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Review: Who Owns the Water?
Alex Steffen, 26 Apr 07
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If the challenges we face are like a huge and complicated knot, one of the larger strands running through that knot is water. Water shortages, water pollution and water conflicts are everywhere woven together with the other profound problems we face: from climate change and biodiversity loss, to soil depletion and food politics, civil conflict and sustainable development, nearly all the issues we most need to address are made more difficult by the water crisis, make that crisis more difficult to solve, or both.

Most of the time at Worldchanging, we focus exclusively on solutions. Sometimes, however, a resource which is primarily about explaining a problem is so insightful that it helps to change your thinking, and becomes part of the search for innovative answers. For me, Who Owns the Water is such a book.

It is, first of all, a visually stunning book. I tend not to be a fan of coffee table books, but I also recognize that, done right, the combination of words and images can leverage a power greater than that of the parts (this is the effect I feel Stefan Sagmeister was able to design into our own book). In Who Owns the Water, the photos lead the reader through a meditation on the fundamental importance of water to life on Earth, to human cultures and to every aspect of our society, building a mood which resonates with and magnifies the more direct texts of the chapters.

And those chapters make difficult reading -- not because they're poorly written (though one wonders if the translation is as good as it might be, and indeed, a few parts were left untranslated altogether from the original German) but because the picture they paint of our water future is so unrelentingly grim. There's a water crisis, dammit, and the author Christian Rentsch wants you to know it.

But style and mood aside, the information is invaluable. I learned a lot from this book, from useful new distinctions (like the difference between economic and physical water scarcity -- not being able to afford enough water, as opposed to there not being enough water to go around) to inspiring ideas fueling the Blue Revolution ("more crop per drop") to a host of disturbing statistics: In 1960, the authors tell us, two years before Silent Spring came out, farmers sprayed 1 million tons of pesticides a year on their fields: by 2020, experts predict, they'll be pumping 6.55 million tons. One-fifth of all the world's farmland has been severely deteriorated. 840 million people live with chronic hunger (something I knew), a number larger than the population of Europe (something I did not). Seventy percent of all fresh water used is used for agriculture: irrigation alone represents ten times the direct water use of all the households in the world.

Statistics like these skim the surface, of course, and yet they may share a sense at least of the depths beneath. Who Owns the Water? left me, yet again, with a profound awareness of how just much the systems which support our lives and communities and economies need to change.

Finding a future-wise relationship with water will take more, after all, than just changed behaviors or brilliant innovations like drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting or green water use. It will take changed thinking, and new relationships between ourselves and others and the waters we share.

Who Owns the Water? is a great tool for pondering how we might get there.

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I had never thought of the concept of owning water; however, I suppose that is, essentially, at the heart of much waste. I have purchased this water; therefore, I can do whatever I like with it. Hidden in the monetary cost, at least for those of us on such systems, is the concurrent fee for sewage. Has there been any attempt to separate that fee and make it more apparent (e.g. make it more expensive to waste water than to "purchase" it)? What if there was a meter on the other end of things that measured how much water was going down the tubes; or what if there was some way to reward the use of greywater and recycling within a household?

I'm not sure how that would work (and I'm not sure that it wouldn't encourage people to surreptitiously dump raw sewage); but we seem to think that water comes endlessly clean from the tap and goes off to some vague magical place to be made completely pure again in a tidy little loop. I think clean water should be a basic (not a right exactly, but a basic provision of civil society); however, what if we made the wastewater end of things a bit more dear so that many could afford clean water but fewer could afford to waste it?

This would not necessarily address the agricultural usage Alex mentions above; is there any sort of tax on runoff from acreage vs. acreage free of it? If that can be clearly assessed, it seems there could be a mechanism put in place to penalise activities that produce it.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 27 Apr 07

The politics of water are among the most contentious and brass-knuckled in the American Southwest. The rules and laws are bewildering. Upstream vs. downstream rights. I-got-here-first rights. Cities vs. agriculture rights. States vs. other states.

With the ongoing drought there, and supplies literally drying up, it'll get more contentious. The Central Valley of California is irrigated with water that comes from hundreds of miles away. Which is also where the water for southern California comes from too.

My view is that system is not sustainable, sooner or later - probably sooner - something will break. Then it will get truly ugly.

Posted by: Bob Morris on 27 Apr 07

Jason has it half-right when he says: "I had never thought of the concept of owning water; however, I suppose that is, essentially, at the heart of much waste. I have purchased this water; therefore, I can do whatever I like with it."

When it comes to agricultural water uses in particular, the truth is more often that they have *not* purchased the water at its fair value, therefore the water is used as if it is not worth very much...

Posted by: Skaidra on 29 Apr 07



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