Planning with Water, Part 1

The World Economic Forum is meeting this month in Davos, Switzerland -- an annual gathering of national leaders, economists and corporatists who use the event to circulate with the self-declared best and brightest, promote their ideas, and otherwise network with movers and shakers who are, or want to be, among those who are shaping the world agenda.

In advance of the meeting, a survey was conducted among some 900 leaders in business, politics, and civic life that concluded that the most important global risk faced today is the world water crisis. According to Circle of Blue, a program of the Pacific Institute and one of the best web-based sources for water information, this is a major shift in world attention, explained in part by climate and weather phenomena, drought, pollution, and other limits on water that dramatically affect vulnerable populations, be they in California or the American southwest, China, India, southern Europe, South America, or Australia.

"The world is not doing enough," the survey report asserts. "Though the problems of floods, drought, and inadequate water supply that were projected more than two decades ago have come true, little is being done to address them effectively. Leaders are especially ill-prepared for widespread social instability..." Circle of Blue quotes Bob Sandford, chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative, as follows: "We didn't realize until recently how much our economy and society relied on hydrologic stability."

Well, that is not entirely true. China, for example, has been building massive water transfer systems to move water from areas in the south to the more arid north where drought, industrial irrigation, and flagrant pollution have brought scarcity as well as economic and political crises. A recent analysis by researchers at the Leeds Water Research Center at the University of East Anglia in the UK, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that this extraordinary expenditure of public funds and labor may not be sufficient to meet increased economic and population growth. Dabo Guan, Professor of Climate Change Economics at the University's School of International Development, is quoted by Bloomberg News describing the system as "pouring good water after bad."

China, India, Australia, Brazil, the United States -- all are grappling with these conditions, certainly not theoretical any more, but immediate, devastating, and disruptive. The rising price for grain and rice resulting from severe drought has been suggested as the major contributors to social unrest, perhaps toppling a government in Egypt and crippling a regional economy in Australia, and escalating prices in food dependent markets throughout the southern hemisphere. These are not problems easily dismissed or ignored. Indeed, we already fight wars for water (in the Middle East for example) as much as for oil or religion.

The old solutions do not serve these extreme events. It may be that the old engineering ideas and designs like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the U.S. or the diversion of northern rivers in India cannot meet the challenge of exponential demand, degraded supply, and global warming. That proof may now be visible to us all, even those leaders gathered in the Swiss mountains to contemplate the world condition and its most critical needs.

There is a direct link between water abundance and human well-being, between adequate supply and the sustainability of any community, rich or poor. Northern California is a region of great fertility and wealth in the U.S., entirely dependent on water from the Sierra Nevada mountains, distributed by engineered solutions. Water rationing, inadequate supply at key points in growth of fruit and crops, and weak and declining harvests can bring even such a community to its knees. The response cannot be conventional, or more of the same. The time for that has passed.

"We didn't realize until recently how much our economy and society relied on hydrologic stability." the analysis continues. Perhaps we do now, and if finally so, what are we going to do about it?