Yes, it’s that time again – time to reflect on the year that has passed, and anticipate what could come of the year ahead.
My head has been unusually full of water lately, to the point of distraction. Over the holidays I worked through two chapters of a new water book and set the course for a few more. Water has been at the front of my mind almost constantly in recent weeks. My attentions have been flitting from place to place in search of new ways to tell old water stories, with the hope of happier endings.
Like the family dog working the untended hors d’oeuvres of our holiday party guests, I too became a nuisance in my own house, a most boring cocktail conversationalist. I, for one, am happy to be done with holiday distractions. Time to start anew!
Obsessing Over Water Scarcity
I’ve become rather morbidly allured to stories of people that are running out of water. I’ve traveled the world from Texas to the Tana River of Kenya to study the consequences of water scarcity firsthand. I want to know how people get trapped by water shortage, and how they might fight their way out.
I’d like to share a few New Year’s thoughts about the water challenges that many communities and countries will be facing in coming years, and what we will need to do to secure our water future.
First, a bit of context. At the global scale, we are in no danger of running out of water. We are presently using only about 4% of the water flowing through and into the rivers, lakes and aquifers of the planet. However, not all of that water is readily available to us, and from the perspective of any individual community, only a small portion is affordably within reach.
That means that when thinking about water shortages, we need to view them as very localized in nature – not a global water crisis but a “multi-local” crisis.
Water shortages emerge when the users of a particular water source – a local river, lake, or aquifer – are consuming water at a rate faster than the source is being replenished.
That explains the physical cause of water scarcity. Trying to explain why we don’t control our depletion of our water sources is much, much more complicated.
The Promise of Water Democracy
In most regions of the world, governments have asserted the authority to regulate water use, and local communities have acquiesced. But most governments are failing miserably in their water duties.
Water agencies at state and national levels have proven incapable or unwilling to expend the time, resources, and care required to effectively manage a resource that is inherently highly localized in its distribution and virtually impossible to regulate from any distance.
Governments are absentee water owners.
As a result, the water supermarkets of the world – our watersheds and aquifers – are being operated without any cashiers or stocking clerks. The store shelves are being emptied faster than they can be restocked.
I am not yet giving up on the possibility that governments will someday provide adequate water governance. But that governance needs to be fundamentally restructured. We need to move from state-run technocracies to local community-based water democracies.
Some really interesting experiments in water democracy are already underway. The national water act passed in South Africa in 1998 called for the formation of local “catchment management agencies.” Kenya’s recent water reforms have given local communities a bigger role in water decision-making through “water resource user associations.” In Texas, state legislation passed in 1997 called for the creation of sixteen “regional water planning groups” that conduct assessments of their water situation on a five-year planning cycle.
None of these experiments in local water democracy is working perfectly. Which is exactly how democracy is supposed to work. It is supposed to be inclusive, experimental, adaptive. That means messy, slow, and often quite inefficient.
But here’s the magic of local water governance: people are talking to each other about water, people are watching how water is being used and who is using it, and everybody cares a great deal. Participants in local water forums realize that their water future is now in their hands.
Only in this manner can our water sources be managed with the caring and sharing necessary to avoid, or resolve, scarcity.
Building Water Literacy
These community-based water democracy experiments are exciting and fresh. But it has already become quite clear that too many participants suffer from a basic water illiteracy.
Just as with managing family bank accounts, local citizens need to understand the water budgets of their local water sources: the rate at which their water sources are being replenished, how much is being removed and not returned after use, who is responsible for the greatest depletions, and what measures will likely be most effective in reducing consumption or increasing supply.
Many of us can make important contributions to advancing water literacy in our local communities. In that spirit, I am hopeful that my forthcoming book will help explain the basic arithmetic of water budgets, and illustrate how that water math can point communities toward management approaches that will be most effective.
But many of you can help foster water literacy as well. Here I’ll offer four ideas for your consideration, posed as suggested resolutions for the New Year.
Resolutions for Our Water Future
Resolution #1: If you are a teacher, please commit or redouble your efforts to advance learning about water cycles, watersheds and aquifers in your educational curriculum.
There are many excellent teaching resources now available. It’s never too early or too late to teach water, and we have a lot of catching up to do. A recent poll by The Nature Conservancy found that more than three-quarters of Americans cannot identify the natural source of the water that they use in their homes. More than half of those that thought they knew were wrong. We cannot even begin to help solve water problems if we don’t even know which water source(s) we rely upon!
Resolution #2: If you are a media reporter, learn the difference between “water use” and “water consumption.”
Trust me, it matters a great deal when discussing water shortages, and if you keep getting it wrong then you are perpetuating water illiteracy in our society. Water shortages are not caused simply by using (i.e., withdrawing) water from a river, lake or aquifer. Water shortages result from the fact that some portion of the water that is withdrawn and used is not returned to the original water source after use (i.e., water is consumed from the local water source, thereby depleting it).
A power plant might use a lot of water, but 95-98% of the water is typically returned to the local source after it is used to cool the plant. Similarly, virtually all of the water used in our homes might go back to the original source after it runs down our drains. In contrast, less than 50% of the water used in irrigated agriculture and everything we spray on our lawns fails to make it back to the original source.
Water use is not the cause of water scarcity, but water consumption is!
Why does this matter? Because you cannot effectively resolve water shortages unless you focus on the biggest sources of water consumption. As a reporter, you can help citizens understand where the greatest volumes of water are being consumed. For example, power plants account for 41% of all water used in the U.S., but they are responsible for less than 5% of all water consumption. In contrast, irrigated agriculture accounts for 37% of all water use but 85% of all water consumed!
Resolution #3: If you are a government official, stop authorizing funding for large water storage reservoirs unless proven to be the optimum solution after comprehensive and objective analysis.
We have been taught that building reservoirs is the answer to water shortages. This is like being taught that the answer to bankruptcy in your checking account is to open up another account. Reservoirs don’t create more water – they simply help spend it.
Reservoirs can be helpful in temporarily storing water to facilitate its use in irrigation, or as urban water supply. But they should never be assumed as panaceas, and they should always be evaluated objectively against all other options, especially conservation measures.
Reducing water consumption associated with irrigation – both on farms and in urban landscape areas – is by far and away the most cost-effective means of alleviating water shortages. The potential for water conservation in cities and farms is so huge that it will take most communities decades to exhaust the potential. Only in rare cases will it be economically – not to mention environmentally – justifiable to continue building large water storage reservoirs. The smart money will go toward helping farmers and cities reduce the amount of water consumed in irrigation.
Resolution #4: If you own or work for a water-using corporation, commit to having a net positive water impact on the water sources you profit from.
To become effective water managers, most communities will require considerable help in their efforts to reduce overall water consumption and set a course toward long-term water sustainability.
If your company is operating in (or sourcing materials from) a water-short area, one of the most important ways to “give back” to your local community is to invest in local water education efforts, and to commit your company to a goal of being a “net positive” user of water. By net positive I mean that you use as little water as practical, and then look for ways to invest in other water-saving efforts in the community that offset your company’s water use. For examples of corporate commitments to water, check out the goals that both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have adopted.
Happy New Year!