Paying the Water Piper: The Future of Water, Part III

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

This is the third blog about water. The first two can be found here and here, plus a blog about California’s water situation can be found here.
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Fresh water is vital, and we’re running out of it. Water shortages will disrupt economic plans, sap economic vitality, increase costs, and cause friction and disruptions that range from disagreements between communities to outright war. Yet, despite all this, very few people pay much attention to water. Indeed, as Steven Solomon, author of the frightening book Water, summarizes the issue:

Despite its growing scarcity and preciousness to life, ironically, water is also man’s most misgoverned, inefficiently allocated and profligately wasted natural resource. … Almost universally, governments still treat water as if it were a limitless gift of nature to be freely dispensed by any authority with the power to exploit it. In contrast to oil and nearly every other natural commodity, water is largely exempted from market discipline.[1]

Water is a perfect example of bad habits and bad planning. We have become so used to thinking of water as free that we have fashioned our lives and economic policies on that basis. Yet, even as we run low on water in places, our reaction is to throw temper tantrums because we think of free access to water as a natural right. Of all the commodities that are subsidized by governments, water is the most explosive.

And we are seeing the signs of strain almost everywhere, starting with the Middle East, including Israel, and then on to India, China, most of the African countries, and many other rapidly developing countries as well. But it’s not limited to developing countries; we have problems of our own in the rich world that we will have to deal with.

In America, the Southwest’s growth will depend on its ability to buy enough water rights to allow further growth in its Sunbelt, which attracts retirees from the colder states farther north. The farmers of the Central Valley of California claimed that the historically cheap rates that they used to pay for water, plus their almost unlimited access to water, were theirs by right, and complained bitterly when they are forced to sell water rights to allow California cities to grow, even though the farmers made billions of dollars in profits by doing so. America’s cities are also facing water problems, and not necessarily because of a shortage of fresh water, but because they have consistently underinvested in the infrastructure to gather and deliver it to their residents.

New York City: A Good News Story About What Intelligent Planning Can Accomplish

New York City is a good example of this, but fortunately a good news story as well. They have surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, by managing to update an ancient and failing water system after decades of delay and dithering. They were supplied by three aqueducts: the gravity-fed Croton water system drawing water from the upper reaches of the Delaware River and the Catskills, which opened in 1842; and Tunnel 1, built in 1917, and Tunnel 2, built in 1936, both of which drew water from upstate New York.

After being prodded into action by tougher drinking water standards in the 1980s, New York invested something in excess of $7 billion to upgrade their water filtration and delivery systems – and possibly just in time to save the City from a disaster. Some say that had their existing water infrastructure failed prior to their new system coming online, which was a very real threat, it would have produced a disaster far worse than 9/11: the complete inability to provide drinking water to a large fraction of the city’s population, rendering huge chunks of the City uninhabitable. How can a major city exist without drinking water?

The Situation Is Getting Critical

And it’s not just a money issue, either. By overdrawing water from aquifers, we are destroying or contaminating many of them. Some aquifers, when they are overdrawn, actually crack and collapse, and cannot hold anywhere near as much water as they previously did. In other cases, when the water level falls too far, groundwater seeps in that has been contaminated with runoff pesticides from farms and golf courses, plus bacterial contamination from animal farms and human cities, rapidly reducing the usable freshwater available from that source.

The situation in many parts of the world is getting critical, and it’s hard to generalize where. Some areas, like India and the Middle East, are going to experience widespread water problems and shortages. In America, there may be large areas that are affected, like the Southwest and West, but the problems may also skip from one community to another, according to the state of their water infrastructure and investment. What is clear is that the way we use water now is unsustainable, and we will be forced to spend huge amounts of money to remedy our sublime ignorance of the facts.

The good news is that we have a lot of leeway to deal with water shortages in part because we have been so wasteful in our use of it. Merely improving our efficiency would probably be enough to solve many of our problems.

For instance, in farming, Israel has pioneered the use of drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to a plant’s roots, along with computer monitoring of soil moisture so as to deliver just the right amount of water at just the right time. This, combined with the recycling of wastewater, has allowed Israeli farmers to double or triple crop yields per gallon of water.

Likewise, there are other solutions to other forms of water waste, such as New York City’s preservation of parkland in upstate New York to naturally filter water that runs into their reservoirs, rather than to build massive – and more expensive – industrial filtration systems.

Overcoming the Yuck Factor

And I can give you one simple way that cities can implement (relatively) quickly and cheaply to increase the amount of water available to their citizens: recycle sewage into potable water. Yet the “yuck” factor, as it’s called, is likely to cause politicians to avoid this, even though the technology is well known and has been proven through decades of space flight. As astronauts say, “We turn yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”[2]

Yet, of all the problems we face with regard to water, the biggest is that we will have to adopt a very different way of thinking about water, and a major change in government policies around water to solve our looming problems. In particular, we will have to start charging what it costs to supply water, and that will cause major protests among most of the world’s population, including here in the rich world. As well, we will have to invest huge amounts of money in water infrastructure at a time when investment capital is going to be hard to come by. That spells trouble, because we don’t have a choice where water is concerned. We have to spend the money because we can’t live without it.

When water runs out, people behave badly. They never expect the taps to run dry; it’s not a possibility they even consider, so it quickly becomes a major crisis. But it will happen with increasing frequency everywhere, and may prove to be a significant limiting factor to food production, economic activity, and standards of living. Worse, water will become the cause of economic, political, and even military conflict.

What water will not be is free. It won’t even be cheap.

© Copyright, IF Research, July 2015.

[1] ibid. p.376.

[2] Howell, Elizabeth, “Yesterday’s Coffee”, http://www.universetoday.com/110683/yesterdays-coffee-drinking-urine-in-space-could-preview-mars-exploration-techniques/

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