Planning with water: part one

By Peter Neil, World Ocean Observatory

Planning with Water is a six-part series that looks toward building a new value premise and societal change around water as the most valuable commodity on earth, essential to our future survival

“The world is not doing enough.”

So states a report from a 2012 survey of participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “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 Sanford, 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 Institute 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 labour 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, the US — 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.

We are fighting wars for water, 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 US or the diversion of northern rivers in India cannot meet the challenge of exponential demand, degraded supply, and global warming. That proof may be now 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 fecundity and wealth in the U.S., dependent on water from the Sierra Nevadas and distributed by engineered solutions. Water rationing, inadequate supply at key points in the growth of fruit and crops, and weak and declining harvests can bring even such a community to its knees. The response cannot be conventional, cannot be 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.” Perhaps we do now, and if finally so, what are we going to do about it?

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Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is the author of The once and future ocean: notes toward a new hydraulic society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this article is inspired.

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