The New York Times ran an OpEd piece today about the looming water crisis, the prospects of bigger and longer droughts, and the need for more careful water conservation, under the title, Drought: A Creeping Disaster. The writer, Alex Prud’Homme, knows water (He wrote The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century). The model he suggests we learn from is Singapore, where wastewater recycling is reducing overall water consumption, and desalination is adding to the supply.
“To forestall a drought,” he writes, “we must redefine how we think of water, value it, and use it.” It sounds like reasonable advice, especially if we live in a wealthy urban metropolis where water is in short supply. But can the global water crisis really be solved by recycling wastewater or desalinizing seawater? What about rivers and lakes? What about Nature?
Is our long-term societal goal just to have water come out of our taps? Or do we want to redefine our role within our local water ecosystems: our watersheds and river basins? Worrying about water without bringing the natural context into our picture is the classic case of not seeing the forest because we’re too preoccupied with the individual trees. We need to worry about bigger things than water, like rivers and lakes and the Natural World. If we can “do right” by the natural world, we’ll enhance our water security in the process.
Two new documents help us think about managing water from an ecosystem perspective.
1. Ramaswami Iyer, water writer and former Secretary of Water Resources for the Government of India, offers an Alternative Draft (in the Economic and Political Weekly) of what India’s new water policy ought to look like. His vision nicely balances the priorities of environmental sustainability with the need for economic development. Protecting Nature is not just to keep the water flowing so we can divert it; rather (or “and”) respecting Nature and protecting rivers is seen as part of what makes us human. While we may be hardwired to live in a “polis” as Socrates told us, we also need to live in Nature.
2. Water Management Options in a Globalised World (9MB download), edited by Martin Kowarsch, is a rapidly compiled collection of papers from a June 2011 conference organized by the Institute for Social and Development Studies at the Munich School of Philosophy. The paper by Kowarsch presents a framework (the “triangle of justice”) for applying ethical analysis to water management options. This nicely complements the paper by Akpabio who shows how cultural values underlie the frame within which water is managed. His focus is southern Nigeria, but the point is universal. When the water crisis is defined as a shortage of water, the solution is to conserve, recycle, and desalinize. When the crisis is defined environmentally (rivers need help) or culturally (Indigenous communities depend on the river for their cultural identity) different kinds of solutions are needed.
Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau spent a lot of time thinking about water and Nature