“We live in a 21st-century climate with a 20th-century infrastructure and 19th-century laws and policies.” That’s how Peter Gleick of The Pacific Institute summed up the issue at hand during a recent forum at the Commonwealth Club.
Gleick and his fellow panelists were discussing the problem of how to manage “water whiplash.” Climate change has exacerbated the effects of both drought and flood conditions worldwide. California’s lakes and reservoirs are shrinking even as the sea encroaches on its shoreline, while floods and hurricanes plague the Midwest and the Atlantic Coast.
How can countries and communities make sense of a dearth of water, then suddenly too much? What can be done to guarantee water as a basic human right for all, while enacting regulations that encourage conservation? And how to avoid the inevitable conflicts that arise around this precious resource?
As Gleick points out, water has been a source of human tension going back centuries. “The earliest examples, three or four thousand years ago, were in ancient Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates River; today Turkey, Iraq and Syria,” he tells the audience. “And, again unfortunately, the most recent examples are in the same region, where there are tensions over ideology and religion and politics and access to resources…water is a tool of conflict, water is a target of conflict, water is a weapon of war. It's another example of our inability, really, to separate politics and water.
“I think as the world grows, as populations grow, as the economy grows, as demand for water grows, the scarcity of water is more and more likely to lead to conflicts of one kind or another,” Gleick continues. “We see conflicts in the Western US, and hopefully they won’t be violent conflicts, but they’re political conflicts.”
Some believe market forces can be harnessed to control the flow of water. But what does that mean for the environment, as well as the needs of underserved communities? Brian Richter of The Nature Conservancy feels it’s possible to strike a balance. “We can have all those things together, but they depend very heavily ultimately upon having good governance, having the institutions and the capacity to manage the water well to meet all of those benefits.”
The notion of ownership of water, Richter points out, is a fallacy. “The government actually retains the ultimate ownership of the water…and what they do is they issue the right to use the water. So when we’re talking about a water market, what we’re talking about is trading in the rights to use water, rather than trading water itself.”
That distinction, he says, is an important one “because it highlights the really critical role that government has to play in that in regulating a market, in setting the rules and making sure the environment doesn't get left out, in making sure that human access to water is provided.”
One audience member brought up the effects of climate change on our future water needs. Whether climate change is causing the current drought, says Gleick, isn’t the issue. “The issue is whether or not the extreme events, droughts and floods that we are experiencing, are now influenced by climate. And the answer to that is unambiguously yes. So would this drought have occurred anyway? Maybe.”
The last three years have been both California’s hottest and driest years on record, “and that alone is an influence of climate change on drought,” says Gleick.
“It means demand for water goes up. It means pressure on the existing reservoirs goes up. It means evaporative losses goes up. Hurricane Sandy - caused by climate change? Wrong question…The flooding caused by Sandy was worsened by climate change. That's the issue. It’s the influence of climate change on these extreme events now.”
Gleick says there are lessons to be learned from Australia. Starting in 2003, that continent experienced a “Big Dry” lasting nearly a decade. The Australians were slow to respond to the crisis. “They did what we did, they muddled through,” he says. “They overpumped their groundwater…they did minor things.”
By the end of ten years, “they were doing things that we frankly should've been doing a long time ago and still are not doing; rethinking water rights, aggressively figuring out how to restore our ecosystems while maintaining some form of a healthy agricultural economy.” Californians will have to adopt similar reforms, Gleick warns, if we’re going to weather our own “big dry.” “We may be in a long-term drought, as was Australia, and we are not yet doing the things that they learned they had to do and could do to be successful.”
Unfortunately, says Gleick, “we haven't learned the main lesson, which is it's smarter to do these things in advance than in a crisis.”