Saturday, March 20, 2010

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization / Steven Solomon -- NY: Harper Collins, 2010

My habit is to read books cover to cover. I feel a certain obligation to an author to treat his or her work as a whole, but in the case of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, I decided to read only the last 130 pages of this nearly 500 page book. These pages were titled, "The Age of Scarcity." Solomon's interesting treatment of the planet's unfolding water crisis made me wish I had time to read his earlier chapters on water's role in the history of civilization, but time is fleeting, so I contented myself with that portion of his book that seemed most pressing to read.

The world currently faces three enormous problems: climate change, the depletion of conventional oil reserves, and the depletion of water resources. Each interacts with the others to complicate solving (or even mitigating) any of these problems. Solomon's section "The Age of Scarcity" is a detailed examination of many of the issues we face regarding the depletion of water resources.

Most critical are the pressures faced by water poor countries which also turn out to be among the poorest countries in the world. There are exception to this, of course, mostly oil producing countries, but virtually no country is untouched by the unfolding water shortage, and some -- particularly China and India -- are rapidly moving toward water poverty. Both countries are planning massive water diversion projects to support industrial and agricultural development and are rapidly depleting their ancient ground water. Their impending water shortages are likely to put a significant break on their vaunted economic futures.

Such massive diversion projects are consistent with, but larger than, projects previously employed by other countries to manage water. In nearly every instance, these projects have resulted in the destruction of water resources and environmental disaster. Among the most dramatic was the diversion of water for irrigation in Central Asia which destroyed the Aral Sea. Less obvious was the loss of Nile water due to evaporation from the reservoir created by the Aswan Dam.

It is noteworthy that the Nile is currently completely exploited. Nile water no longer flows into the Mediterranian Sea. With the predicted increase in Egypt's population (along with the populations of other Nile basin countries) political turmoil is bound to erupt, both between Nile basin countries and within domestic populations. Such turmoil will not be unique. The shrinking of Lake Chad due to climate changes already has resulted in significant political turmoil in Africa and the melting of Himalayan glaciers could cause even greater turmoil in south Asia. Solomon describes the decades of war between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors as significantly rooted in the control of water resources.

Even the water rich countries (the US, Canada, Russia, and nearly all European and South American countries) are or will one day need to more rigorously manage their water as economic development and population growth creates an increasing demand for water. This will become particularly problematic in the American West which has enjoyed an unusually wet century. Solomon devotes a good deal of attention to the Colorado River basin, which currently is completely exploited. No water from the Colorado reaches the Gulf of California. He also observes that 40% of the huge Ogallala aquifer under the Midwest has been depleted.

Solomon alludes to two important strategies for dealing with these problems. The first is to adopt "soft" approaches to water use, i.e., innovative conservation methods. Isreal and Austrailia are well advanced in generating these methods. Much can be learned from them. The second is to abandon the age old tradition of considering water a basic human right which thereby undervalues it in the market. According to Solomon, allowing market discipline to set prices for water will obviate waste. This later technique has obvious pitfalls. Using the market to price water may have some application in more affluent countries, but globally, without safeguards, it promises greater and greater political strife and human misery.

One method not mentioned by Solomon for employing pricing discipline on water consumption would be to establish a sliding scale for water pricing, where a consumer may purchase a small (necessary) amount of water for little to no cost, with progressive price increases for additional increments of consumption. This method would continue to respect water as a basic human right while discouraging waste.

In all, Solomon's "The Age of Scarcity" is a sobering examination of an unavoidable future. For another admirable treatment of the world's water crises, see When Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce reviewed in this blog.

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