Can the World Learn to Live on Less Water?


This is one in a series of interviews with Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing political challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Green Carmichael: The 2022 drought continues to impact global shipping, food production, hydropower and nuclear power. Shrinking snowpack means water shortages are likely to persist as global warming increases. You are the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at Harvard Graduate School of Design and previously head of the International Development Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. Some of your earlier work dealt with urban traffic, violence, political leadership and housing. How did your interest in water come about?

Diane Davis, Professor of Regional Planning and Urban Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design: Almost every major city is located on a body of water, be it a river, a lake or the sea. And it’s a global problem: there’s either too much water or not enough water; There is water in places where there shouldn’t be and water not in places where there should be. This is one of the most important problems on the planet.

SGC: There is currently low water congestion on the Mississippi, which we’ve also seen recently on the Danube and Rhine. What can be done to keep these rivers navigable?

DD: The thing about rivers is that you can’t solve the problem on the spot; You must solve the problem along the entire length of this waterway. And that usually means – especially in the European context – that you not only have different provinces or federal states, but also different countries. How do you create a regional decision-making body that is transnational but smaller than the EU? That is the question for planners and politicians.

One of the things we need to think about is whether we need new political jurisdictions to regulate water. Water does not follow these political boundaries. Check out the Colorado River Valley. Each of these different states has different policies about who controls water, who gets to decide whether water is for agricultural or urban use, and then fights about that in their legislatures. And of course the private sector gets involved. I see water as a governance issue and not just climate change.

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SGC: There’s also a lot more at stake than shipping. Farmers rely on this water to grow food; For example, millions of people in the Horn of Africa are suffering from hunger as a result of drought. Many countries rely on dams for hydroelectric power. And in France, cooling river water is needed for nuclear power plants.

DD: We need a broader mission to protect the natural resources that have been important to urbanization and modernization, as well as economic growth. We also need to integrate our thinking about where energy comes from [with other priorities]. Should we use rivers for energy or should we use something else for energy because we need rivers for other things – transportation, food? Urbanization has kept economies growing for so long, but we don’t think enough about going back to a more sustainable way of building cities.

SGC: You mentioned earlier that part of the problem is too much water in some areas and too little water in others. This may seem a naive question, but is there a realistic way to move the water from the areas with too much water to the areas with too little water? I imagine something like a Roman viaduct.

DD: It would require expensive, massive infrastructure that could include canals or an extensive drainage or underground piping system. Viaducts work too, as in your mention of Roman times. There’s a lot of engineering out there, but getting water from one place to another involves sovereignty issues over who owns the water in the first place. In some countries—Mexico, for example—the underground waters belong to the nation, but states have jurisdiction over rivers. Additionally, in a federal system like the US, building new water infrastructure that routes water from one state to another would be a challenge unless there was regional coordination or a national mandate.

There are some interesting examples of transboundary water deals — many in the Middle East, including between Turkey and Syria a few decades ago and more recently between Israel and Jordan — that have enabled the construction of infrastructure that draws water from elsewhere, including from countries with access , piped to ocean water that could be cleaned and transported inland. I would like to see more innovation on this front. But the political challenges are just as tricky as the technical challenges.

SGC: What about our own responsibilities as individuals? Every summer in Massachusetts, where we live, communities ban the use of municipal water on lawns—yet every summer I drive past large homes with lush lawns that have signs saying “well water in use.” And I say, “But wait, isn’t that from the same aquifer?” Do we need more public awareness campaigns to help us conserve water?

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DD: There were a few. I remember in the 80’s in California they told us not to flush our toilets [as often]. In the past, therefore, campaigns were used at the state level. But now in Massachusetts we keep hearing about this record drought on the news, but I haven’t seen any public messaging campaigns. In the United States, this has to start locally because no one is going to want the federal government telling them what to do.

SGC: What about other ways to get people to save water?

DD: Water costs money, so there’s always a market way of dealing with it. But does that mean people who can afford it water their flowers while those on low incomes can’t afford to pay the fee? There are a large number of fair questions about trying to save water – not just rich and poor, but also urban and rural.

There are developers who are buying land in Southern California just for the water rights. They don’t even intend to grow things on the land. You’re just getting access to the water. This can have a distorting effect on real estate markets. We need to think more about the metrics you use to value a property based on whether it has water or not. In Mexico, for example, you can’t get a building permit if you can’t prove you have access to water.

How do we incentivize sustainable action without affecting market dynamics in a way that will provoke political resistance? That’s the big question.

SGC: Are there other places where you’ve seen competition for water between different groups?

DD: I worked with a team of landscape architects and lawyers on a project to solve the problem of groundwater depletion outside of Mexico City. We looked at the disputes between Corona Brewery, owned by InBev, and local farmers. These farmers grow barley for the brewery, but they need water to grow the barley; the industrialists need the water to process the beer.

My role on this team was to consider offering an alternative regional coordination mechanism built around this series of connected aquifers. In Mexico and many other places, decisions about water permits are made by the community. But the community is smaller than the aquifer. And indeed, in this area, there were five different communities around the aquifer. The challenge is therefore to work together with the political institutions of the 19th century – municipalities, states, federal states – in the 21st century.

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SGC: And on the subject of governance, are there any governance solutions that you have seen or would like to see more of?

DD: I would like to see experiments. Are there informal models or pilot projects that bring communities that share an aquifer together to test the water—sorry for the metaphor—to make decisions about basic resources like water?

The other is, [water scarcity] could speed up or slow down depending on what happens with climate change. Maybe we’ll have a lot of rain and then a few years of drought. So we need governance mechanisms that are not frozen in time.

SGC: What about technological solutions?

DD: There are technologies to treat and purify water [more efficiently]. There are nature-based solutions, like replanting various things in these areas, that allow for better water conservation. We can also look at indigenous communities and [traditional] Farmers and bring back some of their traditions to thinking about conservation. And there are also innovations in the world of architecture in terms of water capture and rainwater collection.

These are micro solutions to the bigger problem. They could be part of the solution combined with innovation, building rethinking and public policy – ​​from local campaigns to major public policy changes. We just have to start moving forward in any way we can.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• San Francisco’s empty train cars mean trouble for public transit: Justin Fox

• Italy’s winemakers and grapes are adapting to climate change: Frank Wilkinson

• The Global Energy Order is Dissolving Fast: Liam Denning

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a contributing editor at Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was senior editor for ideas and comments at Barron’s and senior editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted HBR IdeaCast.

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