokered between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to replace the failed Joint Water Committee.

 

In addition, though, steps must be taken to overcome the inherent lack of trust shared by the region’s nations as it relates to fresh water. Specifically, Europe and the U.S. should embark on a new strategy with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and with any other nation in the region willing to exchange peace for water, for a comprehensive plan for water management and provision. Such a plan should have two main tenets.

 

First, the plan should be based on the undeniable reality that there just is not enough water in the Middle East to support everyone’s population, developmental, and environmental needs. There is a dire need to develop new sources of freshwater through desalination of sea water and brackish aquifers, treatment and reuse of grey water (non-industrial wastewater generated from domestic processes), and the capturing of rain and flood waters that otherwise go unused. Hence, a key aspect of the plan would be to generate financial, technical, and management support from Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere to pursue these new water opportunities. It would also involve assistance in developing the necessary infrastructure needed to deliver the water to where it is needed.

 

The plan also would be founded on the principle that, to the extent possible, no nation should have the ability to control the flow of water into another nation. While the elimination of all control factors is likely unattainable, the reduction of some measure of countries’ dependence on water resources originating or flowing from neighboring states will go a long way to lessening both water stress and political tensions. This principle would be implemented through two alternate but not mutually exclusive approaches. The first approach is through the creation of bilateral or multilateral water management and allocation institutions that have some degree of independence in their operation. Existing institutions that might be look to as models include, among others, the Mexico-US International Boundary and Water Commission, the Franko-Swiss Genevese Aquifer Management Commission, and the Council of Ministers and High Commission of the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River. Preferably as a complementary approach, but possibly as an alternative approach if the institutional strategy is deemed unworkable, the second tactic would pursue the augmentation of local water opportunities in each country as well as the reassessment of access points and allocations of transboundary waters to provide each nation with enhanced water security. For example, desalination on the Israeli Mediterranean coast would be expanded to benefit Israel in exchange for the Palestinians receiving a greater share of the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank. A similar approach could be employed between Israel and Jordan on the Jordan River.

 

Weiss’ warning of the coming “water calamity” in the Middle East cannot be overstated. Water is a life issue. But, it is also subject to political, economic, and security concerns, climatic variability, and a host of societal, national, and international interests that threaten to overwhelm any effort to achieve a lasting peace in the region. Although water could certainly serve as a basis for peace in the Middle East, success will hinge on generating a level of trust and cooperation that has yet to be seen in the region.


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Bond Fights Evil Corporate Water Company

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

The other day, I watched the latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. While the action/thriller had more in common with the recent Borne series than the Bond films of my youth, one of the subplots particularly intrigued me. After losing a dogfight over the Bolivian desert, Bond and his companion parachute into a sinkhole where they discover that Quantum (the evil criminal organization) has blockaded Bolivia’s fresh water supply which, apparently, in the movie, flows through the desert in subterranean rivers). Piecing together information from some of the prior scenes, you also learn that Quantum’s agent (Dominic Green) is in the process of buying that desert from a Bolivia general planning to overthrow his government.

Although private ownership of fresh water resources is not new, this film seems to take the concept to the “logical” extreme opposed by the likes of Maude Barlow and others. Certainly, there is much left unanswered in this subplot, but the film suggests that once evil Quantum obtains the desert from the would-be Bolivian ruler, it would have full possessory rights in and to the underlying water – a “rule of capture” approach to water rights. Why would a company (evil or not) want to have such rights? That becomes apparent in a later scene where the general is coerced into signing a contract granting Quantum’s agent an exclusive and overpriced water provision contract for the country. In other words, Barlow’s worst nightmare comes true.

I cannot say that such possibilities do not concern me or that all corporations working in the water sector have evil intent. Yet, unregulated private ownership of one of the most important components of life is quite troubling. Moreover, as I stated before, there is “a fundamental human notion that water is so elemental to life that it deserves a unique status in our societal system.” Nonetheless, I do think that there is a viable middle ground and having blogged about it previously, I will not rehash the issue.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether this film is a harbinger of what’s to come? Are there already any lakes, rivers, or aquifers that are wholly owned by a private company? Note that by “owned,” I do not mean a mere right to use or access the water for a defined period of time. Rather, I mean full-blown, unrestricted ownership – where the company has complete legal title to each and every molecule of water in the water body. None come immediately to mind, but I suspect that some of you may be able to point out examples.

Peter Gleick Joins the Blogging World

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Peter Gleick, renown water policy wonk and President/co-founder of the Pacific Institute, has joined the blogging world on the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper’s City Brights blogPeter’s opening post:

 

Welcome to the first post to my City Brights blog. I look forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts about the water challenges facing California, the West, and our world. I hope this blog will be somewhat different than others. What I hope to do is to explore the threats and challenges to our freshwater resources and to discuss available, viable solutions to those threats, drawing from not only my experiences and viewpoint, but also by way of numbers. I will include in each post an important, unusual, or newsworthy “water number” that I hope will highlight some piece of the water issue. And now to begin the discussion…

 

In his first commentary, Peter briefly discusses the number “one billion” – that is roughly the number of people around the world who are without access to improved, safe, or affordable drinking water.

 

Having followed Peter’s work, I look forward to many more interesting posts and commentaries.

Global River Flows Decline

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor Discoveries Blog has an interesting article on the global decline of river flows.  Too many ’straws’ sucking water out of the Colorado River” describes how by 2050, the Colorado River be unable to live up to its current allocation scheme 60-90 percent of the time; even absent climatic changes, scheduled deliveries would be unmet 40 percent of the time.  This news is based on a recent study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and published in the April 20 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to a forthcoming study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the College of William and Mary, the Colorado is not alone in suffering such shortfalls.  The study reveals that over the past 60 years, some 300 of the world’s largest rivers have experienced significant changes in flow rates.  While some rivers have gained volume, the rivers with reduced flow rates outnumbered the ones with higher flow rates by 2.5 to 1.  As for the culprit, the study suggests that large dams and diversion projects have certainly caused their share of water problems. However, they place greater burden on global climate change, which is altering precipitation patterns and increasing the rate of evaporation.

This study, which represents the most comprehensive data base yet assembled to track river flows (assessing the flows of 925 of the planet’s largest rivers), is scheduled for publication in the May 15 issue of the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.  You can download the research paper here, or view a simplified description of the study’s findings here.

Water marketing vs. human rights

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Two recent articles in The Economist – Water: Sin aqua non and Water rights: Awash in waste – suggest that the solution to world’s water problem is to improve efficiency. The articles explain, rightly, that “there is, globally, no shortage of water” and point at wasteful practices, especially in the agricultural sector, as a chief culprit in global problems related to water scarcity.  The authors, however, tread on sacred grounds by pooh-poohing the treatment of water as a basic human right (“Treating it as a right makes the scarcity worse”) and argue for a system of tradable water-usage rights. “Any economist knows what to do: price water to reflect its value.”

 

While the ideal of pricing water resources at their true value may have a ring of sanity in the abstract, in reality it threatens a fundamental human notion that water is so elemental to life that it deserves a unique status in our societal system. Many of the world’s religions, for example, regard water as a gift from God that cannot be bought or sold lest the gift be dishonored.  Moreover, by taking a purely economic approach to a component of life relegates life itself to the market.

 

Yet, there may be a viable middle ground, one that strikes a balance between the absolute needs of individual people for survival and growth, and those of society to ensure efficiency and, hence, the overall and long-term supply of fresh water resources.  While actual uses vary around the world, agriculture accounts for 70-80% of global water withdrawals, while industry takes less than a fifth.  That leaves less than 10% as the amount actually used for domestic purposes and sanitation by a population pushing seven billion.  What would happen if people were afforded a human right to access some minimal amount of water and then subject amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market?

 

According to the World Health Organization, the average person requires 20 L per day for basic subsistence and up to 70 L per day for maintaining a minimum quality of life.  Obviously, such minimum will vary depending on the climate of the individual’s environment.  Yet, on a global scale, this would be a proverbial drop in the buckets of global water withdrawals and consumption.  Certainly, some nations may have difficulty meeting even this minimal guarantee due to local scarcity of fresh water resources. And in such cases, the global community should step forward and help their fellow human beings.  Yet, the vast majority of countries should have little difficulty in providing and assuring access to such quantities.

 

As for the amounts used by agriculture and industry, water could be managed using market mechanisms that allow it to be traded as either a commodity or in the context of tradable usage rights.  As The Economist notes, “Water is rarely priced in ways that reflect supply and demand … Because most water use is not measured, let alone priced, trade rarely reflects water scarcities.”  The result is a highly inefficient system that justly could be accused of waste.  Again, The Economist: “Because water is usually free, thirsty crops like alfalfa are grown in arid California. Wheat in India and Brazil uses twice as much water as wheat in America and China. Dry countries like Pakistan export textiles though a 1kg bolt of cloth requires 11,000 litres of water.”

 

Even amounts used by people beyond a guaranteed allotment could be subject to pricing mechanisms and regulated market forces.  A tiered pricing system, for example, would allow for personal use beyond a minimum lifestyle (e.g., swimming pool) to those who can afford it while maintaining a minimum standard for all people.  It could also be used to subsidize the minimum guarantee for the rest of the population, at least for those who cannot afford even the basic cost.

 

Of course, the natural environment has yet to be addressed in this system.  And clearly, water for ecosystems, habitats, and species must be ensured through regulations that protect minimum instream flows, aquifer integrity, water quality, and other aspects of the environment.  Nonetheless, while we certainly have much more to do to on this front, ensuring water for the environment should not have to conflict with either recognizing access to water as a basic human right, or subjecting amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market.  Currently, when we total the percentages of water used by people, agriculture, and industry as 100%, we are simply identifying the amount withdrawn and used for human endeavor.  It in no way reflects the quantities of water left in rivers and aquifers, whether intentionally or not.  Certainly, in many parts of the world, that amount is inadequate for the needs of the environment, but that is, in part, a product of our current inefficiencies.  Yet, it is also a function of our priorities.  By enhancing efficiency and at the same time securing minimal guarantees for people everywhere, the reduced water stress would likely allow the raising of environmental priorities.

 

UPI – “Water crisis rocks LA, Mexico City; who’s next?”

Monday, April 13th, 2009

UPI recently reported that major cities around the world, including Mexico City and Los Angeles, are suffering from severe water crises. Nothing new here. What caught my attention is the one-liner: “Almost no one in the United States — or anywhere else in the industrialized world — takes the crisis seriously or realizes how directly it threatens them.” The article also notes that while Mexico City is about to embark on a 36-hour water cutoff, in Los Angeles, the City Council unanimously turned back a rationing plan Wednesday that had been put together by the city’s Department of Water and Power.

Why is that so? Why is the industrialized world so immune to the growing water problems developing both around the world and in our own communities? Has civilization and progress blinded us to the droughts and floods that have plagued the US, Australia, Europe, and other industrialized regions in recent years? Or, are we quick to dismiss such problems because the consequences were felt by only a minority of a minority? Are we such a reactive (as opposed to proactive) species that the degree of suffering has to overwhelm us before we are ready to take action?

As the UPI article warns in its closing paragraph: “The water shortages now hitting Los Angeles and Mexico City now “only” threaten around 40 million people. If the U.S. and Mexican governments don’t get their acts together, the problem will only get far worse.”