Is There Really A Water Crisis?

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

watercrisisbetter.jpg

"When I say there is no water crisis, you must be wondering, 'Is this guy talking to his hat?'" That's how Asit Biswas led off his speech last month at the 2009 Nobel Conference. And--oddly worded idiom aside--he was right. That's exactly what everyone was thinking.

The Conference--really a lecture series timed to coincide with the distribution of Nobel Prizes--brings Nobel winners and eminent researchers from around the world to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. All the lectures orbit a central theme. This year, it was water. Or, rather, the lack of water. Most of the speakers talked about the risk of losing this important resource--how we humans threaten our own water supply, how that puts us at risk for a whole mess of trouble, and how we might be able to tackle the global water crisis.

But that crisis is a myth, according to Biswas. He's the president of the Third World Centre for Water Management and winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize, and he says that there's plenty of water to go around. Freaking out about water supply is pointless, he says. Worse, it wastes time and resources that could be used to fix the world's real problem--actually getting the water to the people.

To find out more about why Biswas thinks global institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank are dead wrong on water, I called him for a post-Nobel Conference interview.

I want to make sure I understand your position correctly. You say there's not a shortage--or coming shortage--of water. That the real problem is infrastructure. Is that correct?
Asit Biswas: Absolutely correct. Neither in developed or developing countries is there a physical scarcity of water. The problem is lack of infrastructure, and more importantly, the lack of management. And those are things that are bad in both the developing and developed world. For instance, in Delhi, India, everyone was telling the Prime Minister that they had a water scarcity problem, but I was able to give him a new perspective that he wasn't hearing from his advisers or from the U.N. The real problem is the following: The average stay of a water utility manager is 30 months. And he's neither a water nor management expert. The only qualifications of these managers are how close they are to the mayor. If you put this type of person in the position to manage water, they look at it and see a horrendous problem and they just hope and pray that during their stay nothing will happen and the next fellow who comes along will hold the ball. That's got nothing to do with water. And yet the water profession goes around and says we're running short of water. And it's a bunch of rubbish.

But is there really a functional difference between a crisis of scarcity and a crisis of management? Either way, the people don't get water.
AB: There is a fallacy the world doesn't understand. Everyone in the world has access to water. Everyone. If you didn't, you'd be dead by now. The issue is whether the water is clean, drinkable, and how convenient is it to get that water. So even in the slums of the worst cities people have access, but it's not clean, they pay through the nose and supply is very erratic. The point I'm trying to make is that everyone has access. The question is can we give them better service, and much lower cost and much higher convenience. My view is that all three are possible.

Can management really make that big of a difference?
AB: Let us take the case of water supply for the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. In 1993, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority was flat broke. It needed heavy governmental subsidies to run a very inefficient operation. The institution was badly managed, corrupt to the core, lost 72% of its water due to unaccounted for losses, and even the rich and the powerful people, let alone the poor, did not have access to drinkable water. By improving its governance practices, it started to supply drinkable water on a 24-hour uninterrupted basis. This public sector company made a profit from its operation from 1997, which has progressively increased year after year since that time. The poor have access to water. In fact, their water bills have been reduced by 70 to 80% compared to what they used to pay to the water vendors earlier. In addition, the poor receive clean, drinkable water through house connections. The unaccounted for water now in Phnom Penh is 6.19%, which is less than 1/4th that of London, and very significantly less than Paris, New York or Los Angeles.

You used to think there was a water crisis, what led you to change your mind?
AB: I heard it so many times from the World Bank and the U.N. that there is a water crisis. Like the rest of the world, I assumed these guys knew what they were doing. But then I started looking at the global figures they put out and what assumptions they'd made. The assumption is that a city is in a crisis of scarcity if it doesn't have 1500 cubic meters of fresh water per person, per year. What they forget is elementary knowledge that water isn't like oil. Nobody really consumes it fully. Of 100% of the water that comes to your house, 99% goes back as waste water. The fundamental question becomes how do we manage our waste water so that it can be used and reused again and again. Singapore does this. That city has 300-350 cubic meters per person, per year, and they don't have a water problem. This is an issue of efficiency. I found that the total water use in 2005 in the United States is actually less than what it was in 1975 with much less population, economic activity and food requirement. And the US is just scratching the surface on efficiency.

Let's talk a little more about that efficiency. You say that, in many developing cities, water is currently being lost and, that, if you reduce those losses you could have enough water. Where does that lost water go?
AB: Nobody really knows. All we know is that a certain amount is pumped from the reservoir. And we know how much water consumers are using from metering. And if you deduct the consumption from the total, you'll see that-in the Western world-about 25% of the water disappears somewhere. Mainly probably due to leakages and bad maintenance. In developing countries, it's worse. There are very few cities who don't lose 45-60% of the water. And we have no clue where it goes. Probably 1/3 from leakages. The rest probably goes to people who pay to have an unauthorized connection to the system.

But can efficiency and better management really make up for all the uses of water? As population increases, we need to feed more people as well, and that also requires more water.
There is waste going on with food as well. Look at the U.S. There, 27% of food is lost between retail, households and restaurants. Basically thrown in the waste. What's that got to do with the developing world? I say it's even worse there. Last year, the Agriculture Minister of India publicly admitted that slightly over 50% of fruits and veggies produced in India never reach the consumer. Why? Because of poor supply chain. Poor refrigeration. Poor transport. My argument is simple. India doesn't have much land or water to spare. But instead of increasing agricultural yield or worrying about water supply, we should focus on how we can make sure that what we produce now reaches the consumer. If you do that, what you gain can easily feed the United Kingdom and France combined. Stop wastage and get food and water to the people. You increase the amount that's actually available by half without extra water, and without extra land.

Watch Asit Biswas' Nobel Conference lecture, and follow-up Q&A

Large image courtesy Flickr user futureatlas.com, via CC

Published 8:51 am Mon, Nov 16, 2009

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

63 Responses to “Is There Really A Water Crisis?”

  1. desiredusername says:

    Plus there are gallons of it on the moon

  2. Anonymous says:

    I understand this person’s position, but it’s a particularly heartless article. When people say there is a water shortage they mean a “clean water” shortage. Every year over a billion people have to drink unclean water.
    Think of dysentery and Montezuma’s Revenge.
    I was born in the Philippines and I know three people that died from lack of clean drinking water.

    I must say, I think a bit less of BoingBoing for posting this kind of right-wing junk.

    • TMLutas says:

      Making something cheaper is a problem that we solve every day. The free market excels at that sort of thing. Making something safer is also something that most of us understand is within our grasp. We often feel that we can just roll up our sleeves and get to work on that.

      But if we’re running out of water, that’s a crisis that no individual or company can handle. That’s something that needs big, international conferences in Geneva to come up with big solutions in a couple of decades and massive tax systems to pay for it all.

      So, which way of framing the problem do you think helps actual people with actual water quality and access problems? I find the traditional government approaches very cruel and the entrepreneurial free market accidentally kind in a very good way.

      • Thalia says:

        Do you mean those corporations that are polluting so much of our ground water? The problem with water is that it’s a cost that’s externalized. We don’t pay for the pollution we dump into the ground water, nor do mining companies. It’s always cheaper to ignore the environmental costs.

    • Anonymous says:

      I absolutely agree with u. Poor people from developing contries won’t live better without clean water. So there is drinkable water crisis.

    • Anonymous says:

      You are 100% correct about what people mean when they say “water shortage” but consider that Asit points out (several times) that one of the three points of solving the problem of water is to make it clean. He does not ignore this. What you are getting insulted by is merely a choosing of words to say the same thing as you. Sure the way a person says one thing is more important than the message itself in many instances, but in this one I think we all understand what we mean. or?

  3. Day Vexx says:

    Not to mention that your body is 60% water. Wait a minute….

    WATER IS PEOPLE!!!

  4. forgeweld says:

    Since agriculture, at least in the U.S., accounts for about 80% of water use and a bunch more goes for industrial uses and he’s talking only about domestic water supply, then maybe he’s right that there’s no absolute crisis there- but overall I think he’s talking to his hat.

  5. Bodhipaksa says:

    “Everyone in the world has access to water. Everyone. If you didn’t, you’d be dead by now.” Same with food. Everyone in the world has access to food otherwise they’d be dead. Of course some of them are in fact dead because they didn’t have access to food, just as presumably some people are dead because they didn’t have access to water. But those people who are alive must have access to water. Unless they don’t, in which case they’ll die, providing more evidence that everyone who’s alive has access to water. Or something like that.

  6. Moriarty says:

    Well of course the problem is infrastructure. Were there seriously people who thought otherwise? Are there humans who don’t know that most of the planet is covered with water a few miles deep, and that water that is “used” doesn’t stop being water? Recycling and desalinization = limitless supply.

    And how could there possibly be a “global” water shortage? All water shortages are local, and all water shortages are about infrastructure. My running my tap too long in New York City means there’s less water for other New Yorkers, but it has zero effect in India, because the only common point in the supply chain is the goddamn ocean. Yet I’ve had people chastize me along those lines, as if water were like fossil fuels.

    • downbycoleslaw says:

      Well, it is perhaps the case there will at some point be more potable water, the question is really one of timing.

      Currently, desalination technology is fairly limited. We have workable options, but there are significant drawbacks to the methods. Primarily, these are cost (modern synthetic membranes to filter salts are fragile, costly, and require extensive maintenance) and issues relating to disposal of the resulting brine.

      It’s not ideal.

      Other recycle — that is, sewage treatment — options are excellent opportunities to limit waste. However, most US cities lack the proper infrastructure to make either properly treat their water, or to make use of the resulting treated water. In some states, use is made of the treated water — it is not returned to potable levels, but can still be used for irrigation and other uses.

      But, this interview is really rather disingenuous. There is a water crisis and it is truly very serious — it is not merely a question of access to potable water. Rather, it is question of current use of water exceeding re-charge rates.

    • Zazou says:

      That and the fact that global change has made the usual sources unreliable: icemelt provides water for all of the urban areas further down, but when the glacier melts faster in the hot season, then eventually runs out, those urban areas are in trouble. Rivers drying out during longer periods each year… resources that were part of the system and can no longer be counted on. The water is still there, in the more violent and erratic storms, with stronger runoff, water that goes much faster from cloud to ocean and spends less time where we can consume it.
      But hey, as long as your city has money it can always have water shipped in, like Barcelona.
      And if you have money you can buy bottled water from anywhere in the world.
      That ocean is a big link….

      • Moriarty says:

        There’s no reason to have it shipped in from anywhere in the world, though. As TMLutas said above, there is a ceiling cost on water, which is to say the cost of setting up a desalinzation plant and piping it from the nearest ocean. That can be very expensive and energy intensive, granted, but I very much doubt it’s more expensive or energy intensive than sending it on ships from some place it rains more.

        • Zazou says:

          Well of course there’s no reason to ship water (except to some small islands with little or no feshwater), certainly not to Barcelona. They do it because it’s much easier than it would be to re-build their infrastructure- there’s about 40% leakage in their system. It’s more mismanagement, and as TLMutas said, rich people don’t have water problems. They just buy away and make the situation worse in poorer areas.

    • glaborous immolate says:

      I don’t think everyone knows the problem is infrastructure. Too many people have the idea that someone in the US needs to ‘conserve water’ and that doing so will help out someone in Africa who doesn’t have it.

      Its very unclear in most people’s minds.

    • Anonymous says:

      For every litre of used, “dirty” water, there is an extra 8 litres of unused yet consumed “clean” water that is dumped and gets mixed in with waste.
      It took a certain amount of energy to pump that water from the environment, treat it, get it to your kitchen so you could dump it, and then treat it again so that it can either be consumed all over again or go to another environment.
      That water could probably have done more good in an ecosystem that could be damaged because we pump too much water so we can waste it.
      That energy could also have been put to better use, and there is precious little chance it’s clean energy being used anyway.
      And THAT is mismanagement. Swaps dry out, as do lakes, rivers, seas even, but what the hell: water isn’t a fossil fuel, right?
      Instead of thinking that there’s enough water in New York for you too keep your faucets running all day, think about the overal impact of getting that water to your home in the first place.

      • Moriarty says:

        Well, first of all, I don’t run my tap all day. My point was that if I did, it wouldn’t affect anything outside of the NYC watershed. It’s not a global issue.

        And as an aside, the water comes from dammed lakes that are pristine enough (thanks to strictly enforced environmental laws) to be almost completely untreated, and its brought to the city by gravity in underground aqueducts. These new ecosystems are actually quite healthy, and not in any danger of destruction, as “production” of this 100% renewable resource outpaces consumption.

    • DK says:

      …My running my tap too long in New York City means there’s less water for other New Yorkers, but it has zero effect in India, because the only common point in the supply chain is the goddamn ocean….

      Don’t be so sure. Another common point is the goddamn global economy. The subtlety is lost on many of us whose standard of living requires them to miss the subtlety:

      When I waste water or energy here, I increase the price of those commodities, and our agricultural and industrial production costs rise as a result. Now our goods are less competitive with Indian goods, so we export less and import more from there. This is good for many in India, but it also diverts some water and energy from direct use by their poor to production of goods for export.

    • Anonymous says:

      Despite the fact that 75 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh water, and three-quarters of that is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover. Only 0.3 percent of the water is surface water, found in rivers and lakes. The rest is buried deep in the ground.Not to mention the persentage of that water that is polluted. Which yes, lowers the 0.3 percent of fresh water even more. True that there is desalinization, but how much does that cost a well developed country a year? A country like the United States or Canada it cost them a pretty penny to have this done. Let alone the fact that yes there is undeveloped countries that are stuck in poverty because of the unatainable clean water they need to thrive. Therefore I doubt that such countries will be able to afford the infrastructure need to produce clean water. The oceans surround all countries, many countries drain water from the same oceans, so yes by running your tap as long as you want does have affect on other countries, as you said “the only common point in the supply chain is the goddamn ocean” therefore, by you wasting water, then that water having to be paid for to be cleaned you are costing the global commmunity unnecessary charges. It’s careless actions such as this that make the water shortage global, because we all get our water from the same place. Just like fossil fuels, only a small amout of the worlds water is obtainable, and useable, that is if it is sanitairy and not polluted already.

  7. Anonymous says:

    How about not supporting towns and villages that insist on living in the worst possible environments? Instead of building elaborate water programs, etc how about making them move? What a concept!

    #6, desalinization is not easy or cheap and is energy intensive. You just create a problem elsewhere. Too much water is wasted, people need to be convserve more.

    • Moriarty says:

      I know it’s energy intensive. I’m including energy when I say “infrastructure.” And yes, it’s certainly easier to get water in places where lots of it naturally falls from the sky, just as it’s easier to flush raw sewage right back into nature, and easier still to only drink when it’s actually raining, by lying on the ground with your mouth open (the “zero infrastructure method”). But my point is you can still get any amount of it anywhere, if you’re willing to pay. You can’t run out. But it’s also true that that should only be worthwhile in very limited circumstances, since it can be recycled with such great efficiency.

    • Anonymous says:

      Instead of displacing even more people, which is what’s happening now, (see environmental refugees)how about getting our act together?

  8. angryhippo says:

    This person is basically making a semantic nuance observation. Bravo.

  9. Neon Tooth says:

    Like wealth, the problem with natural resources isn’t that there aren’t enough of them, but that some are hogging way too much.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/science/environment/la-me-newcolorado25-2008may25,0,864830.story

  10. Neon Tooth says:

    Rivers are trickling down to nothing before they reach Mexico and places where people lived off those water resources for millenia. It’s not an “infrastructure” problem, the people who are living in arid U.S. communities are getting the water just fine…hell wealthy ag companies are even getting their water subsidized.

  11. Alex says:

    @2 Anonymous: I don’t see how the article is heartless. He’s saying exactly what you’re saying.

  12. ab3a says:

    Anonymous #2: Biswas is correct. There is no water crisis. There is a clean water crisis. This is not “right-wing junk,” it’s a perceptive bit of observation.

    The water that we drink comes to us via solar energy. It is evaporated from the seas, it lands as rain and it ends up in fresh water aquifers.

    Fresh water aquifers are often used to generate steam for electric power plants, to irrigate crops, and yes, some for sustaining cities.

    Notice a pattern here? What we’re talking about is not water, but energy, and infrastructure. That’s what is lacking.

    The water crisis comes from the energy crisis which comes from inefficient use and growing populations. It matters not one bit if you’re coming at this problem from the right, left, or center. The first and foremost issue is to identify the problem. Once we do that, we can argue about the solutions and how best to implement them. The latter *is* a right/left-wing issue.

  13. TMLutas says:

    Rich people have no water problems. The problem is that the world is not rich enough to afford these solutions everywhere. It is a grave matter of social justice that much of the world is trapped in political, economic, and social systems that keep them locked out of the market for basic, clean water.

    There is a ceiling price of water. If you can earn enough money to pay for it (largely a political/legal framework problem), desalination and water transport is always available to the point that there is a serious look being taken at piping desalinated Gulf of California water to Arizona. It’s actually cheap enough to compete with pumping more water out of the ground locally.

    As private industry gets better at desalination, the ceiling will drop and more will be able to afford clean water. Eventually even the poorest will have access to this technology but only when governments stop keeping them from creating and gathering their own wealth.

    • phenomenon says:

      I know that blaming the rich for everything is pretty much par for the course when it comes to these discussions, you should atleast attempt to make it fit.

      If Cambodia, hardly what I would call a wealthy country, can afford to address their water infrastructure issues, pretty much anyone can. Most can probably do a whole lot more than Cambodia did.

      Terrible management is guilty of a lot more water issues in the world than affordability or supply. This is definitely the case in Africa, and I am assuming much of the rest of the developing world. South Africa is a great recent example where parts of the country that used to have clean and safe drinking water supplies no longer do. Water there is very cheap, and the infrastructure wasn’t left to deteriorate out of lack of funding, but rather publisized incompetenence.

      Clean water isn’t a case of the poor vs the rich.

      • Neon Tooth says:

        “Clean water isn’t a case of the poor vs the rich.”

        Tell that to poor people whose drinking water sources have been polluted by wealthy companies, or people whose water has dissapeared completely because the wealthier people in the country upriver have dammed/diverted it.

        In *some* cases it certainly is.

  14. Neon Tooth says:

    Eventually even the poorest will have access to this technology but only when governments stop keeping them from creating and gathering their own wealth.

    If that’s the case then Somalia should be wealthy paradise…..

  15. Zazou says:

    I understand the importance of stressing problem-solving aspects of this issue: understanding the roots of the problem is crucial. How else are we going to do anything about it?

    But I don’t appreciate a debate of words that undermines the scope of this issue. This is a crisis that involves mismanagement, (in)efficiency, overconsumption, education, changing personal and cultural habits as well as business models, and (lack of) access: access to clean water, access to sanitation, access to the basics of a healthy life.

    It may not be what most people imagine when they hear the words “water crisis” but it should not be undermined; NOT being able to provide water to over a billion people is a shortage, no matter how logistical it is and how much H2O unfit for consumption is around.
    And everyone should feel concerned, as resolving the logistics will and should impact every single one of you. Not just those badly managed infrastructures far, far away.

  16. CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

    In regards to the brine issue of desalination, couldn’t the brine be pumped to a wastewater treatment plant and mixed in with the treated effluent before it heads back to sea? I never thought I’d say it, but it would appear that the solution to pollution is dilution… at least in this case.

    • downbycoleslaw says:

      Well, there are a couple of problems there — generally the brine discharged from desalination plants is extraordinarily concentrated. This can create problems in the local areas of discharge.

      The problem with mixing the brine with treated effluent is that it’s an efficient use of the effluent. In certain areas waste water is treated back to near-potable levels — levels where the water is not suitable for many applications, but could still be used for irrigation or other uses. Taking this water and mixing it with brine would simply be counter productive.

      • CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

        I was aware of the concentration issues, hence my proposal for dilution. For the record, I don’t know how much water you’d need to bring the brine concentration to an acceptable discharge level.

        I had sort of stated that I assumed the treated effluent was going back to the sea, but I had forgotten that arid areas use effluent for irrigation and etc. I suppose that only leaves the solutions of something like the large evaporation ponds south of the Dead Sea, where the sun would further concentrate the brine until it becomes a solid, or coupling the desalination plant with some industrial process that could use all of that high temperature brine… assuming that it’s too cold to be worth using for any kind of cogeneration application… but where the presence of water would be an advantage instead of a hindrance… hmmmmmmm.

        It’d be cool to make a gigantic salinity gradient power station, but instead of using river water, you could just use regular seawater as the difference in salt concentration between it and the brine may be large enough to generate power via reverse electrodialysis. After that, a large evaporation pond, and then the commodity market.

  17. Anonymous says:

    So many people didn’t read the article.

    The problem isn’t water. The problem here isn’t even infrastructure (though that is a problem in itself) the problem is wasteful management.

    This is something most people don’t understand about the developing world. It’s not just that people are poor. It’s that everything is more expensive because developing economies don’t have the scale to leverage prices down and the added burden of corruption.

    Not only is there less of everything in a developing country, because of that scarcity, everything is more expensive. And because so many are poor and desperately poor, a little bit of corruption goes a long way and another $10 on a $100 price won’t hurt the person buying it that much but, will help me alot.

    Or so they think. It adds up because everybody on the chain of command wants their $10 or $5 or $20 and what you could get for $80 in the developed world could cost you not just a few percent more but, multiples more.

    Getting people to see what they already have and not letting it go to waste is the first step in getting your people fed and ehhh, saturated.

    That 1/2 of India’s food supply in places is going to waste from management and infrastructure is a greater tragedy than anything else.

  18. Bryan C says:

    “Tell that to poor people whose drinking water sources have been polluted by wealthy companies, or people whose water has dissapeared completely because the wealthier people in the country upriver have dammed/diverted it.”

    I daresay most waterborne pollution in developing countries has little to do with “wealthy companies”. It has to do with horrible sanitation and backward agricultural practices. In other words, poor infrastructure. Good ol’ cholera will kill you just fine, no exotic industrial waste needed.

    The “people upriver” in this case are probably subsistence farmers or nomads. I suppose they may be wealthy compared to somebody, but I don’t think making them poorer is going to make the problem go away.

    “In *some* cases it certainly is.”

    But in *most* cases it isn’t. So how ’bout we figure out a way to fix most of the cases, ok? It’s frustrating that the UN is apparently way behind the Roman Empire in figuring this stuff out.

    • Neon Tooth says:

      I daresay most waterborne pollution in developing countries has little to do with “wealthy companies”. It has to do with horrible sanitation and backward agricultural practices. In other words, poor infrastructure. Good ol’ cholera will kill you just fine, no exotic industrial waste needed.

      Well, I’ve seen a number of instances of corporations polluting water in Mexico and South America, purely anecdotal documentary film evidence admittedly, but it’s there.

      The “people upriver” in this case are probably subsistence farmers or nomads. I suppose they may be wealthy compared to somebody, but I don’t think making them poorer is going to make the problem go away.

      I’m talking more about people with lawns and pools in the arid Southwest, Los Angeles sprawl, and corporate “farming” operations in California vs. the people in Mexico who’s water sources have pretty much disappeared.

      But in *most* cases it isn’t. So how ’bout we figure out a way to fix most of the cases, ok? It’s frustrating that the UN is apparently way behind the Roman Empire in figuring this stuff out.

      Fully agree, but the idea that this is all a problem of “infrastructure” is a bit disingenuous I think.

  19. Dan Schnitzer says:

    Biswas’s analysis is remarkably similar to the circumstances known as “energy poverty.” I wrote a brief post on the similarities: http://earthsparkinternational.org/blog/?p=16

  20. davechua says:

    Recommended that folks watch the documentary Flow. One of the interesting parts was how the world bank was always looking at a single billion dollar solution to the water problem, when it should be looking at a million $1,000 solutions.

    The amount of money ppl spend on bottled water (which is one of the biggest hoaxes of all time) would more than help pay for fresh water access for everyone all around the world.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Interesting reading…check out what is not considered here. Go to http://www.waterstandard.com. I think their first ship is to come out in 2010.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Of course there’s a logistical problem with water but AB is wrong in assuming this is the only, or even major, dilemma. For example, the Great Lakes could supply water to Arizona via a pipeline but Great Lakes governors have outlawed that solution. (a legal problem)
    If the Colorado River runs dry there will indeed be a supply problem that not even a pipeline will solve. (a supply problem)
    If water is privately owned and sold for a profit, the problem becomes political. (obviously, a political problem)
    The problem is complex, requiring different solutions in different areas of the world.

  23. Jaotsu says:

    There isn’t a water shortage. It’s about policy making for the big corporations trying to make water more of a commodity. Big political and corporate entities want to SELL water at a premium price. You build houses in the middle of a desert, then distribute water to them. You tell them that water is expensive to distribute to them, and you jack up the prices way over what it costs for distribution. Then you pocket the profits. Example: Palm Springs.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      I live in Palm Springs. The Desert Water Agency is publicly owned and the board is publicly elected. The water bills are quite low, about 25% of what I was paying in San Francisco.

  24. SamSam says:

    Well, first of all, I don’t run my tap all day. My point was that if I did, it wouldn’t affect anything outside of the NYC watershed. It’s not a global issue.

    Anon’s point (or one of his points at any rate) was that consuming water is a global issue if you consider the energy costs involved. While you may live in a perfect city where no energy is consumed either in purifying the water nor in lifting it to the 18th floor of your building (which I doubt), most people don’t.

    According to this report, http://bit.ly/1v47UP, it takes between 5-13 MWh to purify and distribute every MG of water in California, which I work out to be 1 60W lightbulb on for an hour for every 7 or so gallons you consume.

    That’s quite a lot. (I just surprised myself with that calculation.)

    And, unless all you energy is supplied by completely green, local energy like wind and sun, all energy consumption is a global issue.

  25. Gillagriene says:

    “but Great Lakes governors have outlawed that solution.”

    Well, that and part of the great lakes basin is in Canada. Making the legal problems inter-state and inter-national. (Though as a resident of the great lakes basin, I have to say I’m pretty happy about it.)

  26. Anonymous says:

    This s an important comment.
    I created an association and I’m doing many things to care the water, planting trees, using an special product to absorve the water and bring to the tree without any care just with the water rain, we are designing a distribution valve to reuse the water of the wash dishes in the garden, and the water of wash hands in the wc. A new sistem to wash the cloths. If someone is interested in this: http://www.dearplanet.org

    • CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

      Maybe you should collaborate with Water for People, which addresses the issues of clean water and proper sanitation, amongst other things. They’d be interested in your valve, I would think.

      Unfortunately, I can’t find an “english” button on your website, and google translate doesn’t work on flash based text (can’t copy and paste it either). A little help for this curious anglophone?

  27. teufelsdroch says:

    Was advertised that Howard lost b/c of links to Bush. Not so: firstly, labor, then–water

  28. Teresa Nielsen Hayden says:

    Anonymous @39:

    Of course there’s a logistical problem with water but AB is wrong in assuming this is the only, or even major, dilemma. For example, the Great Lakes could supply water to Arizona via a pipeline but Great Lakes governors have outlawed that solution. (a legal problem)

    No, they can’t, and it has nothing to do with the Great Lakes being partly in Canada.

    Have a look at a decent terrain and elevation map of the United States. Here’s a good one. Now: notice how it’s uphill all the way from the nearest Great Lake to the Arizona border? The Inclined Great Plains run from the Mississippi River to the Front Range of the Rockies. After that, the route is still uphill, but it gets a lot steeper.

    Water’s heavy. It would take insane amounts of energy to move a significant amount of it that far uphill.

    If Arizona — by which I assume you mean the Valley of the Sun — wants more water, what it needs to do is notice that it’s in the Sonora Desert, and start acting like it.

    They would have had water enough for drinking and agriculture if they’d instituted sensible city and regional planning based on actual need, actual economic activity, and rational patterns of growth. Instead, their leaders yapped about how intolerable government regulation is, and used that as an excuse to let developers switch Central Arizona over to an unsustainable parasitic economy based on hyper-leapfrogging development and perpetually increasing population. The developers and their political buddies made a fortune selling houses built on cheap land miles from any real towns and cities to people who thought that endless population growth would automatically fill in the missing infrastructure (i.e., that someone else would pay for it), and thus cause their homes to appreciate. Showy, artificial lakes and giant fountains were part of the sales apparatus, as were acres and acres of quick cheap sprinkler-watered grass that couldn’t survive on its own past late spring.

    It wasn’t healthy economic growth. It was a massive slow-moving ponzi scheme masquerading as the creation of value. It was kept running for decades by down payments sucked out of other states and wishful-thinking 30-year mortgages. Everything depended on (1.) buyer confidence, and (2.) the relatively cheap gasoline that let struggling middle-income homeowners make the long commute from their far-flung less-expensive developments to jobs in the central metropolitan area. When gas prices went up, the economy went into free fall, and the housing crisis hit, the whole jerry-built structure just collapsed.

    Central Arizona always wants more water for the same bad reasons it always wants more infusions of capital and more unplanned growth: not for normal, productive economic activity, with normal returns on investments that produce actual value, but so that it can continue running on public wishful thinking and private enrichment by a small number of insiders.

  29. CosmicMonkey says:

    Go outside right now and find some water (not in a store). Is it drinkable? Will it make you sick? Can you filter it? Is it still too dirty to drink? What are you going to do about it?

    I can walk half a mile down to the Mississippi River take a gallon of water, filter it and drink it no problem. I am here in Minnesota so the river water is still relatively clean. But where are you and have you ever actually collected water for yourself, not simply turning on the tap? If you haven’t, learn how.

    All this theoretical bullshit is tiring. We need theorists who actually do something.

  30. melburke says:

    To: Teresa Nielsen Hayden #47
    Read what I said…don’t just use it as a platform for a response.

  31. Teresa Nielsen Hayden says:

    Stuff it, Melburke @49. My family’s lived in Central Arizona since the 19th C., and I’m thoroughly familiar with both the issues and the rhetoric. Arizonans are always going on about how they could get water from unlikely sources — the Columbia River, the Great Lakes, Canada, etc. — if only the government had a more reasonable understanding of their needs.

    It’s not true, and it’s never going to be true. As I said: look at a map of the United States that shows terrain and elevation. It’s almost all uphill from the Great Lakes to Central Arizona, and the parts that aren’t uphill are the downslopes of valleys between high mountain ranges.

    As for your belief that

    If water is privately owned and sold for a profit, the problem becomes political. (obviously, a political problem)

    I’ve got news: there’s not much in life that’s more political than massive, publicly-funded water projects that sell water below cost. Where do you suppose the money for those projects comes from?

    When it comes to water (and some other major chunks of infrastructure), Arizona’s been a welfare freeloader for the better part of a century. Like a lot of other western states whose politicians are always going on about the dreadful burdens of government and taxation, Arizona receives more money than it pays in, year in and year out. That pattern’s reversed for places like New York City, which perpetually pay more and receive less.

    Gravity is a fact. Energy costs are a fact. And the actual costs of the water supply infrastructure that already keeps Arizona running? They’re a fact too.

  32. culturegeek says:

    That argument strikes me as a bit disingenuous. Nobody is saying that there is a scarcity of _all_ water in poor countries. Nobody is saying that we are destroying actual water molecules or their component atoms. That is an obvious straw man. People talking about scarcity of water are talking about scarcity of _potable_ water, which is demonstrably killing people.

    We don’t destroy our water, we pollute it. Wastewater is not a new concept and it is not the same thing as potable water. While infrastructure would help, it is not always feasible to convert the former into the latter.

    His argument about infrastructure is, BTW, another case of attacking a straw man; the organizations he attacks for supposedly not seeing the connection to infrastructure generally view water as an infrastructure issue.

    There is also the fact that infrastructure is neither the whole problem nor the whole solution. There are also problems with water tables being polluted and large amounts of water being moved (either as a commodity in itself or in the form of produce & cetera), and I wonder if his talk of infrastructure and wastewater might be a distraction from that.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I currently have a water crisis… I live in a nice area in Central California and my water regularly gets shut off for hours at a time…

  34. Grimel says:

    Finally a voice of reason. How can there be a water shortage? On a global basis the net amount of water stays the same unless it is somehow disappearing into space. The story is the same with food, as he mentions. It’s a very convenient way to feel good to pretend that one is environmentally conscious by spending money on ‘organics’, etc., but completely unnecessary. It’s the same story as your mother telling you to eat everything on your plate because there are starving kids in other countries. True, but what does cleaning your plate do to help that.

    The true solution is what the affluent nations that concentrate on environmentalism don’t want to face. The idea that we may have to actually manage and share resources equitably instead of purely for profit, in a monetary sense. Once again, simple, age old ideas would alleviate the problem; cooperation and following the golden rule would lead to solutions instead of symbolic gestures.

  35. ab3a says:

    /* Disclaimer: I work for a water utility */

    Fact 1: Nobody CONSUMES water. They rent it.

    Fact 2: Water is heavy. It takes significant energy to move it uphill, or even down a relatively level pipe.

    Fact 3: There are very few pollutants that we can’t remove from water, given enough energy.

    What we’re talking about is management of resources, maximizing energy efficiency, and building and maintaining infrastructure. All of these require effective management and good governmental oversight.

    What is lacking most of all is the political vision and motivation to recognize the problem and improve everyone’s lives. Think about it this Thanksgiving. We have a system that, for all its faults, still works quite well.

  36. cratermoon says:

    As many others have already pointed out, this guy’s position is bunk — motivated by politics and profit. Ask the people in Owens Valley, California, if there’s a water crisis. Or the farmers in Mexico along mouth of Colorado river — which rarely has water in it any more and when it does its so burdened with agricultural runoff that it can’t be used to water crops.

  37. cwclifford says:

    Sounds like the Forward to Thomas Friedman’s new book: “The World is Wet”.

    I’m certain newly established clean water supplies in once-dry economies will NEVER be subject to political whims or corporate influences or threatened by a water ‘crisis’ of either’s creation. NEVER.

  38. jrpugh says:

    In days gone by when we didn’t have such massive and global governments to do all the thinking for us, we would simply pick up and move to where we had water. If there is no shortage of water then people should move to where it is. We in the Great Lakes region should not have to risk future generations because the people living in Las Vegas or Phoenix want to be warm in the winter but need our water. Its coming… all natural resources at some point in the future of the human race will be threatened.

  39. Anonymous says:

    This whole water shortage issue is a local issue that is now being fitted with a one size fits all situations shoe. I live in an area the most of the time has an over abundance of water. Yet, the Fed and State has forced us to use less water. Now that we use less our current infrastructure was built base on greater use and demand — so now we have to increase our water and sewer rates to make up for the lost revenue caused by forced conservation. The propaganda of a global shortage and fear mongering is another method to extract more money from the taxpayers.

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