Hard wis­dom for scarce wa­ter

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In Cal­i­for­nia, res­i­den­tial con­sumers are be­ing fined for wast­ing wa­ter. The goal is to com­bat a se­vere drought by re­duc­ing res­i­den­tial con­sump­tion by 20%. The trou­ble is that res­i­den­tial wa­ter use ac­counts for less than 15% of to­tal con­sump­tion. The rest is used mainly for agri­cul­ture. Even if the de­sired cuts are achieved, they will ac­count for less than 3% of to­tal de­mand – a drop in an oth­er­wise empty bucket.

Mean­while, in China, some 30,000 work­ers are try­ing to change the weather, at­tempt­ing to seed clouds from air­planes or us­ing anti-air­craft guns to shoot shells into the air, hop­ing to coax some rain from the sky. There is no sta­tis­ti­cal proof that this type of weather ma­nip­u­la­tion works, but cloud seed­ers are also busy in the United States, mainly in the west.

Th­ese point­less poli­cies are what I have come to call “po­lit­i­cal place­bos”: at­tempts by gov­ern­ments to demon­strate to their cit­i­zens that they are do­ing some­thing – any­thing! – to al­le­vi­ate wa­ter short­ages. Place­bos may have their place in medicine, but when they dis­tract from ef­forts to ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing mal­ady, they can do more harm than good. Mea­sures like those in Cal­i­for­nia are like in­struct­ing po­lice of­fi­cers to blare their sirens wher­ever they drive to cre­ate the im­pres­sion that crime is be­ing fought. As cli­mate change leads to deeper and more fre­quent droughts, the re­sult­ing wa­ter short­ages will re­quire new, some­times dif­fi­cult, so­lu­tions that go beyond fu­tile at­tempts to pla­cate the pub­lic.

The chal­lenges are daunt­ing. In many places, un­der­ground wa­ter is con­sid­ered the prop­erty of the owner of the land where the wa­ter is ex­tracted, even when a well’s user is tap­ping an aquifer that spreads across thou­sands of square miles. As a re­sult, there is lit­tle in­cen­tive to con­serve. Mean­while, wide­spread pump­ing low­ers the level of the en­tire aquifer, po­ten­tially al­low­ing salt wa­ter to en­croach. And, be­cause this ar­range­ment is tied to prop­erty rights, only the bravest of politi­cians dare to ad­dress it.

In some parts of Cal­i­for­nia and Texas, a por­tion of the wa­ter sup­ply is pro­vided to con­sumers for almost noth­ing – de­liv­ered by a net­work of dams, reser­voirs, and aque­ducts that were built decades ago. The Hoover Dam, for ex­am­ple, which cre­ated Lake Mead, the largest reser­voir in the US, was built in 1936 dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion as part of the New Deal. Even if the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had in­tended to get a re­turn on its in­vest­ment by sell­ing the wa­ter from Lake Mead, the dam’s con­struc­tion costs have long since been amor­tised.

Un­like other com­modi­ties, the price of wa­ter is very of­ten a po­lit­i­cal decision, sub­ject to the in­flu­ence of in­ter­est groups that lobby for sub­si­dies. For ex­am­ple, most of the wa­ter used in agri­cul­ture in Texas and Cal­i­for­nia is sold at a price be­low its cost. As a re­sult, it is fre­quently wasted. The cost for an acre­foot of wa­ter in Dal­las or Austin is at least $150. Texas rice farm­ers, how­ever, pay just $10, and ev­ery year they con­sume the equiv­a­lent of a five-foot flood. Such a large quan­tity of wa­ter is not even nec­es­sary for rice farm­ing; most of it is used to drown weeds.

The US fed­eral gov­ern­ment needs to in­ter­vene in the wa­ter in­dus­try. As long as th­ese dis­tor­tions per­sist, new tech­nolo­gies will strug­gle to com­pete. Ra­tio­nal­is­ing the wa­ter sec­tor would al­low new in­vestors to en­ter the mar­ket. Farm­ers in Texas and Cal­i­for­nia need to stop grow­ing rice, which should be im­ported from wa­ter-rich coun­tries like Viet­nam. In­stead, US farm­ers should be en­cour­aged to shift to other crops, such as sesame, with the gov­ern­ment shar­ing the cost of re­place­ment ma­chin­ery needed to cul­ti­vate and har­vest them. The adop­tion of tech­nolo­gies like drip ir­ri­ga­tion would make cur­rent wa­ter use seem prim­i­tive and out­dated.

The wa­ter sec­tor should follow the ex­am­ple of the elec­tricpower in­dus­try, where changes to fed­eral reg­u­la­tions in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury al­lowed in­de­pen­dent power pro­duc­ers to use ex­ist­ing trans­mis­sion lines. The deep price cuts and im­proved ser­vice ush­ered in by th­ese reg­u­la­tory changes prompted other coun­tries to adopt the Amer­i­can model. It is time to turn off the tap on sub­sidised wa­ter and find a real cure for per­sis­tent wa­ter short­ages.

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