The Global Water Crisis May Have a Surprising Solution
By Tara Lohan
For many people a clean drink of water isn't a certainty. Right now an estimated 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic water scarcity, and upwards of 4 billion — two-thirds of the world's population — experience shortages at least one month a year. This will only get worse with climate change and population growth, and as it does it will exacerbate food insecurity and inequality — in both rich and poor nations.
As bad as this sounds, it's not an unsolvable problem, according to a new book, The Water Paradox: Why There Will Never Be Enough Water — And How to Avoid the Coming Crisis, by Edward B. Barbier.
Barbier, a senior scholar at Colorado State University's School of Global Environmental Sustainability and a professor of economics, explains that our approach to solving water shortages with drastic measures in the moment of crisis isn't a cost-effective strategy and won't solve our long-term problems. Instead, he argues, we need to fix the root of the problem: not simply a lack of water but inadequate and poor management of the water we do have.
The problem is one of our own making, but it shouldn't be surprising given our history. We've built our cities, designed our infrastructure, irrigated our farms and driven our energy production assuming water is abundant and easily accessible.
But today signs abound that this is no longer the case: Billions of people live in water-scarce regions, hundreds of millions lack access to adequate sanitation, groundwater stress is increasing in our most agriculturally productive areas, and our surface water in many places is often choked with pollution.
And while we've taken small steps to improve efficiency and conservation, we've yet to adequately address the scale of the problem.
"Why we continue to ignore the impending threat of a global water crisis — despite water being the most essential resource for human existence and survival — is the great water paradox facing humankind today," he wrote.
Barbier takes a hundred pages explaining the gravity of the problem and how we got to where we are today. It's good information if you're new to understanding the water crisis. But the most interesting part of the book, how to avoid the coming crisis, starts halfway in.
First, he says, we need better governance structures. Water is rarely managed by basin and then it can be further divided among irrigation, industrial or municipal uses. Areas that have moved toward more integrated water management — such as Canada or Australia's Murray-Darling River basin — have done better at monitoring and managing water resources, he explained.
Secondly, and most importantly, according to Barbier, we need to charge users what water's actually worth instead of perpetually underpricing it. One way to do this is through something called water markets, where the rights to certain amounts of water are sold or leased and move water from lower value to higher value endeavors. When done well, Barbier wrote, water markets can help "facilitate water conservation and reallocation."
Here's one example of how water markets can come into play. If you're a farmer and pay little for water, you may be inclined to waste the resource. But if there's a market where you can sell some of it, you're more likely to use it efficiently and sell what you save. Markets used by the agricultural sector often result in water going from low-value crops to high-value crops. In the wider community, markets usually mean agricultural water ends up being transferred from farms to municipal or industrial users.
But water markets are not cheap or easy to set up and are often complicated in systems where water rights are tied to land. Barbier gives three examples of areas where it's been implemented, with varying levels of success: Australia's Murray-Darling River basin, Chile and parts of the western U.S.
Barbier touts better pricing as a solution to solving the management woes driving the water crisis, meaning markets play a major role. He could've dug a little deeper into how to avoid potential pitfalls when it comes to environmental concerns: Rivers don't usually have big checkbooks, and some their "value" isn't easily quantified. How do we make sure ecological health is protected when markets move water to the highest bidder?
There are other environmental concerns, too. The movement of water from agricultural lands to cities (so-called "low-value to high-value" uses) has resulted in the "buy and dry" phenomenon in places like Colorado where agricultural communities are drying up and water transfers are fueling more urban sprawl — creating another set of problems.
Looking beyond markets, Barbier also points to water and sanitation services that fail to cover the full price of the infrastructure and services. A better pricing scheme would involve two important components, he explains. The first is a fixed charge for all users to cover operational costs of the system; the second is a tiered rate structure in which users pay more when they use more. Economic analysis has shown that efficient pricing of water has done more to promote conservation and manage demand than regulatory efforts aimed at restricting use or requiring water-saving technologies, he wrote.
Irrigation and agricultural subsidies should be removed, which admittedly is "politically difficult," he said. Although many of the ideas in the book, like revamping water-rights systems, are also politically problematic, that doesn't mean they wouldn't be beneficial.
The biggest takeaway, though, is that what we've been doing isn't going to work to dig ourselves out of the hole we're in currently because our institutions, water-rights systems and regulatory management structures for water were built in, and for, the days of plenty.
"In today's economies, water use management, and its accompanying institutions, incentives and innovations, is dominated by the 'hydraulic mission' of finding and exploiting more freshwater resources," he wrote. "But what works in an era of freshwater abundance is detrimental in an age of increasing water scarcity."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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