24 Dec 2012

Last post for 2012

Aguanomics is on vacation until 2 Jan, but consider this...

'twas the night before Christmas
And all 'round the Earth
Fewer creatures were stirring
In habitats of degraded worth

Forests were disappearing
Turned into Ikea settees
Wetlands were drained
Developed behind levees

The people in big cheap houses
Sat in extra wide chairs
Their children were fat
From eating palm oil eclairs

Flora and fauna everywhere ran
As their homes turned in garbage cans
The businessmen were pleased to see profits grow
Due to royalties set far too low

Politicians rubbed their job making hands
Taking bribes to give away other people's lands
They only looked one election ahead
They will retire before we're all dead

But nature is neither free nor endless
Our burdens on it retard our progress
The profits of some increase burdens for all
That's what we mean by unsustainable

So remember this season to spare a thought
For losses from our environment too cheaply bought
Then write down an action for twenty thirteen
To stop politicians from selling our collective dream

We all share responsibility
To stop corruption and destruction that robs humanity
But we cannot look to our neighbors to act
We must take the lead to turn dream into fact

So do it for creatures great and small
So do it for me and you and those pushed to the wall
But do it mostly because this is the only earth we've got
There's nothing to enjoy if rainbows turn to rot.

21 Dec 2012

Friday party!

This Penan kid is having a good time with water ...near Gurung Mulu NP, Sarawak, Borneo

Happy Solstice!

Speed blogging

  1. Water transfers in the West[ern USA] summarizes issues. I'm waiting to see action.

  2. GRACE reorganized their website featuring information on water-energy-food. Nice design. Go take a look.

  3. Imagine H2O announced ten winners of its Consumer Innovations Program. The only original idea -- to me -- was the Joopy water boiler/purifier. Cool.

  4. A good technical discussion [pdf] of the the difference between water flows and water diversions.

  5. How the Feds let industry pollute water, a tale of exemptions and woe
H/Ts to IA and JS

20 Dec 2012

Lost and confused in Brussels

The Belgians deserve their heritage of surrealism
I went to a meeting in Brussels recently and it seems that this city is determined to make orientation as confusing as possible to visitors, i.e.,
  • Many streets lack signs (did the bilingual debates end with an agreement to put up no signs?)
  • Some names are in French, others in Flemish (Dutch) but your map may not be.
  • Many straight streets change names from block to block.
  • There are "canal streets" that lack canals.
  • They have "neighborhood maps" to help you see local streets, but the maps do not include a "you are here" dot.
  • Some posts give helpful arrows pointing to sights that are at North, North-North-West and North-West when there are only two streets in those directions.
  • When you get off the metro in Brussels-Midi (the main station in town), signs point to different bus lines and the train station but not other metro lines. I had to go up to the street to find where that sign was.
  • When you're standing on the metro platform, you can see lights for trains that are on their way AND already gone. Why do I need to know about the train I just missed?
  • Some maps illustrate important buildings, with the wrong orientation.
  • I asked the concierge where to go for dinner. He drew a detailed map to one place that was not there and another one that we never found (it was "around the corner" from the x he put on the map).
  • Check out a Belgian ATM. Apparently, some people write poems to get cash.

While I wandered around, wondering how it was possible to so completely fail at communicating locations and space to visitors, I tried to think of explanations:
  • The Belgians speak 3-4 languages, so they are too exhausted to make sense in any of them. (The British are very good at speaking English to each other and LOUD ENGLISH to foreigners, but they have amazing maps and directions).
  • The Belgians set the record for the number of days without a government, perhaps because newly elected parliamentarians could not manage to meet in one place.
  • The Belgians are surrealists because their streets and maps are surreal, and vice versa.
  • Belgians stop to have one of their lovely beers whenever they get lost or confused. After a few, they think they can tell you where they've been and where you need to go, but they're actually talking shit.
Bottom Line: Bring time, money and a sense of humor with you if you're ever trying to get anywhere in Brussels

19 Dec 2012

Water and corruption in Indonesia?

The organizers emailed this to me (I will be in Indonesia, but not in Jakarta):
17 January 2013 we will be conducting a one day workshop to discuss the major issues for Indonesian Water Utilities: corruption, financing and regulation, including Bulk Water supply. The workshop is part of the Indonesian Water and Wastewater Expo & Forum 2013, organised by the Indonesian Water Utilities Association. Further details

America to world: who cares?

I get The Daily Climate newsletter (via DL) and recommend it to you. A recent newsletter had a juxtaposition of headlines that's just too good to be true:

2012, The Hottest U.S. Year on Record, and Humans are causing climate change,


Three of four Americans say the Earth is warming, and one in three Americans see extreme weather as a sign of biblical end times.*


Bottom Line: One-quarter of Americans deny climate change and one-third say "bring Jesus back to us" -- so that means that 58 percent favor doing nothing to mitigate climate change. It also means that the Americans are not going to be taking any actions based on public opinion.
* There's no debate among academics.

18 Dec 2012

All-in-auctions is published!

I've been working on this idea for 5-6 years, and I think it has great potential for reallocating water while respecting the rights of existing users. It just came out in the Journal of Environmental Management.

Abstract: This paper proposes a novel mechanism for reallocating temporary water flows or permanent water rights. The All-in-Auction (AiA) increases efficiency and social welfare by reallocating water without harming water rights holders. AiAs can be used to allocate variable or diminished flows among traditional or new uses. AiAs are appropriate for use within larger organizations that distribute water among members, e.g., irrigation districts or wholesale water agencies. Members would decide when and how to use AiAs, i.e., when transaction costs are high, environmental constraints are binding, or allocation to outsiders is desired. Experimental sessions show that an AiA reallocates more units with no less efficiency that traditional two-sided auctions.

Those of you with an academic subscription can download it here. Those of you without can download my author's copy [pdf]

Addendum: I have made several different presentations of this idea for people who do not like reading academic papers. You can watch this video demonstrating the AiA, look at the the powerpoint version, listen to my lecture, or read a popular version in Solutions Journal.

You can also use these instructions [pdf] to run a demonstration of the AiA to allocate water in shortage or choose where to flood when there's too much water :)

Addendum 2: "Auctions to address issues in Oklahoma" (4 min YouTube) on OSU's SunUpTV and "All-in-Auctions demonstration" (45 min video; 72 min MP3) at the Natural Resource Ecology and Management Seminar, OSU

Question of the week

I talk all the time about failed water management (often referencing Las Vegas :)

Can you give names or examples of good water managers delivering economically and environmentally sustainable water services?

17 Dec 2012

Monday funnies

These guys know how to build consensus!

More unemployment for consultants?

While teaching, I try to deliver a little "real world" economics to students who may be lulled by the easy answers from professors who do not have to implement their ideas in the real world -- but the same can be said of the consultants who use models, estimations, simulations, and so on to give policy makers "concrete answers" that are precisely wrong.

Those are not possible in the real world of complexity, of course, but that doesn't keep the consultants from offering them, their clients from accepting them, and your taxes from paying for them.

It would be easier, cheaper and more accurate, in other words, to design policies that pushed behavior in a general direction and expect results to fall within a decent range.

That was what I was getting at when I asked my students the following homework question [pdf]:
Tell me what you'd say to the minister of the environment if he asked you to find the optimal amounts of pollution for two (or 40 or 4,000) Dutch firms.
They gave a variety of answers, but here's what my answer key says:
Something like "I don't know their TACs [Total Abatement Costs], so it's hard to find the right reductions for each. It would be better to set a tax on pollution or put a cap and allow trading." Answers along the lines of ``find TACs and set the efficient tax" get zero points
Bottom Line: "The scientist is not the person who gives the rights answers; he's one who asks the right questions." -- Claude Levi-Strauss

14 Dec 2012

Friday party

I wouldn't follow this guy's schedule, but I agree with many of his opinions about people and places (I've been to 80+ countries).

Anything but water

  1. "EPA Says Its Ethanol Rules Aren't Driving Up Food Prices." In other news, the EPA has its head up its ass (if the ethanol blending requirement doesn't matter, then let's get rid of it!) AAA, luckily, is paying attention, since E-15 blended gas can damage your engine.

  2. A veteran doctor attacks Big Pharma. Tyler disagrees, but I think he's missing the damage from misallocation due to the distortions of propaganda, misinformation and principal-agent failures.

  3. The surreal world of state control: "Abortion on request was first legalized in Romania in 1957... In 1966, the Government dramatically altered its policy. Concerned about the low rate of population growth, it introduced a number of measures to increase the fertility rate" ...and it gets worse [doc]

  4. The Straight Dope on cheap Mexican vanilla

  5. I, Pencil (the movie) talks about the invisible hand in glowing (and nicely illustrated) terms (a la Hayek) but them veers into CEI propaganda. Watch the first 4 minutes.
H/T to CD

13 Dec 2012

Global Water is looking for interns!

I keep track of GWF, which has good content. If you're a student -- or someone looking to spend more time learning more about water issues -- then check out this opportunity...
The Global Water Forum is a UNESCO and Australian National University initiative set up to present freely available knowledge and insight from leading water researchers and practitioners. The goals of the GWF are to:
  • Support capacity building through knowledge sharing;
  • Provide a means for informed, unbiased discussion of potentially contentious issues;
  • Provide a means for discussion of important issues that receive less attention than they deserve;
  • Create a high quality resource for water practitioners that is accessible and freely available across the world.
With 2013 set to be the UN year of international water cooperation, the GWF is getting busier and busier. In order to help expand the site and make more resources available to all parts of the world the GWF is looking for discussion topic editors to manage a particular water topic and be responsible for sourcing and editing articles to a very high standard related to that topic (although there are plenty of other opportunities to get involved with for those who are interested!).

All internships are currently voluntary but interns can expect to: (a) get editing and publishing experience with a UNESCO organisation; (b) build up a network of relationships with people working in the water sector; (c) keep up-to-date with all of the latest water projects and academic research; and (d) have an opportunity to give publish an article on the site.

Anybody who is interested in learning more please send an email and a copy of your CV to chris.white@globalwaterforum.org.

How sustainable is your country?

Spend some time here, looking at your country's scores on several dimensions of development.

I left here:

to go here:

12 Dec 2012

Dark days of December

My life, by nearly every measure, is good. And yet, I face a crisis of confidence every so often -- I wonder whether my work and effort have any value and whether we, humans, are making any progress. Yes, we have whizzier phones, arts and entertainment, but what of our politics, economies, environments and communities? On politics, I fume at the failure to face hard decisions and the power that special interests exert in driving policies away from what's good for all to what's good for a few. Economics and economies are often robust -- despite political interference and misdirection -- but waste in countering those attacks (and promoting false values) means that we are much poorer than we need be. The local environment is improving in some places and failing in others; the global environment is truly headed for disaster, as far as our human needs and wants are concerned.* Our communities are sometimes resilient and sometimes torn by evolving economic, technological and social forces; nasty political opportunists are happy to wreck them for cheap publicity.

I'm an economist by training and inclination. I speak truth to power because I am annoyed by silly ideas and angered by transparent failure. Economics is known as the "dismal science" for its brutal analysis of the facts and forces that make our lives better or worse. We earned that title for denouncing slavery -- not a Malthusian prediction of overpopulation -- but those are just two examples of where our unpopular views have turned out to be right. The trouble with being critical -- and right -- is that people tend to give you more blame for the pain caused by changing to the right course than they give you credit for seeing which path to take.

I sometimes get depressed at the lack of perception and progress towards the "right policies" that we discuss and explore here (this is not my first complaint), but I always seem to bounce back and fight on. I don't do that because I enjoy pain. I do it because I hear hints and murmurs of agreement and consent. I do it because I can answer people's questions, teach students to see, or notice that others are -- finally -- seeing that some emperors really lack the figleaf of a wardrobe.**

I've managed to build a small platform here and connect with people interested in these issues -- and solving them. I wonder constantly how I (or we) can improve our chances for being heard and "making a difference." I'm too old to think that "all things turn out for the best in all worlds," but I've never looked back with regret at the decisions I've made or the actions I've taken.

And so I sit here on an early morning train, trying to reconcile my frustration, excitement, pleasure and doubt. I'd love to follow a clear, certain and just path, but life is not that clear to me. I wander (and wonder) in the dark room of potentials, hoping to get to the other side (wherever that is) without breaking the china or bumping my knees.

The good news is that I am just now getting "out of the house" to spend 7 weeks in Asia with Cornelia [we left 7 Dec]. I enjoy traveling for the novelty and adventures, but I also benefit from "eating with the people" (see photo) -- when I am reminded of the resourceful, generous, joyous and curious energies exerted by everyday people in their pursuit of life.

Bottom Line: Life isn't easy, but it would be boring if it was. We may struggle to succeed, but the lessons learned -- and occasional successes -- are what result in progress, wisdom and satisfaction.

* But see yesterday's post. A new hope or false dawn?

**I was right about the corn ethanol disaster, Venezuela falling apart, disputes over oil money in Iraq, water management failure in Southern California, and many other issues. I'd be proud of those facts if it wasn't so depressing to consider the extent of gratuitous suffering that's resulted from a failure of others to see what I see and take action to end it.

11 Dec 2012

The Doha talks on climate change

Interesting results on the conversion of "aid" from developed countries into "compensation" to developing countries for losses and damage due to CC. Although cap and trade sounds good on paper, I think they need to remove offsets (seems that the Clean Development Mechanism is dead anyway) and just stick with straight emissions, while counting deforestation as a net emission. I am not sure if countries with caps cannot use a tax to reduce emissions but I don't see why not.

Oh, and THIS is funny as hell:
There was last-minute drama as the talks were thrown into turmoil by the insistence of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that they should be allowed extra credit for the emissions cuts they made when their industries collapsed.

After a long delay, the chairman lost patience, re-started the meeting and gavelled through the agenda so fast there was no chance for Russia to object.

A cheer exploded into prolonged applause. Russia bitterly objected at what it said was a clear breach of procedure, but the chairman said he would do no more than reflect the Russian view in the final report.
Bottom Line: Progress has restored some momentum. Now the US and China have to stop fucking around.
Written in Kuala Lumpur, where the rivers are dirty and people are way more interested in smart phones than in reducing their footprints. (There's a sign for a bike race in a few weeks, but that propaganda is overwhelmed by the car traffic. Saw some bikes in the parks, but NONE on any city roads.)

Question of the week

Many people have told me that the Chinese government if "serious" about improving environmental conditions.

Do you have any evidence for or against this idea?

10 Dec 2012

Monday funnies

This is true to my experience in these roles:

H/T to AW

Drinking Water (A History) -- the review

HH gave me James Salzman's book, which just came out.

is a Duke professor of law and environmental policy and this book represents 6-8 years of his readings on water policies. This depth of experience -- he quotes many cases and examples -- helps him explain the varied history of drinking water. His work on law and policy means that he puts more-than-typical attention onto the various perspectives, allowing him to present a balanced view on most issues.

My only, topline, gripe is the mixed quality of the material in this book (it was written over several years with the help of several research assistants).

But let's go to my marginalia:
  • After a slightly boring introduction to our spiritual and cultural attachments to water, Salzman spends eight chapters reviewing the history of drinking water from the Romans (or before) to the "technological future"

  • Here and there, I found myself disagreeing with his emphasis on one factor or another (was "taking the waters" about the minerals or the fact that the water wouldn't kill you?). On other occasions, I was READY to disagree before Salzman landed some sound and useful words regarding points on my mind. There were far more good points than bad ones, but I regret that Salzman appears to be citing Fishman as a "authority" when his work has got some issues.

  • I really enjoyed the historical chapters on the development of reliable water supplies in New York, London, Rome, etc., which he appeared to have covered in this 2006 paper.

  • I really enjoyed his discussion of water contamination and regulation in the US. I also need to double check my impression that drinking water and bottled water are equally inspected, as he raises the good point that bottled water quality regulations are the same on PAPER but not as implemented.

  • His chapter on water terrorism was interesting on the many ways to poison water but grounded in his skepticism that terrorists have "better" ways to work.*

  • I was also pleased to see that some US states have deposits on plastic water bottles. I wonder if they have less bottle litter. Anyone?

  • He has a good discussion of the challenges of DELIVERING water as a human right, and makes an excellent point about drinking water in LDCs: it may be cheaper and more effective to make dirty water safe just before drinking (Point of use) rather than trying to set up systems that carry safe water all over an area.
The good news for me is that this book, like many others I've reviewed here, gives readers a decent background on the scope of our water problems without spending too much time on the solutions -- or the barriers to solutions -- areas on which my book concentrates.**

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its excellent history of drinking water (I learned things!), a history that is occasionally uneven in quality or analysis.

* Reminds me of something the TSA claims: no terrorist attacks on planes since 2001. The same can be said about buses and trains, of course!

** I recently decided to make TEoA 2.0 much "cleaner" in discussing problem:cost:cause:solution. There are PLENTY of books that describe the problems without getting at the root causes or solutions.

7 Dec 2012

Friday party!

This is HYSTERICAL (Social media run amok :)

Speed blogging

  1. How Singapore turned its river from a sewer into an economic amenity.

  2. The Mississippi is running low and everyone wants the Army Corps to manage for them. Too bad the Corps is using command and control instead of markets to allocate scarce resources.

  3. Climate change evident across Europe, confirming urgent need for adaptation and a nice infographic on the politics of climate change.

  4. Megastorms with atmospheric rivers could drown California. Yep, not a good time to live in the valley.

  5. Sealevel rise may be much higher. Yep, not a good time to live at the coast.
H/Ts to MC and DL

6 Dec 2012

Cap and trade in practice

I ran a cap and trade experiment in my class,* to show students how they could benefit from a market that allowed them to trade their (capped permits) for pollution emissions.**

This experiment [65 minute mp3] clarified how "normal" people can listen to the idea but not understand how to implement it.

It also clarified the importance of setting a real cap, understanding whether manufacturers are pursuing profit or volume, and the efficiency with which market prices reveal social values (see the photo).

Blue and white from first round, pink and yellow on second

* Teachers -- or the merely curious -- can download the instructions here (pdf), while noting that one must adapt the rules to the local teaching situation.

** Cap and trade (also discussed in that lecture) is neither as efficient nor as easy to implement as carbon taxes, which appear to be back on the agenda for governments that are (1) looking to reduce carbon emissions and (2) broke. I wrote many posts on the virtues of carbon taxes. My class exercise would have produced better results (with less time and chaos) if we had used a carbon tax.

5 Dec 2012

Woo hoo!

I just sent in a few clarifications for the pre-press version, but you can read the draft version (with the same wording) here.

The rise of China's political opposition

Ooska news reports that some Chinese are upset at the poor quality of environmental conditions and demanding that the government act to improve those conditions.

I put "environmental water" in Part II of my book (Social water choices) due to its political nature. This classification -- and the increasing intensity of debate -- makes me wonder if "environmental awareness" among the Chinese middle class has sowed the seeds of a civil society that may challenge the power of the communist party -- or maybe they will be ignored or bought off.

What do you think?

4 Dec 2012

Economics is NOT a science

I love this book:
Borrowing the prestige of scientific language and methods from the biological sciences, many social scientists have envisioned and tried to effect an objective, precise, and strictly replicable set of techniques -- a set of techniques that gives impartial and quantitative answers.

Thus most forms of formal policy analysis and cost-benefit analysis manage, through heroic assumptions and an implausible metric for comparing incommensurate variables, to produce a quantitative answer to thorny questions. They achieve impartiality, precision, and replicability at the cost of accuracy. -- James C. Scott, Seeing like a State (1998)
Addendum: He was just profiled in the NYT, and I've bought his new "anarchist" book.

Accounting for water flows

I've talked about the "proper" way to account for water diversions and consumption before (here and here).

In recent conversations with various water wonks at various conferences, I've thought more about the "proper" way to account for water flows. (Chapter 10 of this describes the authoritative, scientific version of proper flows -- according to its author :)

The main problem to worry about is over-allocations of diversions that can lead to rivers running dry.*

So here's MY summary of how to handle diversions:
  1. Environmental flows are set aside before economic flows are allocated.
  2. Economic diversion rights are assumed to be 100 percent consumptive.
  3. The sum of economic rights cannot exceed economic flows (over time or on the spot).
  4. Owners of diversions may use 5 percent or 100 percent of those diversions. Excess or "lost" flows go down the river, to the environment, but NOT to others, since their diversions are already accounted for.**
  5. Some people may worry about the "inefficiency" of these losses, but they are not inefficient if they improve the quality of the environment, which is a public good.
  6. Diverters CAN sell the diversions that they do not use (i.e., tailwater), but those diversions need to be quantified and certified with the same methods used to certify and monitor the original diversions.
Bottom Line: It's better to be conservative when accounting for the right to divert water. Radical (or "optimal") accounting can result in a dry river and a lot of angry downstream neighbors.

* A river with 100 units of flow and 10 diverters with 50% consumption of their diversions may have the right to divert 20 units of flow (i.e., 20 units diverted of which 10 units are used). If they increase their efficiency to 62.5 percent of their rights, then the river will be dry after 100/12.5 = 8 diverters, leaving the last two high and dry.

** Beware and remember: A city may sell 100 units of water to customers while only consuming 10 units of water (via evaporation, runoff, etc.); the other 90 units may be cleaned and discharged at the wastewater treatment plant.

3 Dec 2012

Monday funnies

What a twit.

Speed blogging

30 Nov 2012

Speed blogging

  1. The US GAO (they are awesome) gives no recommendations in their report on the costs and benefits of shale gas, but their report will be useful for people interested in facts.

  2. Here's a 105 minute (mp3) discussion about different themes in the End of Abundance (dams, bottled water, water pricing, etc.)

  3. An interesting post on the many dimensions of "water security," and an article on how increasing risk is driving farmers from irrigated to rainfed agriculture.

  4. Hot off the press! "This report [from the European Environment Agency]... provides an overview of the state of Europe's waters and the pressures acting on those waters, looks in greater detail at the economic and social factors driving these pressures, and concludes with a summary of the societal and policy challenges that must be met if water is to be managed sustainably."

  5. Academics on scarcity-adjusted virtual water flows and the virtue of small dams.
H/T to DL

29 Nov 2012

The Land Grabbers -- the review

Fred Pearce sent me a review copy of his new book, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth, which I enjoyed very much for its detailed description of the pros and cons resulting from foreigners investing in land in developing countries.

In the book, Pearce appears to see more cons with land deals than I do. Perhaps that's because he saw only bad land deals, or perhaps he associates ALL large-scale agriculture with exploitation, inefficiency and environmental degradation. Any of you who read my paper ("The Political Economy of Land and Water Grabs")* will know that I am annoyed that we do not have a good definition of when a land deal is a "bad" grab or "good" foreign direct investment (FDI). Pearce appears to call ALL deals grabs, but I think there are many well-run, sustainable farming operations that produce profits for the farmer, good jobs for locals, and quality food for markets.

Anyway, here are my notes on the 300pp+ book, which has six parts and 27 chapters covering "grabs" from buy-side and sell-side locations in Europe, N and S America, Africa and SE Asia.
  • Many grabs convert "fallow" land to industrial-scale agriculture, but local communities often "cultivate" this land in long rotations of crops, grazing and recovery. Their methods are not just sustainable; they are cheaper and more productive for meeting a diverse range of local needs. Nomadic herders have practiced sustainable land management for centuries.

  • Such methods are also egalitarian. Poor farmers can eat, but poor urban residents will suffer from political corruption and/or favoritism.

  • That said, Pearce seems over-suspicious of markets (and financial instruments) that can improve food security and supply, views that I recently called shortsighted and misleading.

  • Food security, for example, is often used as an excuse for protectionism that favors local food growers over consumers. Grabs directed at security also fuel "countervailing" grabs in which market supplies are replaced by managed supplies that will waste calories, inputs and environmental flows. Yes, the Saudis are engaging in grabs, but that was only after their failure to grow wheat at home (a bad idea that wasted water) and their exposure to volatile food markets. The trouble with their "grab" strategy is that they will not be able to export food if large-scale shortages arise and their "indigenous" farms are wasting water now that they will need in the future. It's far more efficient, for example, to rely on markets for supplies, store a year's supply of grain in case of market failure, and save water for cultivation should market interruptions last longer than a year.

  • Land grabs are also often water grabs. The weak property rights that allow land grabs (by definition, a grab takes land from other users) are almost surely accompanied by even weaker rights over water and even greater misuse of that water.

  • Grabs, as a business strategy, often depend on corrupt dictators who will not be around as long as the 50-99 year contracts may promise, making it difficult to invest over the long term or care about sustainability.

  • Even worse, most grabs are arranged in distant bureaus, where "buyers" and "sellers" may not have a clear idea of what they've agreed, let alone who else may be interested/affected by their agreement.

  • It seems that Pearce considers deals involving foreigners to be "bad" while deals with locals are "good," but local thieves are not just more common, but more thorough, since they know the maximum local tolerance for greed.

  • That said, it's great to improve local productivity. It just takes a lot longer because locals do not just "copy/paste" good ideas from other areas. The upside is that locals who develop "organically" will have diversified, robust systems that will contribute to market stability. Pearce would agree with this assessment, I am sure, but local is not the ONLY way to go...

  • Remember remember remember that foreigners cannot just show up and exploit (at least not in these post-colonial days) -- they need corrupt local partners, and THOSE people are the ones with power to make or break a deal (as I discussed in my paper).

  • Unsustainable operations are a bigger problem than grabs. They are fueled by a combination of short-term thinking (high discount rate) that may be fed by over-capitalization (need to generate cash to pay off debt), poor property rights (get money before land is gone), tragedies of the commons (get water before neighbors take it), etc. These problems occur in ALL countries, but they can be minimized by stable, sensible policies.

  • Land grabbers may be taking "marginal" land (often conservation areas, etc.) but only because domestic farmers have already taken prime land, often before environmental perspectives had any weight.

  • Pearce appears to laud reverse grabs, e.g., when Chavez or Mugabe break large farms into smaller holdings, but those "fair" actions are often driven by corruption or revenge. Even worse, the land often ends up with cronies who cannot farm instead of poor farmers who can.

  • Remember that there would be NO land grabs if individuals or communities had title to their land! That's why many grabs are occurring in Africa -- about 80 percent of the land there is "managed" using informal, communal methods.

  • Pearce also covers the interesting case of "green grabs" -- where environmentalists take land out of production (or protect it), to keep it pristine. These grabs sometimes exclude locals from their traditional lands; they can also be sustainable (e.g., locals live in the lands under traditional conditions, while earning money from fees paid by foreign tourists who want to hunt beasts with cameras or guns).

  • Pearce loses his way when discussing "grabs" in Australia that are really FDI. That's not the case in Cambodia, where corruption underpins land seizures, but it's not good to mix up fair deals (even if they upset nationalists who prefer to avoid competing with foreigners for land) with theft.

  • There's an interesting discussion of grabs in Malaysia and Indonesia, in which rainforests are cut down for timber and palm oil plantations. It's not just that these grabs impoverish locals of their traditional lands, or that the biofuels produced on the land may actually be "carbon positive" but that the wood products produced from them are certified "good" by the FSC when they really are not. The main point is that eco-labels are meaningless unless there's a 100 percent accurate way to prevent counterfeits -- and that's hard in corrupt countries.

  • Take this last point with my point on property rights and long term views above, and you will see how real sustainability results from accurate pricing of resources that belong to a community over the long term (50+ years).

  • The world's largest sugar farm in Sudan uses 2.4mafy (~3,000 GL), or 4 percent of the Nile's flow!

  • Water grabs, no surprise, reduce environmental flows that nourish wetlands that traditional users depend on for food, fiber and fish. No rights = hunger.

  • Mega farms may be unsustainable, but subsistence farms cannot generate enough production. Perhaps the middle way -- small-scale, mixed-use farms managed by owner/entrepreneurs who innovate and adapt to local conditions -- are the best way to feed the world over the long run. Oh, and don't forget that these guys need to trade and benefit from trade.
Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its vivid description of the problems related to land grabs that benefit outsiders at a cost to locals whose land is taken from them. Read it to understand the choices between hunger and food, rebellion and stability but don't forget that property rights (legal, traditional or communal) would stop unfair grabs while allowing local people to benefit from their resources, locally and globally.

* The working paper is no longer online, due to spurious copyright claim by the publisher of the book where it eventually appeared. Email me if you want to see it.

28 Nov 2012

Off to Asia!

Cornelia and I will be in Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore for seven weeks (7 Dec to 29 Jan). During this time, I am going to dial down the intensity of blogging (e.g., no speed blogging), while trying to give you some first-hand accounts of life in those countries.

We've already planned most of our itinerary:

Malaysia: KL to Sarawak to BSB
Philippines: Manila and north, then Negros
Indonesia: Bali to Flores, then back to Singapore, KL and home.

...but we welcome suggestions on places to go, people to see and WHAT TO LOOK FOR.

So please leave your suggestions in the comments or email me.

27 Nov 2012

Anything but water

  1. The EU should kill the CAP (common agricultural policy) as a give away to farmers that does nothing for food security or equity and harms the environment. The same holds for US farmers. When will voters stop politicians from transferring their money to rich farmers lobbyists?

  2. Dan Ariely's podcast on "ego depletion, and how the longer we resist temptation, the more likely we are to give in later."

  3. A GREAT post on the high price of false security (e.g., TSA).

  4. (Unintentionally) funny and VERY true analysis of how the Monitor Group of management consultants went bankrupt due to their inability to deliver value to consumers. (Curiously, their website does not mention the BK, but their top news item is "Global Entrepreneurship Week Policy Turns Up Unexpected Results." I guess so! Oh, and I received $500 for consulting with them for one hour one time. Their client paid more, but at least MY advice was worth the price :)

  5. Transparency leads to development in India, i.e., better water and nutrition.

26 Nov 2012

Monday funnies

Not sure how accurate this is, but it appears to be based on the fact that horse-fucking is NOT illegal :-\

Thanksgiving for us, not them

I am in Nicosia (Lefkosia, to the locals) in the Republic of Cyprus for an EU meeting. I walked across the "green line" to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus last night, to enter a country that's totally different (beer brands) but totally the same (guys watching football and smoking in outdoor cafes).

This island has been occupied by humans for over 3,000 years, with different rulers taking over every so often (Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British, among others). From this history, it's possible for any group to invoke a narrative of oppression, struggle and victory over any other group, and that's what the Greeks on the south side and the Turks on the north side of this divided island have been doing for the past 50 (500?) years.

It reminds me of the struggle taking place a few hundred kilometers from here, between Israelis and Palestinians. It reminds me of many other struggles: Blue states versus Red states, one tribe against another, Turks and Armenians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Indians and Pakistanis, Pushtuns and Hazaras, et al. et al. et al.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. -- A. Einstein

DD sent me this nice rant from a UC Berkeley sociologist, about the genocidal celebration of Thanksgiving (not just the Europeans killing off the natives and taking their money, but American "tolerance" of the Holocaust).*

Hopefully, you see the connection between these nationalist movements (or oppression or liberation) and genocide: they are both narrations of the superiority of one group over another, and they are both intolerant of the differences that are actually the foundation of our strength as a species. These differences do not just make it possible for us to trade profitably with each other -- they are the differences that make it possible for us to imitate, differentiate and innovate from each other. Where would the world be if the Third Reich (or the Roman Empire) had indeed taken over everything? In a miserable, monolithic shithole, I reckon.

I don't know if humans will ever stop fighting with each other, but I do hope that more of us will see how stupid chauvinism and nationalism is -- not just for the fear and misery, but for the lost opportunity.

Bottom Line: I give thanks for the kaleidoscope of human diversity and its contribution to my life.

* His only mistake is to mention a "genocide" against turkeys, when that's the opposite of the case. We keep turkeys around for the same reason we kept slaves -- because they are economically valuable. That's why there will never be a turkey extinction problems like there's a polar bear extinction problem.

Watch the EU's conference on the water blueprint

The conference is on Monday (9:30-17:30) and Tuesday (9:00-13:00) this week in Cyprus (UTC+2 hrs).

The program is here, and I'll be on Monday's panel (16:10-16:50).

It will be livestreamed from here (and archived later).

23 Nov 2012

Friday party!

Aren't you glad that market competition has delivered that miracle in your pocket?*

* Yes, government had a role to play in allocating spectrum and designating frequencies, but there have been some heavy government failures in doing this, e.g., non-GSM in the US and various corrupt allocations in other countries.

If water is valuable, then charge for it

DB sent me this survey from Xylem, a spinoff from ITT providing technology to "solve" water problems, that reports Americans are "concerned" about water issues, "willing to pay" for solutions, but "unaware" of their footprint -- or how water problems or solutions might affect them.

No duh.

So, besides the blatant sales context of the survey, I think it's useless because it does not reflect people's thoughts or choices when they face constraints or tradeoffs. Put those factors into context, and then you will get a better idea of what people want, know and will pay for.

Bottom Line: We won't know how valuable water is until people need to pay for it.

22 Nov 2012

Speed blogging

  1. Cynthia Barnett in the LA Times:
    The illusion of water abundance at its most obscene: the water sector and large water users are so adept at capturing water and moving it around our cities and regions that the average American never has to worry about how it all works — until it doesn't, just like credit default swaps or too-big-to-fail banks.
  2. Here are (pptx slides and 15 min mp3) for my London talk "Untangling the price, cost and value of water" -- plus our panel discussion on value, tariffs, metering, etc. (21 min mp3).

  3. "IWMI Examines Role of Water Users’ Associations in Groundwater Regulation in China" and VW works to protect groundwater in Mexico (is that a non-market failure?)

  4. Very funny: "Texas town adds sugar to water supply to encourage residents to drink more water" (there are 2 Tbl of sugar in 8oz of coke).

  5. Wessex water (UK) issued a study of the effect of metering and tariff designs on water consumption. Meters cut demand by 15 percent; tariffs can cut demand by some bit more (statistically), but complex schemes may cause more customer complaints than the savings deliver.

21 Nov 2012

Anything but water

  1. Dan Ariely, in response to my proposal to ban advertising, told me that advertising functions as a coordination mechanism that allows people to find each other via shared "branding." He also said it's good when ads are not full of lies, an occasion I'd welcome.

  2. Speaking of Ariely, here are some of his "Arming the Donkeys" podcasts (iTunes links): Men are rewarded more than women, but they also die more (related to this post), how men and women trade sex for resources, how to schedule your time (without running out of it), and why we should pay more attention to morality than incentives when dealing with people. (FYI, I've listened to about 70 of them and like these :)

  3. 99 cool life hacks

  4. Your thesis committee and how to interpret their punctuation. So true.

  5. An update on "fake" academic journals that take money to publish rubbish from professors who are desperate for tenure. (Here are posts on the scams and why open access is good; here's a paper offering my solution.)

20 Nov 2012

Public talk in Amsterdam Wednesday

I'll be at the ABC Treehouse from 20:00-22:00, discussing the End of Abundance. Come by and tell your friends and colleagues!

Learn aguanomics online!

I've been following the development of online teaching with great interest.* Here are articles on how one guy started Khan Academy, how regulatory authorities have occasionally blocked this innovation, and some of the strengths and weaknesses of online instruction (i.e., it's not good for students who need instruction and have access to it).**

Anyway, you can check out how it works by spending 8 minutes watching this video that I made in response to the unit on water in developing countries at Marginal Revolution University.

In the lesson, I point out the big political and economic factors driving water (mis-)allocation that few people understand. Tell me what you think (here or in comments/questions there).

Click here to forward this video to people who need to learn more.

Bottom Line: Online education is going to make it easier for motivated students to learn from a larger variety of better instructors. Other students are likely to benefit indirectly, but nothing beats one-on-one teachers with passion.

* I taped and uploaded 28 videos from my UC Berkeley class on environmental economics and policy (with subtitles in 50 languages!). As of about now, they have an average of 17,000 views each -- the class had 85 students -- and over 480,000 views in total. I see that online "classes" are quite different -- my 80 minute lectures showed me talking; most online lectures have 3-5 minutes of slides.

** More depressing, Kling claims that eduction is only about the certificate (i.e., a signal of willingness to work hard or spend money employers look for as a sign that employees will be obedient), not curiosity or learning.

19 Nov 2012

Monday funnies

Inscamtion: Scams inside of scams inside of scams

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Economics And Financial Crime Commission
Date: Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 4:48 PM
Subject: 2012 Scam Victim Remenbursment

Economics And Financial Crime Commission,
15a Awolowo Road Ikoyi,
Lagos Nigeria.
Website: www.efccnigeria.org
Fraud victims/$950,000
Our ref: 10667fv
Your ref: 890.


We came across your email address while going through the list of people that have received fraudulent mails from Nigerians. I am Ibrahim Abdullahi Lamorde. Chairman economic and financial crimes commission (EFCC) of the federal republic of Nigeria. Per-adventure you fell victim to fraudsters [scammers] and we are looking for evidence from you so that we can get these people and prosecute to life imprisonment for tarnishing the image of our country and making the world an unbearable place. Hence, we implore you to take precautions. in addition, stop replying any mails you suspect forward every of their mails directly to this office, so that we can commence investigation. Your interest will be highly protected and you will be compensated financially with the sum of $950,000 if you cooperate with us.

We understand that some of these fraudsters claim to be in London England, Benin republic and South Africa but be rest assured that we know they are operating from Nigeria. We implore you to assist us with this investigation.

We shall compensate you for all your help.

Yours truly,

Mr. Ibrahim A. Lamorde.
NB: Scammers pay BIG money for the names of people who have fallen for their lies, for "proven value."

Addendum: The daily blog email of this post ended up in my spam folder :)

Price gouging and water rationing

I covered the institutional economics of Hurricane Sandy awhile back, but I did not think of the similarity between the debates over price gouging (see footnote *** in that post) and water pricing until listening to this excellent podcast.

Here's the simple case:
Some people call raising the price of products subject to higher demand "price gouging," but economists call it an efficient and fair way to allocate goods among people. 
Let me restate that:
Some people call raising the price of products water subject to higher demand "price gouging," but economists call it an efficient and fair way to allocate goods water among people.
Bottom Line: It's more fair to allocate economic (private) goods by price than by some political or engineering formula that does little to reveal how valuable the good is to people.

16 Nov 2012

Friday party!

Think about how you see time from a subjective, cultural and personal perspective.

A local conference for local issues

CM asked me for advice on how to plan a regional conference on water, energy, food and development.

Here's my advice:
  1. Get local water managers, regulators, lawyers, engineers, business people, et al. to give guest lectures, establish internships, participate in "what do we do in the future" debates, etc. In the end, local water management is going to matter the most and that takes cooperation among all parties. Read this post for more.
  2. Ask those people for the hot topics that they'd want to see at this conference. If you get any politicians involved (state legislature to local mayors), then get then on a panel to debate this stuff.
  3. Record and upload EVERYTHING. Keep people on the record AND make it easier for others to "attend" later.
  4. Follow up on discussions and promises made according to DEADLINES.
  5. Repeat until there's no innovation to do and the system runs smoothly.
Did I miss anything?

15 Nov 2012

Anything but water

  1. This short podcast discusses how we are more open to change when our lives are up in the air (a version of sunk costs). I'd use this phenomenon to advise water managers that their customers are more likely to accept changes in tariffs, etc., amidst drought, disaster, etc.

  2. Agricultural secrecy means that we cannot find out how much US farmers are making from subsidies, i.e., a perfect recipe for corruption.

  3. The Economist covers damming the Mekong in Laos (electricity exports to Thailand, money for the dictators and hunger for Cambodians), banks that fund deforestation and how Bangladesh has developed by helping women.

  4. Kevin Drum gives good post-election advice for democrats and republicans, and some republicans really need to listen.

  5. The Straight Dope on Peak Oil (looks like 2100, globally)

Blog design/layout update

After a few years with the old layout, I dropped all my customizations and used some blogger defaults. I am not pleased with the title font/color, but maybe the tools in the posts (email, share, agree, etc.) are useful?

Please tell me what you think, make suggestions and help me fix things!

Are models* useful?

Misleading water model...
SW asked if he should take a course with a heavy emphasis on modelling as a means of understanding the economy and environment. Here's my response...

LOTS of people use models, but the big question is whether they are USEFUL.

Academics love them (modelling in your room, alone). Policy makers love them (move the levers of society and the future). Do businesses love them? That's not so clear since THEY have real money on the line.

Modelling is often abused and misleading, so the main idea is to NOT take your results as conclusive but as a demonstration of your thoughts on how the world works -- or demonstration of how little you know of how it works!

Alfred Marshall (famous economist from 100 yrs ago) said this:
  1. Use mathematics as shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. 
  2. Keep to them till you have done.
  3. Translate into English.
  4. Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life.
  5. Burn the mathematics.
  6. If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This I do often.
If you want an example of using models to "understand," then look at my most intensive modelling paper, where you will see the pre-ordained result of my model specification and parameterization. The big point, then, is that I used it to clarify my OWN feelings/intuition. Does it prove anything? No. Will it change someone's mind? Not unless they agree with my pre-conditions. Will it be useful? Yes, if they reconsider how THEY model the world and those issues.

Bottom Line: Modelling is only as good as your starting conditions: garbage in, garbage out.

* There's a blog called "economists do it with models" but she's a bit too clever for my taste.

14 Nov 2012

Speed blogging

  1. A really interesting post discussing groundwater management in China via a fee on metered abstractions. Water levels are up. Costs are recovered. DO THIS! EVERYWHERE!

  2. I gave a talk on water economics -- the big picture -- to a class on Integrated Water Management. Here are my slides [pps] and the mp3 files [45 min 31 min]

  3. I'll be speaking in Amsterdam on 21 Nov (20:00 -- 22:00) on TEoA. Come by!

  4. An interesting article (by lawyers) exploring the pressures the US Army Corps of Engineers faces as it tries to manage projects across the US. I wrote "markets" about 50 times in the margin.

  5. Alex Maziotis discusses the costs and benefits of breaking up water monopolies.

  6. The ecological, economic, social, and political consequences of ocean acidification

Can we choose between fish and cows?

Julia Anderson, a former student of mine, wrote this guest post after spending some time studying land use and ecosystems in California's High Sierra:

The federal government has protected the Golden Trout Wilderness (GTW) to preserve natural processes in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. The mountains of the GTW cradle verdant meadows and streams that support diverse wildlife, recreation, and economic activities. The meadow streams are the native habitat for the California Golden Trout – California’s state fish and a species of special concern designated by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service due to its rarity. Coincidentally, the meadows are also an ideal environment for wilderness cattle ranching – which represents a longstanding tradition within the minds of many westerners. It is in these meadows that a litigious dispute has surfaced between environmental conservationists aiming to protect native trout habitat, and proponents of cattle grazing. The conflict is over how to best manage the land to serve both people and the environment.

Cattle grazing has occurred in the GTW for over 130 years [pdf]. Every summer, ranchers bring cows into this high country ecosystem through a permit system regulated by the Inyo National Forest. As the cattle graze, they alter trout habitat by devouring native meadow vegetation, trampling and compacting stream banks, and defecating in streams. Scientists have found that these impacts alter golden trout habitat in ways that do not support healthy populations and recruitment. In a habitat study comparing ungrazed areas to grazed areas, scientists Knapp and Matthews found that golden trout were most abundant, with the highest densities and biomasses residing in ungrazed areas (see Knapp and Matthews pdf).

The controversy in GTW centers on what the land managers of the Inyo National Forest should do: Reduce the level of grazing in Golden Trout Wilderness in order to restore golden trout habitat or continue to allow, and even re-open meadows to grazing at the expense of California’s sensitive state fish? Margaret Wood, Inyo National Forest District Ranger, quoted in a Los Angeles Times article, stated that her decision will be based on the “best available science”. While it is imperative for scientists to conduct objective field studies to determine the impacts of disturbance, it is equally important to apply economic analysis when making crucial decisions for land management.

Economic analysis can show whether or not there are more net gains to people from the presence of happy, healthy golden trout swimming around, than there are for people from the continuation of the rights a few individuals have to graze cattle in the GTW. An economist could determine which management activity is worth pursuing by conducting a cost-benefit analysis. The benefits of grazing in GTW include a source of revenue for the Inyo National Forest, a source of income for a few cattle ranchers, and grass fed beef for consumers. The costs entail the environmental damages associated with grazing and none of those costs are currently being covered by the grazing permits. These costs are difficult to determine because of the challenge of assigning a price tag to habitat loss or degradation, monitoring, and the true cost of restoration. However, these costs can be examined through the application of valuation of ecosystem services.

For instance, economist Caroline Alkire has raised the argument that the presence of a large, healthy population of golden trout does and could further generate a source of revenue through the sale of fishing licenses. It could also be argued that, with the absence of cattle, more hikers might frequent the Golden Trout Wilderness, resulting in possible increased revenue to local tourist communities by staying in hotels, dining in restaurants, and promoting businesses. By degrading the habitat in which golden trout thrive, cattle are destroying the potential benefits derived from recreational angler fishing and other visitors to Golden Trout Wilderness.

There are additional benefits derived from the presence of happy, healthy golden trout that are not conveyed in the revenue resulting from recreational fishing or hiking; otherwise known as “use-values”. Many people gain happiness with the knowledge that the golden trout are thriving in a protected environment for various reasons. These “passive values” could be quantified by enthusiastic and creative people interested in determining the best land use practices for society and the environment. The following are these values:

Existence Value: Would the public find pleasure and comfort in the knowledge that GTW provides a place of safety for golden trout? Are people generally indifferent? Or would they prefer cattle ranching continue?

Option Value: Maybe there are anglers or aspiring hikers who hope to one day spend a backcountry adventure in the GTW admiring the beauty of the golden trout.

Bequest Value: Does anyone gain value from the knowledge that future generations will have the golden trout?
    Bottom Line: The Forest Service may have scientific proof that grazing causes negative impacts to trout habitat, but until they have more information on how the public values golden trout and un-grazed habitat, they cannot hope to convince the ranchers about the benefits of maintaining golden trout. Until then, they don’t have the right kind of information to find the right level of compromise between conservationists, ranchers, and anyone else who has an interest in the meadows which are home to the last remaining population of California's state fish.

    13 Nov 2012

    Politicians need to read this

    ...because voters do not know the difference between their facts and their biases [pdf]:
    Disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality underlie policy debates ranging from taxation to welfare. We attempt to insert the desires of ‘‘regular’’ Americans into these debates, by asking a nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to ‘‘build a better America’’ by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality. First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.
    H/T to GK

    Anything but water

    1. US subsidies to renewable energy jobs are 25x the subsidies to fossil energy jobs, and fossil energy isn't really subsidized at all ($0.0011 per kilowatt-hour).

    2. eBooks and piracy and what it's like to have your book given away for free. Although I put more weight on readers than revenue from my book, I also prefer that people pay to buy my book, but I wonder if I should make a "free to download, donate if you got value" option. Your thoughts?

    3. The Dutch eat their fries with mayo. I'll never go back to ketchup.

    4. National Geographic laments elephant poaching (ivory is often used for religious figures and vanity displays) but fails to see the connection between banning trade in a valuable commodity and poachers. The drug war fails for the same reasons. Regulate trade so communities see elephants as sources of legal revenue and elephants will be as common as cows (relatively speaking :)

    5. Got time to explore someone's imagination?

    12 Nov 2012

    Monday funnies

    This is funny (even of slightly cruel).

    Redundant sustainability

    I've said this often in the past, but I seem to repeat it all the time to people who think that "green growth" is an oxymoron or that we don't need the environment (or economy) to have a good life.

    Economic sustainability implies that business can carry on indefinitely, because goods and services are being produced and traded in a way that creates value for vendors, producers and consumers.

    Environmental sustainability implies that an activity can continue indefinitely, because human activities do not disrupt natural cycles that deliver environmental services to us, directly (clean water) or indirectly (healthy ecosystems).

    See how they fit together? See how "unsustainable" practices in either knock the other off balance?

    Now go be sustainable!

    9 Nov 2012

    Friday party!

    Nate Silver called 49/50 states in 2008 and 50/50 states in 2012, showing how useless pundits are. Colbert covers the story (so does Jon Stewart):

    Nate is probably partying (in a geeky way) but you should too: statistics are useful.

    Oh, and I agree that a bet is a tax on bullshit. I'd love to see politicians pay $1 million for every lie and pundits pay $1000 every time their predictions are wrong.

    Anything but water

    1. Nietzsche said: "All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth." Here are another 39 of his pithy wisdoms.

    2. The Swedes are burning so much trash that they are importing it. (They also recycle.)

    3. A podcast on "the tendency of urban voters around the world to vote for candidates on the left relative to suburban and rural voters."

    4. One of the bigger developments in medicine and health will be understanding how good bacteria keep us alive and healthy (hint: reduce your use of antibiotics). Also read this article.

    5. "Incorruptible Indian bureaucrat hounded out of office for fighting graft – 43 times" -- that's a bad sign if he's THE ONE. What about the other millions of bureaucrats in India?

    8 Nov 2012

    Hurricane Sandy and choices for the future

    I live in the Netherlands, where living below sea level for many years has driven the Dutch to take flooding and storm surges very seriously.*

    It's therefore interesting to compare the damage from the storm to the early warnings that Americans had from the Dutch and scientists. Were the Americans right to have ignored those warnings? After all... "Hurricane Sandy was a fluke, right? A storm surged from 90-mile-per-hour winds of a hurricane colliding with a northeaster, perfectly timed with a maximum full-moon high tide. The statistical likelihood of this is once in every 500 to 1,000 years."

    Huh. I guess the 2010 book on my table [pp 51-52 of Book II here] is about 497 years early:
    Storm surges along the eastern seaboard of the US are associated with either late summer-autumn hurricanes or extra-tropical cyclones in the winter period, so called nor'easters... the height of the hurricane surge is amplified if it coincides with the astronomical high time and additionally occurs at the time of new and full moon... hurricanes have struck the coastal New York area six times in 1900-1990, resulting in severe coastal flooding, damage and destruction of beachfront property, severe beach erosion, downed power lines, power outages and disruption of normal transportation.
    When I visited with Piet Dircke in Rotterdam (the center of Dutch vulnerability to floods) two years ago, we discussed the problem of flooding, and he gave me his book (free to download, by the way). He was also disappointed that New Yorkers were not interested in investing the time and money necessary for protecting their city from surges and floods. How was that possible when the CEO of New York was saying this?

    Well, it's possible because they were trying to avoid relocating people and neighborhoods or paying $20-30 billion for a real (i.e., Dutch-quality) system for protecting the area that would [p. 59]:**
    ... stretch across from Sandy Hook, N.J. to Far Rockaway, Long Island... providing protection to the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, additional northern NJ communities, Jamaica Bay and JFK Airport.
    Now it would probably have been impossible for New Yorkers and others in the region to build such a system in time for the (unexpected) arrival of Sandy, but was there any plan in the works? Not that I know of. That's unfortunate, as the storm caused $20 billion in damages to New York alone.***

    So what will happen next? The Dutch would engage in a ruthless triage -- moving people away from vulnerable but poor areas while building up 1-in-10,000 year defenses for places that are too valuable to abandon (e.g., Rotterdam).

    Will the People of Sandy engage in the same ruthless triage, or will they make the same mistake as we've seen with the rebuilding of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans? That political decision to rebuild is a costly and populist gesture that is likely to end when the returnees are flooded again in the future.

    Although that mistake is possible, I am hoping the Bloomberg and others take the time to read this book (and all the other warnings and studies) and make the right decision to rebuild in safer places while leaving those who want to stay in unsafe places to pay for their own foolishness.

    Bottom Line: Climate change means that the environment is not going to be reliable and business as usual is going to get more costly. We need to learn a few things from the Dutch: (1) Be realistic; (2) Plan seriously; and (3) Spend seriously. Anything less is not just going to be tragic, but criminally incompetent.

    * You may want to read my posts on the Delta Works and Delta Commission, which addressed these dangers in the past and for the future, respectively. Read this post on why it's difficult for the Dutch to export their water "expertise" -- mostly because the rest of the world faces water shortage rather than water superabundance.

    ** They were paying more attention to redeveloping New York, since valuable real estate generates property taxes and flood barriers cost money. I just saw Urbanized (2011), which has an extensive narrative on The High Line and other cool projects but nothing about urban defenses.

    *** As well as causing vast grief and inconvenience. People unable to use the flooded subways or tunnels took to bikes to avoid horrible traffic jams (as well as the need to buy gasoline, which was available for sex). It's a gratuitous tragedy that so many politicians have embraced "anti-gouging laws" that prevent prices from rising to balance supply and demand. Some gas stations stayed closed to avoid angry customers (or offer fuel for sex!); others stayed open but had cars waiting for hours to fill up. Read more on how these laws are counter-productive here and here.

    H/Ts to MR, MS and MV

    7 Nov 2012

    Speed blogging

    1. This Nature Conservancy site helps you identify the source of your drinking water in California. Go learn something.

    2. Another article on the difference between investing in water as a resource and water services.

    3. Jamie Workman and I discuss Heart of Dryness (his book on sustainability in Botswana), good dams-bad dams and his work on fisheries at EDF (70 min video). Also read this article linking poor water management to dead fisheries.

    4. Top ten desalination disasters... from a financial perspective.

    5. Water Alternatives has a special issue on "corporate engagement in water policy" that, IMO, puts too much weight on vague "stakeholder interests" and too little on the importance of government failure. I lament this omission because my paper on that topic was rejected from that issue, which also has an apologetic paper on water footprinting that's really a veiled defense for using a failed methodology. Do NOT put these people in charge of your water! If you want to read something a little more relevant, read how businesses are wrestling with the value and management of water.
    H/Ts to PJ and ER