The non-stop waste of water

Margaret Catley-Carlson reflects on millennia of resource mismanagement.
Margaret Catley-Carlson has chaired the Global Water Partnership, the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water and the Suez Foresight Advisory Council, and was a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, among others.

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Cape Town residents queue to refill water bottles at Newlands Brewery Spring Water Point on Jan 30th 2018 in South Africa

Residents of Cape Town, South Africa, queue to refill bottles during a 2018 water shortage. Credit: Morgana Wingard/Getty

The Water Paradox: Overcoming the Global Crisis in Water Management Edward B. Barbier Yale University Press (2019)

Every year, water shortages affect more than one-third of the world’s population. In 2017, even Rome — ancient pioneer of urban water provision — saw its myriad public drinking fountains switched off. Environmental economist Edward Barbier plunges deep into these and other stories from the fascinating, often fraught world of water management past and present in his scholarly but accessible study The Water Paradox. Barbier investigates, too, the threats looming over water resources.

The paradox is this: despite ample scientific evidence on exploitation and overuse of fresh water, and ample wealth, knowledge and institutional power, humanity has created a preventable water crisis. We persist in exploiting fresh water as if it were abundant, even as we recognize its scarcity. By 2040, 2 billion people will be affected by the global groundwater crisis (more water being withdrawn than is refilling aquifers); Indonesia, Iran and South Africa will be among the countries suffering from high or extreme water stress. The pressure will be environmental and agricultural, and will intensify social and economic crises.

If a good slice of our world falls apart because we cannot implement change, it will not be because we lacked historical warnings. Societies, city states and regions have collapsed into rubble or dry leaves because of environmental mismanagement. It could happen again.

To understand how, Barbier delves into millennia of misuse. He surveys irrigation and agricultural practices in the ancient Middle East, China, Europe and beyond, citing the ‘hydraulic hypothesis’ of early-twentieth-century historian Karl Wittfogel (P. Ball Nature 564, 186–188; 2018). This held that early agriculture-based empires such as Sumer in Mesopotamia rose through control of water, but tended to squander it — leaving them vulnerable to environmental degradation and outside attack.

More recent examples include the ‘land rushes’ that gripped Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America from 1650 to 1900. Barbier points out that these vast expansions of frontiers and economic gain were hugely dependent on claiming ‘free’ water. That practice lingers. Markets generally undervalue lakes, waterways and aquifers that are public goods. One impact of that, he notes, is a “use it or lose it” attitude, encouraging territoriality and, ultimately, water wars.

Barbier calls for an end to policy, markets and governance that underprice water and allow it to be used as if it were plentiful. Our innovations, he argues, are generally geared to expanding not reducing consumption.

He makes his points eloquently, offering a wellspring of facts and figures. I am impressed by the dozens of scholarly lists, tables and compendia, on history, current problems or tools for finding solutions to, for instance, types of water market that bring both benefits and perils. Those include river basins at risk from future conflicts; groundwater depletion now and in the near future; water grabbers and the grabbed-from; and many more.

But the book has three key gaps.

First, Barbier is so clear and thorough that I really hoped he would take on the paradox itself: our apparent inability to avert a human-driven existential threat. I hunted for a glimmer of a way forward, an until-now hidden path out of our political paralysis, or a psychological glitch that could be redirected. I searched for philosophers or social psychologists who could suggest ways of waking a sleeping world as the waters rise and fall. But on this key point, Barbier is silent.

Second, he almost entirely omits ongoing public opposition to most of his proposed measures — such as tackling the chronic underpricing of water — that is fuelled by factors such as aversion to taxes. Substantial hikes in water prices, water markets and governance involving greater private-sector dominance are anathema to many (M. Catley-Carlson Nature 505, 288–289; 2014).

Large companies and other players were chased out of water-asset management in the 2000s, criticized by a number of non-governmental organizations, the political left and unions. That grass-roots movement is part of a larger tide of resistance to globalization and multinational companies. It has affected the availability of investment capital, the direction of World Bank lending and significant strands of public opinion. Thus, in effect if not intent, Barbier prescribes an approach that is almost certain to lead to discord, making it problematic for governments. Also missing from his discussion are some of the less-than-wise corporate steps that have triggered successful protest.

Third, Barbier ignores the very real tension between some of his sensible suggestions and many countries’ lack of economic, infrastructural and governmental capacity to implement them. He acknowledges the mismatch between water governance and institutions and our needs. If this is to be a book for the world, that obstacle course needs more attention (perhaps even a list of on-the-ground prerequisites for reform). And, although he covers desalination well, many other kinds of processing barely get a look-in: water reuse, waste-water reprocessing and the extraction of resources from industrial and domestic waste waters.

The Water Paradox is, however, jargon-free and readable, brilliantly detailing both problems and remedies. I hark back to Barbier’s words on the fountains of Rome. To learn that 2017 was the first time in 2,000 years that these hydro-engineering marvels were turned off in response to drought provokes tears of sorrow and frustration. We know that it is happening. We do not act. That is the paradox.

Nature 565, 426-427 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00214-w
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