Summary: the scarcity of potable water is a big story in the news. The actual problem does not resemble what we see in the stories. Rather, in much of the world water is under-priced, and underpriced goods are usually scarce. This is the first post in this series; the second considers the real scarcities — now and in the near future — of water (e.g., Saudi Arabia from population growth, everywhere extracting ground water faster than it recharges).
Water — the world’s most critical resource, growing scarcer by the day. This is a hot meme among the “save the world” folks.
Target: halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. The world’s thirst for water is likely to become one of the most pressing resource issues of the 21st Century. Global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 — more than double the rate of population growth — and continues to grow rapidly as agricultural, industrial, and domestic demand increases.
“Is water becoming ‘the new oil’?“, Christian Science Monitor (29 May 2008) — “Population, pollution, and climate put the squeeze on potable supplies – and private companies smell a profit. Others ask: Should water be a human right?” Excerpt:
Water, Dow Chemical Chairman Andrew Liveris told the World Economic Forum in February, “is the oil of this century.” Developed nations have taken cheap, abundant fresh water largely for granted. Now global population growth, pollution, and climate change are shaping a new view of water as “blue gold.”
Water’s hot-commodity status has snared the attention of big equipment suppliers like General Electric as well as big private water companies that buy or manage municipal supplies – notably France-based Suez and Aqua America, the largest US-based private water company.
Global water markets, including drinking water distribution, management, waste treatment, and agriculture are a nearly $500 billion market and growing fast, says a 2007 global investment report.
All these are commendable efforts to alert us to this problem, and guide us to solutions. How unfortunate that, like most resource issues today, these discussions are confused by ignorance of the basic economics. In overly simply terms, the world has three forms of water crises today.
1. In the emerging and un-emerging (e.g., Africa) nations, increased population and mismanagement (e.g., pollution, desertification) have created water shortages. There are no easy or fast solutions. High technology is not the cure, as few of these nations have the money required (China is one of the exceptions). Poor governance, corruption, and wars are the key causes — all resistant to the technocratic nostrums peddled by many advisers.
2. In the developed world water is often under-priced — usually as a matter of public policy. Underpriced goods are scarce; in fact, that is a good definition of underpriced. For example California has plenty of water. But it is underpriced, and so used to grow water-intensive crops in the desert. Providing more water to California (e.g., water desalination) will not help, as the demand for underpriced goods usually exceeds supply.
3. Regions with true water problems, beyond those fixable by pricing and improved social organization. Australia and Saudi Arabia are examples, with no easy answers.
Mixing these two very different issues makes for powerful scary stories, usually ignoring the harsh fact that the first two are essentially political problems.
The need to price essential goods — such as food, water, and freedom — is an unpleasant fact of life. The Dire Straits‘ song “Money For Nothing” has pretty lyrics…
Now look at them yo-yo’s that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
…but it is a poor guide for public policy.
The comments raise some powerful points. The discussion went straight to what as intended as the conclusion to this series — but should have been mentioned up front. Resource issues are among the most complex facing our society. They require analysis of economic and ecological factors, as well as social/political needs (sharing resources across regions).
One of the large themes of this site is that America today so often handles important issues — such as defense policy, finance, resources, demography — without utilizing our intellectual resources. Most notably across a wide range of issues the relevant experts are underfunded and ignored. Rock lyrics, sappy emotionalism, and crass politics will not get America through the challenges ahead in the 21st century.
The elephant is great and powerful, but prefers to be blind.
David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972)
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Posts about good news for America
- Good news: The Singularity is coming (again) (8 December 2007) — History tends to look better over longer time horizons.
- Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog) (21 December 2007)
- A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment (27 December 2008) — Looking at the problems looming before us, it is easy to forget those of equal or greater danger that we have surmounted in the past.
- An important thing to remember as we start a New Year (29 December 2007) — As we start a New Year I find it useful to review my core beliefs. It is easy to lose sight of those amidst the clatter of daily events. Here is my list…
- Is America’s decline inevitable? No. (21 January 2008)
- Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead (10 February 2008) — Need we fear the future?
- A happy ending to the current economic recession (12 February 2008)
- Fears of flying into the future (25 February 2008)
- Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future (2 May 2008) — Experts often see the future with alarm, seeing the dangers but not benefits. That gets attention, from both the media and an increasinly fearful public. Both sides feed this process. It need not be so, as most trends contain the seeds of good and bad futures. This post considers two examples.
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off (8 May 2008)
- Good news about the 21st century, a counterbalance to the doomsters (9 May 2008)
- An effective way to support our Troops: help the Blue Star Mothers of America (8 June 2008) — There are ways to support our troops, actions more effective than a bumper sticker on your car.
- There is no “peak water” crisis (19 June 2008)
- Support the USO – more help to our troops than is a bumper sticker (5 July 2008)
Click here for all posts discussing good news about America’s future.