24 May 2010

"For Want of a Drink," The Economist issues a special report on water

The 22 May 2010 issue of The Economist includes a special report on water around the world, from the perspectives of numerous sectors, and written entirely (it seems) by researcher John Grimond, with whom they also provide a video interview. This follows closely on the heels (though not necessarily in response to) the special April 2010 issue of National Geographic that was devoted entirely to water. If one combines the editorials and overview essays in this issue of The Economist with the photography and journalism in that issue of National Geographic, you would have a pretty nice publication to pass around.

The list of sources for Grimond's work in The Economist is impressive and wide-ranging. In the special report, he starts with an editorial piece ''For want of a drink'' on the basics of water resources, and then delves more deeply into the various sectors and issues at hand:
  • ''Enough is not enough: It must also be clean'' about the water - sanitation - hygiene (WASH) linkages, and the results of such practices, so prevalent in developing countries where water quality remains a challenge of such paramount importance that it's one of the Millennium Development Goals.
  • ''Business begins to stir: But many water providers still have a long way to go'' about the growing sense of responsibility in corporate environmental ethics, whether from consumer pressure or their own sense of longevity, as well as the difficulties in utilities' pricing of a water supply because this often bears little relation to its necessity and value.
  • ''Every drop counts: And in Singapore every drop is counted'' about the innovative efforts toward hydro-independence in this island nation that is quite a beautiful place, speaking from my own experience, and somehow still only about two-thirds developed since British colonial occupation.
  • ''Making farmers matter: And monitor, budget, manage - and prosper'' about the overwhelming use of ground water for agriculture in many developing countries, where irrigation accounts for as much as 90% of consumptive use, and aquifer overdrafts worldwide are leading to sharp declines in well yields.
  • ''China’s peasants look to the skies: But the science of yields is unyielding'' about finding the balances in this country's efforts at more efficient use of available ground water supplies against agricultural expansion to feed the burgeoning population, and in transporting water supplied to even out the spatial disparities between the more populous and urbanized, but dry, northern regions and the more water-blessed, rural and agriculturally productive southern regions.
  • ''The ups and downs of dams: Small projects often give better returns'' begins with the assertion that ''the trouble with water is that it is all politics, no economics'' and goes on to demonstrate that big infrastructure projects, while more often wasteful and poorly managed, grab attention and are attractive to the leaders of developing countries, while rich countries generally favor smaller, more useful and efficient efforts such as run-of-the-river hydroelectric generation and irrigation-oriented farm-scale reservoirs that just aren't as centralized in their development and operation.
  • ''Trade and conserve: How to make tight supplies go further'' attempts to address those economics of supply-and-demand and valuation-in-use that might be brought back into the consideration of water as a commodity for the providers, who could thus trade water on a market basis, the consumers who prefer lower tariffs and greater consistency in their utility bills, the farmers who convert that water to food and otherwise non-recoverable uses, and the industries who strive for greater efficiency and profit margins in their operations.
  • ''To the last drop: How to avoid water wars'' about the seemingly inevitable conflicts to come over water supplies and their source regions, which have become increasingly explicit factors of high-profile international (and sometimes domestic) negotiations.
Finally, Grimond provides an overall assessment of the world's water crisis as ''A glass half empty: It won’t fill up without lots of changes on the ground - and much greater restraint by users.'' Not at all pessimistic, in my opinion, but likely so overly (and overtly) realistic that most decision-makers cannot wrap their minds around the issue all at once, not least because the reliability of water resources impacts almost every aspect of our lives. The moral of the stories here: reductionism no longer works as policy, individuals need leadership in the right directions, and our piece-wise approach to water issues has hurt the global population for too long already. A new and holistic approach to the scientific, economic and societal aspects of global water issues has at least a chance to help, or these issues will remain crises for a long time to come.

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