Why we can’t manage water one drop at a time

Sensemaking / Why we can’t manage water one drop at a time

It's no good seeing drinking water as one thing and our industrial supply as another: we need joined-up strategies, finds Ben Goldfarb.

13 Nov 2012

It’s no good seeing drinking water as one thing and our industrial supply as another: we need joined-up strategies, finds Ben Goldfarb.

Earth isn’t lacking for freshwater. Our planet is deluged by 110,000 km3 of rainfall annually, and underground aquifers contain millions of cubic kilometers more. But that water isn’t always accessible when and where people need it: witness the drought that devastated the US this summer. And our thirsty population, now at 7 billion and counting, has already depleted many rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers. Climate change, which has begun to shift global precipitation patterns, will only intensify water shortages.

According to Michael Norton, Director of Municipal Water at AMEC, this scarcity is exacerbated by the patchwork way in which we manage our most precious resource. “Drinking water is managed separately from water for hydroelectric”, explains Norton, “which is managed separately from agricultural water, water for industry, and so on.” The result is that competing priorities fight to grab their share of dwindling H2O, to the detriment of both humans and ecosystems.

In recent years, however, a holistic paradigm has begun to replace the piecemeal one. Called Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), this new philosophy considers how disparate uses of freshwater affect one another, and links different sectors – both within individual watersheds and, increasingly, around the world – through forward-thinking management strategies.

At the local level, capturing and reusing stormwater – an approach adopted by the city of Philadelphia and highlighted in Green Futures last year – is a vital precept of IWRM. In Calgary, Canada, AMEC planted a former military base with green infrastructure like rain gardens and swales, vegetated areas that catch water, filter pollution, and provide wildlife habitat. Numerous American communities practise Aquifer Storage and Recovery, a process that entails injecting water into aquifers during the winter, when supply is higher and demand is lower, and withdrawing it in the summer. And countries such as Israel recycle both ‘greywater’ (water from sources such as laundry and showers) and ‘blackwater’ (the contaminated wastewater that passes down toilets) for irrigation and drinking.

These measures may be preludes to national water strategies, in which countries conceive of their water resources as precious assets and seek to maximize their value. Among the early adopters of national planning is water-rich Scotland, which has dubbed itself “Hydro Nation”, and this summer passed a bill that compels government to develop water-using industries, from whisky producers to aquaculture, and expands the power of the country’s public water utility.

Norton predicts that integrated management will soon go global, and “virtual water” – the water bound up in the production of goods, like the 1,300 litres that go into growing a kilo of wheat – will become central to international trade. At present, trade balances don’t reflect water scarcity: for example, arid Australia sends much of its water abroad, embedded in thirsty exports like rice and cotton, a practice which has contributed to severe shortages in the country’s Murray-Darling River basin. Through measures such as tariffs, a global strategy would encourage water-scarce countries to import crops from wetter ones, allowing dry countries to devote their own water to, say, drinking – enhancing both water security and global efficiency.

For global planning to flourish, cautions Norton, the WTO will have to lower trade barriers that hinder the movement of goods, and allow a new cohort of nations to ship their virtual water around the planet. “If we can get the protocols right”, Norton says, “we’ll see water-wealthy countries like Brazil, India, and Indonesia take up the challenge of feeding the world.”

Ben Goldfarb is a Master’s student at Yale University and the editor of Sage Magazine.

AMEC is a Forum for the Future partner. www.amec.com

Photo: Goodshoot/ thinkstock

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