Chasing Water: New Book Lays Out Better Path for Water

Brian Richter
Thursday, May 29, 2014

Brian Richter is a water expert with decades of global field experience, a passion for rivers, and a scientist’s approach to problem solving. His new book Chasing Water (Island Press) takes a hard look at what we need to do to improve water management in a time of dwindling resources. The following excerpt lays out some key principals for getting us there. 

Hundreds of books and thousands of technical papers have been written on the subject of water management, and yet so many communities continue to crash into the wall of scarcity. We urgently need to design, experiment with, and give life to some fundamentally new forms of water democracy. The 20th century taught us that top-down, state-run technocracies are simply not willing to or cannot properly allocate, monitor, and govern water in a way that would forestall scarcity. To avert scarcity going forward, I believe that we will need to enable and empower more localized decision-making and management processes that can be right-sized to the particular needs, uses, economics, and cultures associated with the sharing of water sources. Ultimately, effective water management will require both technical capacity and appropriate engagement of water users and other local interests. 

Empowering local communities of water users will require that we overcome pervasive water illiteracy. The stark reality is that most people alive today could not begin to sketch the global water cycle, do not know how the water sources they depend upon are being used and by whom, and do not even know where their water comes from. Lacking such knowledge, they cannot possibly contribute to any sort of citizen-centered water democracy in any meaningful and productive way. 

The World Economic Forum, in its global assessment of water scarcity, put it this way: “We are now on the verge of water bankruptcy in many places with no way of paying the debt back.” This allusion to financial accounts is quite apt.

A Framework for Sustainable Water Management 

Principle #1: Build a Shared Vision for Your Community’s Water Future 

Too often, governments do not ask water users what they need or want, or facilitate a dialogue that could lead to a shared vision within the community. When a shared water source is used too heavily or water users are not getting what they want or need, conflict is certain to arise.  

Effective and equitable facilitation of local dialogues about water sharing is likely to become the greatest social challenge of the 21st century in water-short regions of the globe. Water user communities will need to openly and explicitly address difficult questions: Is maximizing economic productivity and jobs our highest priority? How much do we value social equity? How much water do we want to leave in our local rivers to support fisheries, provide recreational opportunities, sustain the beneficial services that ecosystems provide, or support aesthetic or spiritual values? 

How Much Water Use Is Too Much? 

From our evaluations of water scarcity and its impacts on local communities, economies, and ecosystems, my colleagues and I have identified a couple of thresholds in water use that might be helpful to communities in their deliberations over how to use their available water, as general rules of thumb. 

First, mounting evidence from around the globe suggests that when the day-to-day water flow in a river is depleted by more than about 20%, it becomes increasingly likely that the ecological health of a river will suffer. What that means is that populations of aquatic species such as fish may begin to decline, some sensitive species may disappear altogether, or a river’s ability to provide important ecological functions such as flushing away pollutants will be diminished. Of considerable concern is the fact that more than half of the world’s rivers are being depleted by more than 20% during some portion of the year, which helps explain why freshwater animals such as fish, turtles, and frogs are the most imperiled groups of species on our planet. 

Water planning efforts should include, whenever possible, further investigation into the ecological sensitivities of the particular freshwater ecosystems that could be affected by water use. A scientifically based “environmental flow assessment” can help determine the volume and timing of water flows needed to sustain ecological health and other social values. By investing in an environmental flow assessment, water planners and communities of water users will gain a better understanding of the species or ecosystem functions that might be affected at different levels of water depletion. 

Similarly, there are no absolute or universal thresholds of water depletion at which economic productivity will be jeopardized. But it appears that when more than half of the available, renewable water supply is being depleted on an ongoing basis, the community of water users will likely face a serious risk of running out of water during periods with less-than-average rainfall or snow. 

Build a Shared Vision as Early as Possible 

While there are many compelling reasons for developing a shared vision for managing local water sources before those supplies are stressed or a crisis develops, it seems that one of humanity’s greatest failings is our inability to use the information available to us to plan and act with foresight. As any individual or government that has experienced bankruptcy knows, it is much easier to pull back on spending gradually and incrementally, rather than implement severe and painful budget cutbacks during a fiscal crisis. 

A telling example is the Tablas de Daimiel National Park in Spain, which includes more than 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of wetlands along the Guadiana River. The shallow groundwater aquifer underlying the park is recharged by both rainfall and seepage from the Guadiana River. The Guadiana’s flow has been severely depleted in recent decades by agricultural water consumption, resulting in much-reduced recharge of groundwater. Additionally, farmers have dug many groundwater wells around the park’s edges. Consequently, the groundwater level has dropped by more than 20 meters in the park, desiccating the wetlands. 

When temperatures soared during 2009, dried organic matter in the wetlands spontaneously combusted. Photos of this raging wildfire showed up across western Europe. Tourism in the park came to a halt, affecting the economy of local communities. 

The European Union gave the Spanish government 10 weeks to explain how they would fix the problem. Unable to immediately reduce water extractions from the river and aquifer, government officials decided to pipe water 150 kilometers from the Tangus River to temporarily refill the park—at considerable expense. The Spanish government and local communities now realize that they will need to aggressively reduce consumptive use of water. 

These painful economic, social, and ecological disruptions could have been avoided by developing a water budget for the river and aquifer, facilitating a community dialogue about water use, and putting into place adequate water rules commensurate with the community’s vision. 

Principle #2: Set Limits on Total Consumptive Use of Water 

After creating a shared vision for the management of a water source, the next step is establishing practical rules to help realize that vision. The single most important rule that a community of water users can adopt will be setting a limit on total consumptive use of water. Without such limits, it is very likely that depletion of a water source will eventually progress to the point where highly undesirable impacts begin to appear. 

Establishing a cap on the total volume of water that can be consumed from a particular water source does not necessarily mean that new uses of water must be precluded once water use reaches the cap level. If existing users of water become more efficient, the saved water can be made available for new uses. Alternatively, additional or new water supply can be provided by using one or more water supply tools, such as by importing water from another water source or by desalting ocean water, thereby avoiding the need to increase use of local freshwater sources. 

Principle #3: Allocate a Specific Volume to Each User, Then Monitor and Enforce 

In addition to setting limits on the total volume of water to be allocated as entitlements, it will be necessary to define the amount that each water user is authorized to use. In most countries, the right to use water is granted on a permanent basis, but with conditions specifying when the entitlement can be revoked or modified. While these water allocation processes can and should be influenced by input from local community groups and water users, a government entity or other public-service organization will usually need to oversee, manage, and enforce water entitlements as a public function. 

Water agencies must be careful to avoid unnecessarily disrupting social and cultural systems and norms that might have been used effectively for hundreds or even thousands of years. One solution is to issue one water entitlement to an entire community or other group of water users, allowing them to distribute the water among community members in their traditional manner. 

The acequia culture of irrigation management that has evolved over the past 10,000 years is a hopeful example. It began in the Middle East and then was spread into southern Spain by the Moors, and then by the Spanish into the American Southwest. This communal system of water sharing and irrigating was a response to the scarcity of water in arid regions, and it has been key to the survival of many agricultural communities. The camaraderie formed through this ditch work has been very effective in discouraging water cheating within the community. 

Principle #4: Invest in Water Conservation to Its Maximum Potential 

Before pursuit of any of new water supply tools, every possible effort should be made to first reduce water consumption. Water conservation is by far the least expensive way of addressing a water shortage. In addition, by consuming less water, we can leave more in freshwater ecosystems, thereby sustaining the many benefits of healthy ecosystems. Investing in water conservation can also help to avoid the need to pursue other environmentally damaging water supply options such as depleting local water sources, or building water importation pipelines that rob distant watersheds of their waters. 

There are many reasons why governments and communities have not sufficiently invested in water conservation, including: 

  • Water conservation is socially challenging because it requires changing the water-use behaviors of many individuals, whereas a top-down decision to build a reservoir or pipeline that can be made unilaterally by a government agency.
  • Most water agencies around the world are dominated by civil engineers, many of whom are uncomfortable with marshaling the social engineering of water conservation campaigns. 
  • Water suppliers depend on water sales to support their annual budgets. 
  • Politicians who build large water infrastructure projects such as dams can gain votes from a populace that does not understand that better options exist for addressing their water shortages. 

Overcoming these obstacles will require that individuals, businesses, and community groups organize themselves and advocate forcefully for water-conserving solutions that are cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and sustainable for the long term. 

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