Newsweek Takes on Water

by |October 20, 2010

Last week Newsweek Magazine took up the water issue – a sure sign that awareness of the global water crisis is growing.

The piece focused on the public/private water debate – specifically, how ethical is it to cede control of our water supplies to private companies? In that context, the article makes some interesting points–albeit not entirely new to anyone who has been following water issues closely.

But while attention to the global water crisis is welcome, by framing the water issue so narrowly, the piece unfortunately misses or downplays some key components of the global water equation—components that, when accounted for, could substantially alter conclusions drawn about the issue.

For example, the author reports on the burgeoning global water trade, in which water-rich nations and regions (mostly in the north, including Canada, Alaska and Russia) fashion deals to export massive amounts of water to parched, water-stressed areas like India, Syria and Jordan among others.

Sitka, Alaska is planning to ship water to India. Source: DCSL on Flickr.

“The transfer of water is nothing new,” she writes:

”New York City is supplied by a web of tunnels and pipes that stretch 125 miles north into the Catskills Mountains; Southern California gets its water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado River Basin, which are hundreds of miles to the north and west, respectively. The distance between Alaska and India is much farther, to be sure. But it’s not the distance that worries critics. It’s the transfer of so much water from public hands to private ones.”

But it is precisely the distance that should worry critics. While New York has the unusual advantage of a water system that is mostly gravity fed, Southern California spends enormous amounts of energy to pump water around. One can only imagine that putting water on a tanker in Alaska to deliver to India uses a far more absurd amount.

In light of the fast arriving end of cheap energy, the assumption that it will be possible to build a new global water trade akin to the oil trade in the decades ahead seems unsupported at best.

Indeed, the author reports, until the recent global recession it was too expensive to ship water in tankers—probably for good reason. Given how patently unsustainable—and seemingly desperate–such schemes are, the public/private debate, while important, seems less significant than the bigger question: where the water will come from when it’s simply too expensive to ship it halfway across the world?

Later in the piece, the author lays out the pros and cons of a free-market approach to water, but takes issue with the idea that higher prices promote conservation, pointing out that demand for water is highly inelastic. “No matter what water costs,” she writes, “we still need it to survive. So beyond trimming nonessential uses like lawn maintenance, car washing, and swimming pools, consumers really can’t reduce water consumption in proportion to rate increases.”

But framing the issue this way inadvertently presents a highly skewed portrait of just how water is used; the image of “trimming nonessential uses” misses a very big part of the picture.

In the United States, for instance, irrigation agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use. According to the Asian Development Bank, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water withdrawals.

Given the savings that water-efficient farming techniques can yield, (drip irrigation, for example, can cut water use by 50 percent) it’s misleading to suggest that consumers (in this case farmers) simply can’t cut use.

The question, then, is why don’t they, even in response to higher prices, when so many water-saving techniques are available? And how can we find ways to promote water efficiency and conservation while still striving to provide water to those who need it most?

Yes, investment in water infrastructure is surely a crucial piece of the puzzle. But perhaps more important is getting a better understanding how human decisions—from residential users, to industry, to farmers to reservoir managers—affect the use or mis-use of water resources. And that’s an issue that transcends the private/public water debate.

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