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Water Wasteland

September 9, 2013

Decisions about how the world’s water gets used  happens at such a wide range of scales –from international transboundary water agreement, to how long we let the tap run– that it is hard to wrap my mind around the simultaneous vastness and specificity of water allocation.  With a chain constructed of so many key decision points, it’s almost impressive that we haven’t totally messed it up already (not that we aren’t well on our way).  But as we chug along into the heart of the 21st Century, our finite water supply will be pulled in an ever-increasing number of directions. With everyone from suburbanites to farmers, manufacturers to fishers, conservationists  to the impoverished, wanting a piece of the pie, our pending challenge is much less about maintaining the relative success of the water management status quo, as it is about finding moments in the chain of decision making where adaptation and change can be introduced successfully.

In our climate challenged future, will our current framework of international policies, municipal regulations and local laws be designed with enough capacity to shift and contort to the various threats that climate change poses to our water security? How do we become more strict, yet more flexible? And when do we start getting real about deciding on a hierarchy of uses ?  Even of the short list of users I mentioned above, there are variations within those groups; certain farming techniques that use water more efficiently, certain manufacturers  that make more essential products. As a society I hope we are rapidly realizing that Earth is not simply our laboratory, where we are free to take from the shelves whatever we need to manufacture things we find cool or profitable.  If we don’t,  it will be a shameful day when we realize that by prematurely cashing in on our planet’s resources, we traded its health (and our future) for a fast and furious love affair with automobiles and Cola-Cola.

That is not to say that cars or bottled water are the root of all evil (though they do rank right up there in my book), but it is to say that we need to consider the future prioritization of uses and distribution in the regulatory frameworks that we build today.

One way to begin would be to incorporate robust scenario planning into water management. It seems that many transboundary water agreements only consider drought, and to a lesser extent floods, as possible scenarios.  And even these leave much to be desired. For example, in the US-Mexico agreement over the Rio Grande, Mexico is allowed to supply the US with less than the minimum flow if they are experiencing extraordinary drought, but they then incur a water debt that must be repaid over time to the US. The fact that drought parameters  are established may seem adaptive on paper, but the reality is that water is being treated as a commodity in a system where the victims of droughts are then also burdened by the repaying of ‘debt’. This type of agreement seems to reflect little understanding of natural disasters as being uninvited.  Will receiving ‘bonus’ water from  Mexico post drought really solve our problems? Perhaps a policy that leaned more towards forgiveness, assuming due diligence in conservation is done, would be more mature.

When dealing with the world’s most critical resource, the many layers of regulatory decisions create an entangling web of implications, so challenging to navigate  yet so essential to get right, we have no choice but to design in profoundly forward-thinking ways if we are to ensure ourselves a system that has enough strength and agility to meet the challenges ahead.  Godspeed.

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