Quantcast

The Global Water Crisis May Have a Surprising Solution

A water sprinkler system irrigates a field in the southern region of the San Joaquin Valley within Kern County, California. John Chacon / California Department of Water Resources

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.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mizina / iStock / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Oats are widely regarded as one of the healthiest grains you can eat, as they're packed with many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Read More Show Less
JPMorgan Chase building in New York City. Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0

By Sharon Kelly

A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability speaking on conflict of interest demand of the People's Demands at a defining action launching the Demands at COP24. Corporate Accountability

By Patti Lynn

2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."

Read More Show Less
The head of England's Environment Agency has urged people to stop watering their lawns as a climate-induced water shortage looms. Pexels

England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jessica Corbett

A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A flock of parrots in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. ~dgies / Flickr

By Madison Dapcevich

Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.

Read More Show Less
Fire burns in the North Santiam State Recreational Area on March 19. Oregon Department of Forestry

An early-season wildfire near Lyons, Oregon burned 60 acres and forced dozens of homes to evacuate Tuesday evening, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) said, as KTVZ reported.

The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.

Read More Show Less
Edwin Hardeman is the plaintiff in the first U.S. federal trial claiming that Roundup causes cancer. NOAH BERGER / AFP / Getty Images

A second U.S. jury has ruled that Roundup causes cancer.

The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The decision comes less than a year after a jury awarded $289 million to Bay-area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson over similar claims. The amount was later reduced to $78 million.

"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."

Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.

"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."

Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.

"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.

Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.

Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.

"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.

Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.