Hydraulic Pressures: Into the Age of Water Security
- James E. Nickum
- Content Type
- Journal Article
- Foreign Affairs
- Issue Number
- Publication Date
- September/October 2010
- Council on Foreign Relations
- No abstract is available.
- Security, Development, Economics
- Political Geography
- United States, Mexico, Southeast Asia
- Although warnings that water crises, even water wars, are pending have a long history -- and a long history of being overblown -- there are increasing signs that the management of water resources worldwide is now reaching a tipping point. Many lakes and rivers are vanishing, and the quality of those that remain is deteriorating. Ground-water supplies are under pressure from overuse and pollution. Some fish populations are accumulating anthropogenic toxins; others threaten to disappear altogether (remember Atlantic cod?). Climate change may already be rearranging rainfall and glacial melting patterns, making life in arid areas increasingly untenable and intensifying floods in the already wet, and more populous, regions. Water experts have long quipped that when the problem is not too much water, it is too little water, or water that is too dirty. Increasingly, however, the problem also seems to be that water is in the wrong hands. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, nearly 70 percent of the water used worldwide goes to irrigation, rarely the most productive use for it. As economies and people shift toward cities and the demand for industrial and household water grows, the pressure on supplies is building. Some water must also be set aside for the environment, for instance, to maintain the ecosystems of river deltas. Meanwhile, nearly one billion people still lack access to minimally safe drinking water, and over 2.6 billion live without proper sanitation, a critical factor for children's survival.
Cracks are also showing in the world's water infrastructure. The massive inventory of dams, subsidized irrigation networks, and urban water and sewage systems built over the last half century is aging, poorly maintained, and underfunded. Cash-strapped governments and taxpayers are disinclined to pay the high costs of repairing or replacing these overstressed facilities, even while they expect them to continue to operate.
With most of the world's watercourses shared by several countries, water management can be a major source of tension, especially between the countries upstream, which often claim to have sovereign rights over the water while it is on their territory, and the countries downstream, which feel that they are left having to make do with unpredictable supplies of less and less clean water than they are entitled to. Water disputes are legion: among others, there are those between the United States and Mexico over the Colorado River, between India and Bangladesh over the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, between China and neighboring Southeast Asian states over the Mekong River, and between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River.
According to the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, which is maintained by Oregon State University, outright wars over water have been rare, and cooperation over water management has occurred in surprising places -- for example, between India and Pakistan, under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Yet the potential for instability remains real. According to the Pacific Institute's "Water Conflict Chronology," there is a "long and distressing" history of violence over fresh water, especially at the subnational level. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned at the 2008 World Economic Forum, in Davos, that stress on water resources was a destabilizing factor around the world, from Darfur to the United States, Colombia to South Korea. One cannot completely grasp the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations, for example, without understanding that the Gaza Strip and the Jordan River basin have both some of the world's fastest-growing populations and some of the world's lowest amounts of water per capita.
Water issues are almost never only about the water; they involve an ever-expanding list of other matters. Population growth and improved lifestyles are major drains on water supplies, especially in emerging economies. Snowbirds flock to dry climates expecting the golf courses and lush lawns of wetter regions. The world's growing middle class is consuming more beef and more dairy goods, products that require much more water than other foods: it can take up to 75 times as much water to produce one pound of beef as it does to produce one pound of wheat. Water's fortunes have also been bound up with energy matters since the invention of the watermill. Pumping water from underground or moving it over mountains takes enormous amounts of energy: one-fifth of California's power today goes to watering Southern California. Conventional energy generation requires water for cooling. And now dams are rapidly being built throughout the world to provide clean energy.
Given the complexity of these issues, it is little surprise that three new books all agree that the world is facing serious water crises and yet have very different ideas about how to address them. Steven Solomon, for whom water management has long been a maker or breaker of civilizations, argues that it is becoming even more critical in this "age of scarcity" to trust the efficiency of the market. In contrast, Peter Gleick looks at the market warily and indicts the commercialization of bottled water for threatening the reliable provision of clean and inexpensive tap water by public utilities. And Peter Rogers and Susan Leal see promise in some of the innovative user-backed public-private arrangements that local government agencies worldwide have undertaken to address simultaneously water scarcity and revenue shortfalls. These three views differ on important points, especially when it comes to deciding what roles the public and private sectors should play. Still, Solomon, Gleick, and Rogers and Leal all agree that the world's water problems are increasingly linked, often in complicated ways, to other crises concerning people, food, health, and the environment. They also agree that no universal fix can be applied to such site-specific problems: scarcity here, flooding there, pollution everywhere. And reflecting an understanding common among water experts around the world, they make clear that solving the world's current water problems will require thinking across intellectual, geographic, administrative, and disciplinary boundaries that have long seemed impermeable and developing new forms of governance.
Solomon's book is an ambitious 500-plus-page history of leading civilizations that argues that states' ability to make the best use of water resources has been the key to distinguishing winners and losers in "the epic struggle for wealth, power, and civilization." Drawing both on the historian Karl Wittfogel's theory that despotic, "hydraulic" societies, with their large government irrigation and flood-control works, are bound to clash with liberal democratic, "non-hydraulic" societies and on Fernand Braudel's even more sweeping geopolitical history of civilizations, Solomon claims that "preeminent societies have invariably exploited their water resources in ways that were more productive, and unleashed larger supplies, than slower-adapting ones." He lines up the usual examples of hydraulic giants, mostly from ancient times: Pharaonic Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization, Mesopotamia, China during the construction of the Grand Canal. But he also links the use of water to the preeminence of major nonhydraulic societies, among them the seafarers of the Mediterranean and of the Islamic world, Europe's global mariners after 1492, and the steam-powered British Empire. He casts American history in terms of the United States' exploitation of its own and other countries' water, from the wet East's conquest of the arid West to the building of the Erie and Panama Canals. Major waterworks have continued to be built since, starting in the 1930s with the Hoover Dam.
Having linked water to power, in despotic and democratic systems alike, Solomon defines the prospects for countries today in terms of their access to and uses of water. He divides states between the water haves and the water have-nots. He then argues that water will become more valuable than oil and that as that happens, the Middle East will suffer, Asia's rising giants will falter, and the now-fading democratic and industrial West will find new opportunities to prolong its dominance.
Solomon contends that fresh water is the Achilles' heel of both China and India: the factor that "will determine whether they lose their ability to feed themselves and cause their industrial expansions to prematurely sputter." Indeed, those two economic juggernauts have not yet been able to cope with water overuse and water degradation, and as they themselves already know, these problems are major challenges to their political and governance systems. Solomon also rightly indicates that how China and India, together home to almost 40 percent of the world's inhabitants, address these challenges will be of critical interest to the rest of the world.
But why should food self-sufficiency matter in an open world economy? Solomon's argument reflects a long-standing concern in some circles that at some point other states are going to have to feed China. This seems at variance, however, with Solomon's faith in the power of the market: a wealthy China (or India) will be able to buy the food or the farmland it needs from other countries. Solomon's basic thesis, that the rise and fall of civilizations hinges on water, is also ultimately unconvincing. A deterioration in water infrastructure or in maritime power is more often a symptom of a state's other problems, particularly fiscal or economic, than a cause of its decline.
Solomon argues that the West will fare best in the face of water scarcity because it is the region most likely to be able to overcome the "inefficiencies, waste, and political favoritism" characteristic of "the government command systems" that have "controlled water use in almost every society through the centuries." It can succeed through "greater reliance upon the self-interested, profit motive of individuals organized by the politically indifferent market" -- which market, Solomon adds without flinching, is "anchored in a pricing mechanism for valuing water that reflects both the full cost of sustaining ecosystems through externally imposed environmental standards and a social fairness guarantee for everyone to receive at affordable cost the minimum amounts necessary for their basic needs." This is a world in which the forces of the market are unleashed but kept from doing harm by rational regulators presumably insulated from political imperatives.
The profit motive would be a trustworthy guide if the world ran as in an economics textbook, but in real life, the market is not politically indifferent and self-interest rarely takes adequate account of environmental standards or social fairness. If anything, it is a surfeit of invisible hands that is depleting aquifers and leaving contaminants to run off from farms and highways. A classic example that Solomon misses in his otherwise fascinating section on New York City's water system is the story of how in 1799, just two years before becoming vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr twisted a state charter intended to create a water company to set up instead what is now JPMorgan Chase. The move may have been of lasting benefit for the financial system, but the city was left having to find another way to fund the expansion of its waterworks.
Solomon, a former financial reporter, places too much faith in the particular "governing model" that will "redeploy the existing water resources from less to more productive hands." Vested interests and entitlements are inflexible, both domestically and internationally, especially where legal systems are strong. Authoritarian systems certainly have their rigidities, as Solomon rightly notes, but their ability to overlook the niceties of property rights allows them to make major shifts in the use of natural resources. Over the past decade, for instance, the Chinese government has redeployed massive amounts of water from low-productivity agriculture to high-productivity industry and for use in homes. So it is rash to assume that the Western market model will prevail over the Chinese or the Indian market muddle (or vice versa), or that these models will not evolve.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
Gleick's lively book on the booming bottled-water industry and its "war on tap water" illustrates why one might not want to trust market forces to redeploy fresh water to its most valued uses. Americans now drink an average of 30 gallons of bottled water per person each year -- 20 times as much as they did 30 years ago -- and usually from plastic bottles that they may or may not bother to recycle. These days, a liter of bottled water is more valuable, or at least higher priced, than a liter of oil. Last year, on the campus where I teach in Tokyo, vending machines were offering plastic bottles of Masafi "natural mineral water" from the United Arab Emirates -- this despite the fact that Japan's tap water is among the best treated in the world and that Japan's per capita water availability is 3,383 cubic meters per year, whereas the UAE's is just 58 cubic meters per year. Masafi is both testimony to the wonders of global trade and a reason for pause.
The success of Masafi and Perrier and Fiji and Coca-Cola in the market for water certainly give Gleick considerable pause. Gleick is the head of the Pacific Institute, which publishes the series The World's Water, the definitive reference on fresh-water uses worldwide, and a leading advocate of recognizing access to a minimum level of safe water as a human right. Given the scope of Gleick's previous work, this book's focus on bottled water might seem remarkably narrow. And it would be if one considered only the water. But for Gleick, "the arguments for and against bottled water are more than simply environmental or economic. [They] have deeper psychological underpinnings, philosophical and ideological implications, and social subtexts about public rights versus private goods, the human right to water, free markets, the appropriate role of governments, and conflicting visions of the future." Addressing these questions will require far more than giving free rein to the market.
For both Solomon and Gleick, the world is now radically changing the ways in which it deals with water, and the ways in which it does so will reveal a lot about everything else. But unlike Solomon, Gleick envisions an approach to water management that tries to harmonize relations between humans and nature, between governments and the market, between the privileged and the marginalized. Ultimately, for Gleick, "access to affordable safe tap water would be universal and bottled water would become unnecessary." However, the "anti-tax, anti-government, and anti-regulation" philosophies that Gleick condemns may prevail for a while longer and "continue to cripple municipal infrastructure of all kinds and weaken government enforcement of water-quality protections."
GOOD TILL AFTER THE LAST DROP
Rogers and Leal share Gleick's concern over bottled water, but they focus on finding "workable solutions" for fixing a wide range of water problems. Even where political positions are deeply entrenched -- California, they say, "treats water politics like a blood sport" -- solutions can often be found by thinking outside the box. Their excellent thumbnail introduction to the economics of water makes clear why the market cannot adequately allocate water resources. As they point out, water is a "fugitive resource," that is, a different good at different stages of the hydrologic cycle. At times (when in the form of a cloud, a river, or a lake), water is an open-access resource; at others (as reserves in a dam or as sewage), it is a public good; at others still (as tap or irrigation water), it can be privatized and sometimes even marketed, say, into bottled water. Rogers, a professor of environmental engineering and city planning at Harvard and an advocate of reforming U.S. federal water policies, and Leal, a former head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, focus mostly on the public-goods problems that cannot be solved, and are sometimes exacerbated, by the market's invisible hand. Presenting a wide range of both private and government-initiated efforts to manage water resources, they offer a kind of how-to manual based on best practices. Perhaps reflecting Leal's background, they focus primarily on actions taken by municipal utilities. But they also look at the water-management policies of individual states along the Colorado, Indus, Mekong, and Nile rivers and around other transboundary river basins.
The great strength of Rogers and Leal's book is its inclusion of cases that are about the unmentionable side of water: sewage. Industries around the world have long recognized the economic and environmental benefits of reusing water, but the public utilities have lagged behind. Even after it is treated, sewage water is usually considered something that should be disposed of in the least harmful manner. Treating sewage is also costly. In the United States alone, according to the authors, "investment in sewer infrastructure falls short by more than $20 billion" every year. Once the infrastructure is in place, it is hard to maintain, and compared to developing more water supplies, building and keeping up sewers is a difficult sell to policymakers and users.
As Rogers and Leal argue, however, sewage is waste only so long as it is treated as waste; it can be a resource. Some of their book's most interesting cases are about how to turn wastewater into an asset. Treated sewage is increasingly becoming a low-cost alternative to more traditional water supplies: it has been used to recharge ground-water reserves in Orange County, California, and to help generate geothermal power in northern California. Japan is arranging to send its sewage water to Australian mines to supplement scarce local water supplies. And in Singapore, wastewater is so thoroughly treated that the high-tech industry uses it in processes that require highly pure water. The book also implies that if bold action is necessary and sometimes requires huge investments and large projects, it also calls for more than that. Engagement on the part of the public, especially the people who will foot the bills for increased usage and buy the public bonds that will finance new sewerage infrastructure, is also needed. Whether in California or Singapore or elsewhere, government agencies thus need to explain to the public what problems need fixing, why, and how.
Solomon trusts market forces; Gleick distrusts them; Rogers and Leal think they can be harnessed alongside the state's power to good effect. Given enough time, economics does seem to wind up dictating how water gets used, and not necessarily in twisted ways. Water is increasingly being used to irrigate high-value crops instead of low-value ones, and it is being redirected from farms to cities. In an open international system, trade not only expands national economies but also, in good Ricardian fashion, allows them to escape the limitations of local water supplies. Food grown in wetter areas can be exported to drier ones, allowing the local water to be used for higher-priority uses. The point of the 1,200-mile Grand Canal was to bring grain from the wet southern part of China to the dry north, which allowed water indigenous to the north to be stored for later use or left in the Yellow River in order to limit silt buildup and so prevent flooding. A similar logic lies behind the current rush by China and various Middle Eastern countries to purchase farmland in water-have countries, such as Brazil.
Nonetheless, it bears repeating that economics does not necessarily yield socially or even politically optimal solutions. As water experts say, water flows uphill to money. The rich and powerful, frequently the urban and industrial, have the biggest pumps. And there often is an inverse relationship between economic rationality and political rationality: the economic laws of scarcity push prices up even as the political laws of scarcity give officials a reason to keep prices down. Another complication is that water problems are irremediably connected, sometimes as a symptom and sometimes as a cause, to many other issues: globalization, demographics, governance, energy, health, the role of women and children, the environment. The world's water problems reflect all the world's problems.