From a World Without Water to a Well-Watered World

Posted by Daniel Garrett
March 25, 2011
Water Running Into a Glass

“We enter, willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.” -- Wendell Berry

Double Double Toil and Trouble… It is perhaps prepossessingly strange that on a planet with a surface approximately 70 percent covered by water, and possessing as we do, bodies that are also approximately 70 percent water, that we should be facing a water challenge at all. But we are. We must find a solution to the fact that by 2025 as much as two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stress. We must find a solution to the fact that over 800 million people around the world lack access to an improved water source, and 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. And it might also be strange, that in a world too often marked by the witches' brew of ideological, and resource competitions that we are facing this Water Challenge by cooperating in the search for equitable, common sense, and innovative solutions. Make no mistake, we rise to this occasion collectively, not only because we can, but because we must. Societies certainly, and civilizations too, have too often fallen when their water resources -- representing as they do the core of both food security and economic prosperity -- were misused, or mismanaged, or overused, or disappeared as the natural systems which sustained them were degraded or destroyed or when, the climate changed.

Somewhere Under the Rainbow… Light slows when it enters water and some wavelengths of light slow more than others. The result is a visual spread of the frequencies we call a rainbow. The human mind can do the same thing when it encounters a problem. Each of us, based on our background, expertise, and experiences, tend to view just one or two strands of the full spectrum of a problem. But we must not do this with the Water Challenge. Its various aspects are all interrelated, and solving one, cannot be at the expense of the others. The spectrum of the Water Challenge then includes the following strands: Climate Change and Water, Water and Food, Water and Health, Water and Security, Water and Gender, Water and Governance, Water and Natural Resource Scarcity, Water and Natural System Services, and Water and Energy. Each of these is worthy of its own treatise. But our task must be to see this rainbow as a whole. It is a system of simultaneous equations in which the set of true solutions is that in which an improvement in one aspect, improves the situation for all. Whether it is a rainbow of hope or not will depend equally on the quality of our analyses, and the quality of our actions.

Walking on Water Might Not Be Enough, We May Need to Learn to Skip The physical properties of water are quite fortuitously, bizarre. Water for example, has unusually high surface tension. Water striders amongst other small insects try to avoid sinking into it. They accomplish this by having an entirely hydrophobic body with one exception -- the claws. The claws are hydrophilic and penetrate the water surface, allowing them to "get a grip" on the water surface. The brilliance of this adaptation is probably indicative of the level of innovation in science and technology which we will need to bring to the entangled challenges of water and climate change. The two are as intertwined as intertwined can be, for one of the primary effects of climate change is on the hydrological cycle. Moreover, because there is already so much momentum in the climate system and concomitantly in the hydrological cycle, climate and water-stress adaptation in the coming climatically chaotic decades and centuries will by no means be easy. There are, however, some guiding principles which will help us not just to survive but to flourish.

The Past is No Longer a Predictor To quote a famous paper: "Stationarity is Dead.”* Stationarity is the concept that natural systems fluctuate and vary within an unchanging set of boundaries. Climate change means though that the past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future. As such, past patterns are no longer valid for understanding the global water system. Concretely speaking, this means that the data used to plan projects such as dams, flood control projects, diversion projects, etc., may no longer be reliable. To put this in some perspective, worldwide roughly 500 billion dollars is invested annually in these sorts of projects.

The Value of Everything Greatly Exceeds the Value of the Sum of Its Parts If the true value of natural system (ecosystem) services (estimated by some economists to be in the hundreds of trillions of dollars per year range**) is ignored, nobody really is making any money. Conversely, there are untold riches in valuing, sustaining, and restoring the systems that provide natural system services. The most important of these services provided is simply that they make it possible for us, and all other species, to survive on this planet. At present some 60 percent of the world's ecosystems are considered to be degraded or are being exploited in an unsustainable manner. These are not decorative deckchairs that can be tossed overboard at the first sign of seasickness, this is the ship itself and the life boats, too.

Standing in Front of the Great Bifurcation Between Hope and Despair: Is It Really Such a Difficult Choice? The Water Challenge, and all that it is interconnected with, presents us with a most splendid example of complexity. So what do we do? Give in to despair? Give in to gloom and doom, and decide the best that can be done at this point is to find a few locales that might prove safe for a while? Find a few wealthy countries or city-states with the foresight to have planned for water and climate change adaptation, and then, safe behind walls and armaments, wait out the coming storms? No, as evidenced by World Water Day, this is not what we have chosen to do.

We have instead decided to make a transition to a new global "Blue Economy" aligned with a new global "Green Economy" in which sustainable technologies have mitigated the causes of climate change, and in which, the true value of natural resources -- including especially water and the natural systems that preserve, protect, store, and purify it -- are valued for what they are: invaluable, essential, and essentially irreplaceable. In this blue/ green economy, growth will have an enhanced focus on resilience, and flexibility, as well as on safety and sustainability, and most importantly, on community building, in its fullest human sense. In this blue/ green economy, economics will no longer be the dismal science: it will instead finally be based on reality: not on abstractions which do not calculate the true cost of things, but rather consign mysteriously to the never-ever land of negative externalities whatever it wastes, degrades, or destroys. When we finally value the true value of what is most valuable, the sustainable web of ecosystems and the water coursing though it, which sustains us and all life, we will be able to lift our heads as a species and say: we've arrived, this is our planet, and we are home.

And that is why we celebrate World Water Day 2011. It is the right choice. It is the choice of innovation and hope. It is a choice that we can all participate in: governments and companies; NGOs and individuals; scientists and entrepreneurs; and educators and families. Human beings may sometimes disagree with each other, and we may even sometimes stumble and fall, but we do not give up easily. Water is one of our most precious common denominators, and because it brings us together, we will not only solve this challenge, we will find our way out of the myriad dangers that beset us and into a land that holds great promise for all: where laughter is as plentiful as water, and our best dreams have become real.

* "Stationarity Is Dead: Whither Water Management?" P. C. D. Milly, Julio Betancourt, Malin Falkenmark, Robert M. Hirsch, Zbigniew W. Kundzewicz, Dennis P. Lettenmaier, Ronald J. Stouffer
** "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital" Robert Costanza, Ralph d'Arge, et al



Florida, USA
March 26, 2011

Doug in Florida writes:

Great article, thanks for sharing!


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