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This is Making Me Thirsty

April 14, 2010

In a time when the media landscape is dominated by controversial sound bites, big mouths and talking points repeated ad nauseam, it’s hard to get a substantive policy conversation started.  One replete with honest dialogue about various policies’ effects on people’s lives is like looking for that proverbial needle in the haystack.  I am sure Thomas Friedman would agree as he lament’s conservative lawmakers and pundits latching on to the term “global warming” and then dismissing it because of abnormally heavy snowfalls in Washington this winter.  Not that those on the other side have done the general public any favors by trying to garner support through trumped up data and dooms-day scenarios.  The depth of debate is as about as deep as two siblings in a who-hit-who-first squabble.  The issue with the problems we face today is their nature is complex and nuanced while the vehicle by which we understand them and utilize in decision making is base and entrenched.  The world’s economies are more integrated than ever, information networks are global, and we better understand the relationships between ecosystems.  Issues within these systems can not be adequately discussed for the public in four minute interviews on ideologically driven news programs.  

Having said that, I want to commend National Geographic’s attempts at taking a snapshot of the intricate cultural, political and economic relationships of water in our world today.  Literal snapshots also; there are beautiful pictures of water interacting with people and landscapes that are worth the cover price.  I admire that they dedicated an entire issue to the topic and feel they have done journalism justice in introducing our relationships and future challenges with this natural resource.  What it may have lacked in depth it made up for in breadth.  This could be by design as they have recently named a National Geographic Freshwater Fellow, Sandra Postel, to work on their behalf researching and educating about water use and management.

While studying peace and conflict resolution at Arcadia I remember articles prognosticating possible “water wars” in the future while other researchers found examples where mutual need for water created partnerships rather than conflict.  These arguments are alluded to in the NatGeo article on the Jordan River.  With my knowledge of international development I was not disappointed in my expectation of an article on African women detailing statistics about how much of their waking life is concerned with finding and retrieving water (up to 8 hours a day).  As much as our lives are dictated by the ease or difficulty of getting water, I was also reminded of how global climate change is now being understood as a determinant of its changing locations and abundance.

All together, the tone of the issue was one of concern.  A resource that is integral to life but scarce for some as demand is only increasing.  Southern California has quenched its growing thirst over the last 100 years by usurping the resource from Northern California, depleting lakes and altering ecosystems over the entire state.  The irrigated farms that consume this water produce over 50% of our fruits and vegetables and all Americans would feel the effect of heavy losses to California’s agricultural sector.  As the United States and other countries who can afford large public works projects are diverting rivers, building dams and drilling deep into aquifers, they also are altering ecosystems, which destroys wildlife habitat.  According to the article “Silent Streams” half of the 573 animals on the endangered species list in the United States are freshwater species.

Now this is a tough situation where vested business interests in Southern California will lobby for more water while environmentalists and those in Northern California will protest.  Understandable, but we can not see this as a zero sum game: to build, or not to build more aqueducts.  Maybe we need to build now but we can create a future where demand can actually come in line with supply.  I have two suggestions and they are both public-private in nature.  First, get rid of the subsidies, monetary and environmental.  Businesses are allowed to use water for manufacturing processes and then discharge pollutant laden water back into waterways.  They should be charged according to the percent and nature of the pollutants they put into our ecosystems.  Pharmaceutical companies should be charged or taxed to the extent that their chemicals are found the fish we consume.  Livestock farms should have to pay for the effluents they put in rivers.  The days of free inputs for industry need to end.  If a public common is used for the profit of a private corporation, the corporation needs to pay the public.  Protectionists will argue that this will make American businesses less competitive by driving up their costs and prices.  I would argue that these cost constraints are exactly what will spur innovation and keep American businesses competitive not only now, but in the future.  This innovation will create the technology that can then be exported around the world as consumers’ buying patterns change.  As they shift to buying products that are healthier for themselves and the environment, the companies who can provide products that are made more efficiently and with less environmental impact will be rewarded.  Those that can not will perish.  Maybe its time to let those who survive on governmental and environmental subsidies to either change or go out of business. 

Second, the general public in Southern California should also be charged more for the water they consume.  For that matter we all should pay more for the water we consume.  I do not know particulars (please enlighten me if you know), but I would venture that the money used to pay for California’s elaborate system of dams, canals and pumps over the years has been paid for by state taxes from all Californians and even federal grants and loans garnered from all Americans.  In that case those in Southern California should pay more.  Again, get rid of subsidies that allow them to prosper at the expense of everyone else.  Of course there should be programs to help the poor, like gas for heating and cooking here in NYC.  No one should be denied water, but increased water prices and government regulation could go a long way to conserving this precious natural resource (like no green lawns if you live in a dessert!  If you want green lawns, move).  Think of it like this.  I could fill gas cans all day long with water from my tap and my bill at the end of the month would be negligible versus filling those up with gasoline.  Now which one is the more valuable resource in the long run?  The pricing system for water needs to be fixed.  Now, I know some will argue that water should be free, and this is true if all the water you drink comes from a rain barrel you bought and keep on your roof, but if you turn on a faucet, you need to pay. 

As I was flipping through the magazine I saw the map pictured below, and even though it fits perfectly within my socio-political worldview, it still was quite striking.  The map details the balance of water use to water availability and displays Sub-Saharan Africa as one of the least stressed areas of the world.  But, of course!  Water scarcity is largely about political and economic capital.  In the article “Burden of Thirst” women are described as spending eight hours a day fetching water.  This is not due to a lack of water; this is because clean abundant water is for the affluent.  It is for rich countries and for the rich of poor countries.  There is plenty of water for Sub-Saharan Africans just waiting to be dammed, pumped, channeled, and irrigated.  There are aquifers to be tapped and rivers to divert.  There are water treatment plants to be built and infrastructure to be developed.  This can be done, and in the long run would pay for itself by bettering health outcomes and freeing up human capital, both positive trends that benefit economic growth.


Water Availability and Use

On the other hand, if you look at the developed countries which have done all of the previous water system developments, they are plagued by medium to extreme levels of water stress, just like California.  So even if we could get through the economic and political hurdles to make water clean and accessible to all, is following old models of infrastructure and water delivery the right long term choice?  Morally I feel compelled by the idea of human rights to fight for people, wherever they may be, to have the basic human security and not live in fear for lack of food, clothing, and shelter.  Still, once we meet the needs of those in a water scarce area, such as those in Southern California, are we not doing something very imprudent?  Though humans have become masters of their environment we also seem to have created precarious systems that can easily be thrown off balance through environmental change and technological shortcomings.  Shifts of population and weather can devastate whole regions as hurricane Katrina should serve as example.  Basically, this is the classic sustainable development debate, how do you meet current needs without jeapordizing the resources that will be needed by future generations? 

We need to plan, not just react: short term solutions, yes, but also long-term goals.  We should deliver water to wherever it is needed, but with an understanding of reducing and changing that need.  First, there should be monetary deterrents for those who live in areas that are suspect to environmental fragility in regards to supporting life.  The idea would be to help people now while incentivizing development to occur in places that are more apt to handle it.  Limit amounts of water that can be irrigated per acre; give farms tax breaks to move.  Carrots and sticks.  The higher costs of doing business and living in water scarce places should not be entirely spread across society.  Like insurance, the costs can be spread, but those with the highest risk are charged more.  The incentive being to not participate in the risky behaviors.

Second, conservation needs to be as important as delivery.  Conservation can be managed partly through regulation, but ultimately will be achieved only if true costs are reflected in pricing structures to spur business innovation and behavior changes.  If governments regulate with the people’s best interest in mind, businesses pay for all resources they use, and we all realized the power of our indivisual purchases, we could change what is becoming humans’ unhealthy relationship with their environment. 

Purchase from businesses that are stewards of the environment and their communities.  Stop buying bottled water.  Write your representatives for tax breaks for greywater systems installed into new houses or to support cap and trade systems.  Water touches so many aspects of our lives lets be proactive and not take it for granted.

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