International Herald Tribune
By Kevin Watkins
One hundred years ago, William Mulholland introduced the citizens of
California to a new concept in state politics: the water grab.
Charged with securing water supplies for a small, thirsty town in a desert, the baron of the Los Angeles Department of Water hit on an imaginative response. He quietly bought up water rights in the Owens Valley, 230 miles to the north, built an aquifer across the blistering Mojave Desert, and took the water to downtown Los Angeles. When local ranchers protested by dynamiting his aquifer, Mulholland declared war, responding with a massive show of armed force.
Nowadays southern Californians fight over water in courts of law. Angelenos have some of America's greenest lawns and biggest swimming pools, not to mention a desert that blooms with cotton and fruit. Keeping it that way means piping in water from hundreds of miles away and draining a Colorado River so depleted that it barely reaches the sea. And it means disputing every drop of the Colorado with Arizona.
The Mulholland model represents a brutish form of what has been a global approach to water management. Want to urbanize and industrialize at breakneck speed? Then dam and divert your rivers to meet the demand. Want to expand the agricultural frontier? Then mine your aquifers and groundwaters.
This week and next, governments, international agencies and nongovernmental organizations are gathering in Mexico City at the World Water Forum to discuss the legacy of global Mulhollandism in water - and to chart a new course.
They could hardly have chosen a better location. Water is being pumped out of the aquifer on which Mexico City stands at twice the rate of replenishment. The result: the city is subsiding at the rate of about half a meter every decade. You can see the consequences in the cracked cathedrals, the tilting Palace of Arts and the broken water and sewerage pipes.
Every region of the world has its own variant of the water crisis story. The mining of groundwaters for irrigation has lowered the water table in parts of India and Pakistan by 30 meters in the past three decades. As water goes down, the cost of pumping goes up, undermining the livelihoods of poor farmers. Meanwhile, a lethal combination of water shortages, soil salination, and waterlogging threatens the breadbaskets of both countries. In India, about one quarter of grain production is based on unsustainable groundwater use.
In China, urbanization and rapid growth has lifted millions of people out of poverty. It has also left a water crisis of epic proportions. The Hai-Huai-Yellow river basin tells its own story. More than 80 percent of river lengths are chronically polluted. The basin is home to more than 400 million people and about one half of the rural poor. It produces more than half of China's wheat and corn. And it is running out of water. Current use exceeds river flow by a third, leading to another case of groundwater overexploitation.
What is driving the global water crisis? Physical availability is part of the problem. Unlike oil or coal, water is an infinitely renewable resource, but it is available in a finite quantity. With water use increasing at twice the rate of population growth, the amount available per person is shrinking - especially in some of the poorest countries.
Over the next 25 years, the number of people living in countries with water crises will increase from 700 million to 2.2 billion, with more than half of the populations of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa affected. Factor in global warming, which could reduce rainfall in parts of sub-Saharan Africa by up to a quarter over the next century, and this is starting to look like a crisis in the making for human development.
Growing scarcity means more competition. And as William Mulholland taught us all those years ago, competition without good governance can turn ugly - especially for those without power. Conflicts between agricultural users on the one side and urban and industrial users on the other are intensifying. The danger is that the poorest farmers with the weakest voice in water management will lose out, with devastating consequences for global poverty reduction efforts.
Challenging as physical scarcity may be in some countries, the real problems in water go deeper. The 20th-century model for water management was based on a simple idea: that water is an infinitely available free resource to be exploited, dammed or diverted without reference to scarcity or sustainability.
Forty years ago, the Aral Sea covered an area the size of Belgium. Thanks to Soviet-era planners who diverted the Amu Dary and the Syr Darya rivers into cotton irrigation, it has been reduced to a couple of small, lifeless hypersaline lakes. In the United States, farmers on the High Plains are pumping water from the Ogallala aquifer - one of the world's oldest fossil aquifers - at eight times the recharge rate. From Texas to the Punjab, groundwater mining is not only tolerated but supported by hefty subsidies directed to large farmers.
Across the world, water-based ecological systems - rivers, lakes and watersheds - have been taken beyond the frontiers of ecological sustainability by policy makers who have turned a blind eye to the consequences of over- exploitation.
We need a new model of water management for the 21st century. What does that mean? For starters, we have to stop using water like there's no tomorrow - and that means using it more efficiently at levels that do not destroy our environment. The buzz- phrase at the Mexico Water forum is "integrated water resource management." What it means is that governments need to manage the private demand of different users and manage this precious resource in the public interest.
There is another, equally profound challenge. In an era of intensifying competition, we have to ensure that the world's poor do not suffer an early 21st century variant of the fate of the residents of Owens Valley. That means strengthening the rights and the voice of the poor - and it means putting social justice at the center of water management.
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