Water Shortage in the UK?

Water stress does not always occur in hot, arid climates. While we may think that the UK’s weather would guarantee that it has more water than it needs, some regions of the country including London are currently facing water shortages and even drought conditions. This has prompted calls for a scheme to promote water trading between regions with surpluses and those in short supply.

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James G Workman: Heart of Dryness

Learn about James Workman’s work and his book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought:

The Paradoxes of Water

In this essay by water experts James G. Workman and Montgomery F. Simus, they argue that, “in China, water scarcity limits growth and urbanization escalates a crisis.” The first paradox of water is that “the liquid matrix of all life is both figuratively and literally ‘priceless’.” They go on to explain that “in 1776 this paradox stumped Adam Smith, whose book The Wealth of Nations noted how diamonds are utterly worthless in use yet invaluable in exchange, while the converse was true for water. Without water, humans can’t exist, yet our species devalues nature’s precious liquid asset into a vague liability.” Workman and Simus add:

This paradox troubles water whether rural farm or urban factory, firm and family. Annual shareholder reports discount water as a negligible “cost” to be “managed”. Accountants consider it a line item to absorb into spreadsheets. Chief financial officers regard water as a material risk to avoid. Any country can quickly provide its exact mineral wealth, human resources, arable land, energy potential, gross domestic product and federal monetary budget; none can tell you the annual water reserves that keep its economy alive. No official knows the full cost of providing water because no individual can know it; water’s value is subjective, varying by time, place, conditions and seven billion water users, half of whom live in cities.

The First Paradox of Water ensures that what individuals each intuitively grasp as a priceless asset we must collectively debase into a liability that is inherently worthless.

Why does this paradox of value arise, and how can we resolve it?

The brilliant conservationist Aldo Leopold famously warned urban readers about “two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” As self-interested stewards, we value only natural assets we own. We ignore what we can’t.

Since our food and energy trace their existence to water, our compound danger lies in not owning a well or creek. Instead, we suppose water comes from a faucet, toilet tank or pipe. We lose interest in water throughout the urban supply chain. Unable to own or trade our share, we produce an urban, deeply tragic, commons.

A few “exchanges” of water occur between neighbours sharing a river or well, but these are rare, rural, informal (perhaps even illegal) and inequitable. For exceptions to become the rule, China’s city dwellers must formally have an equal opportunity to own and trade water. It may seem a logistical nightmare for our urban world to literally “own” a real well and distribute the vital wet stuff. But thanks to the Internet and ubiquitous cell phones, such barriers don’t prevent ownership.

Frequent-flier miles let us virtually “own” physical airline seats. Likewise, each of us can now transparently “own” a defined virtual share of water, distributed automatically, daily, digitally and equally to all by the water monopoly that unites us. We may call this virtual share a right, credit or a privilege, but it now is ours to earn and accumulate, to use and exchange however we choose.

Urban “H2Ownership” leads to investment and care. As we buy and sell our unused shares, water accrues real worth and allows a slum dweller or Nestlé executive to negotiate its relative local price. Thus together we can at last resolve this paradox of water, as its value in exchange can rise to the level of its value in use.

In the second part of their essay, Workman and Simus observe that “as long as people merely ‘rent’ the resource, efficiency devices increase overall consumption.” They explain the paradox:

There is scant evidence that conservation technology drives overall reduction of water use, consumption and demand. In fact, empirical studies at the municipal, industrial, agricultural, state and federal level suggest that, as with energy, water-efficient technologies may extend supply, lower costs and increase demand and opportunities to divert, pump and use even more water.

Saving water in your dual-flush toilet means your children can take longer showers. Uprooting your front lawn encourages your neighbour to install a pool in his back yard. A water-efficient neighborhood lets the city divert savings into a sprawling new development or beautiful fountains in the park. Multinational corporations use efficiency technology to reduce the amounts of water per unit throughout the supply chain, but that can help them to sell more overall products containing water.

Likewise, river-basin authorities in arid lands encourage their farmers to adopt drip irrigation, for “more crop per drop”. But efficiency gains do not return water to streams and aquifers. Rather, from Beijing to Shanghai to the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers, efficiencies spread irrigation deeper and farther into ever more marginal lands, letting current farmers grow more water-intense crops on more land at the exclusion of other natural and human communities competing for that water.

As interest groups grasp this dynamic, we find the odd situation of social advocates and environmentalists fighting attempts at water efficiency.

Such a perverse and undesired outcome defines the Second Paradox of Water: as long as people merely “rent” our natural liquid resource – water – efficiency devices increase overall consumption. Water that you and I frugally conserve is lost through new and collective augmented demand by the system as a whole.

One way to resolve this paradox is through a new (yet timeless) system of what might be called “H2Ownership”. If all stakeholders have clear dominion over an equal amount of water, then whatever we save from our share we can take out of the equation, to be later sold at a premium, donated to charity, or restored directly to nature.

From the Kalahari to Oman and Bali, this system has enabled traditional systems where people compete to conserve. Under a scaled-up digital version of this virtuous cycle, urban efficiency gains could be locked in and improved on, helping China to transform its escalating water scarcity into natural and equitably shared abundance.

In the third part of their essay, Workman and Simus discuss the paradox of water monopolies. They write:

In theory, a monopoly should be able to increase revenues to match increased operating costs by selling ever-less water at ever-higher rates. In reality, that’s highly unpopular with users. Utilities are watched carefully by officials and customers alike, and people rarely demand the right to pay more for less of something they depend on in every aspect of their lives — especially something many believe they should receive for free.

Hence the fine monopolistic line our friend must walk and, in recent years, the tightrope beneath her has begun to fray. The current recession makes families and firms consume less water. That’s wonderful for nature, but horrible for her utility’s bottom line. She is simultaneously pleased and tormented. Her job is to lock in more efficiency, but her boss offers veiled threats if she does. Unless our friend backs off on conservation, her position, team and budget risk being eliminated first in austerity measures. If she saves more water, her position in her organisation falls in proportion, if not at an even faster rate. Then her skills become worthless in the marketplace. Who hires someone good at eroding the bottom line?

This is the Third Paradox of Water: conserving water destroys revenues; a thriving utility must reward waste.

Frugal utilities have less room to negotiate. Those that encourage water saving today must punish their customers tomorrow with higher rates. These incongruities remain true at the household level, the building level, the neighborhood, the municipal district and the river. Perversely, the existence of a water monopoly means that all people involved in it – from the person flushing the toilet to the government Water Board setting targets for water allocations – are left with no choice, no competition and no incentives to conserve.

Indeed, the Third Paradox ensures that the most frugal, responsive and equitable users and managers in a vertically integrated water monopoly can only succeed through subterfuge or martyrdom. As this paradox undercuts performance and customer relations, it is known throughout the water industry as “the death spiral”.  We must destroy a monopoly’s water in order to save the utility.

The converse is that we unlock the monopoly in order to save both water and the utility. That resolution to the Three Paradoxes of Water comes in our next and final contribution.

And in that final part of their essay, Workman and Simus propose a way to resolve the three water paradoxes. “Virtual urban-water markets within natural monopolies can be unlocked, rewarding frugality, efficiency and innovation,” they suggest. “‘Greed makes green’ and a sustainable path lies beyond virtue.”

They conclude:

Here’s how some say it could work to encourage real, meaningful conservation:

• First, encourage monopoly utilities to convert messy physical water or energy into cleanly defined virtual credits.

• Next, allocate equal quantities of these online metered assets – say, 200 gallons (nearly 760 litres) or 20 kilowatt-hours per day — to every residential, commercial and industrial account.

• Then let us trade whatever we don’t consume to those who want more.

These online platforms could unlock virtual urban-water markets within natural monopolies, working to reward voluntary frugality, efficiency and innovation.

The trick is not trying to improve on human nature, or make everyone extra-virtuous, but to leverage innate “sin”. If one person consumed less, he or she could sell unused shares to another, to businesses or to the utility for a cash profit.

Greed makes green. Pride in higher wealth and status would compel us to use even less just to keep up – a benevolent consequence of envy.

This approach unlocks a sustainable path, and does so by going beyond virtue.

Indeed, to unlock a robust water-conservation policy, China’s cities – like cities everywhere – need only tap our inner vice.

Ten Things You Should Know About Water

Check out this “infographic” on ten things that you should know about water.

Bt Bitterness

Check out the production company’s homepage for the Bitter Seeds. You might also look at the film’s page on the site of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. You may also read this interview with the filmmaker Micha X. Peled, this review and this blog posting, which includes other links. Share your thoughts on the documentary and on the social consequences of GM seeds in India. It is a tough tale to watch, given the bad choices that farmers make, the bad policies in place and the corporate irresponsibility that appears to be on display. The question is: what is to be done?

Top Ten Emerging Technologies

The Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies of the World Economic Forum recently released this list of the top ten emerging technologies. They are:

1. Informatics for adding value to information

2. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering

3. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass

4. Nanoscale design of materials

5. Systems biology and computational modelling/simulation of chemical and biological systems

6. Utilization of carbon dioxide as a resource

7. Wireless power

8. High energy density power systems

9. Personalized medicine, nutrition and disease prevention

10. Enhanced education technology

Read about these technologies here.

In Support of GMO

Of course, not everyone is against GMO. There are supporters of genetic modification who point out what they regard as the long-term benefits such as food security. Here are some articles defending GM foods, arguing that they are safe, and a link to a BBC documentary on the issue:

http://english.pravda.ru/science/earth/20-09-2011/119092-genetically_modified-0/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691511006399

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/can-gm-food-save-the-world/

You can view the BBC documentary, narrated by farmer Jimmy Doherty, here:

More on Monsanto

Another article on the class action case against Monsanto.

An article on the United States Department of Agriculture announcing that it will shorten review periods for GMO crops.

What is GMO?

Watch these video clips on genetically modified organisms and foods

Taking Monsanto to Court

The past several weeks have not been good for Monsanto. In the US, organic farmers are taking the chemical company to court over their genetically modified seeds. In France, a court has found the American agribusiness giant guilty of poisoning of a farmer. In India, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research is launching an investigation into the alleged genetic contamination of the indigenous cotton crop. Meanwhile, reports are coming out detailing problems with Monsanto’s products and practices. Still, Monsanto stock has been up. Genetic engineering of food and agricultural products is happening everywhere. The question is whether this technological innovation is doing more harm than good.