18 Jul 2012

Water binds our fates

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Evan Hazelett writes...

My water footprint might have helped fuel the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was encouraged by water scarcity. And water scarcity’s roots and impact now extend beyond isolated locales, transformed into a globally integrated issue.

Globalization and trade liberalization have altered national economies. Domestic producers everywhere face competition from firms worldwide. Firms generally win contracts by competitive advantage. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have competitive advantage in oil production, but many MENA nations import most of their agricultural goods. Rainfall is minimal, 70% of the land is unsuitable for cultivation, and most farms are small and scattered, eliminating the advantages of economies of scale. These nations, as such, are greatly reliant on other countries for their food.

Much of this food comes from the US. In the US, rainfall is generally reliable and fertile land is abundant. This great abundance permits us to produce large amounts of food to meet massive demand at home and abroad. Yet even while we feed many mouths in MENA nations, we still run a $70 billion trade deficit with them because of our oil and machinery imports.

Our imports have helped MENA nations see increased per capita income. Greater per capita income has led to greater demand for food, and for meat especially. Meat requires colossal sums of water -– water these nations don’t have. Grander and more populous cities means greater demand for improved health care and educational opportunities. This leads to more industrialization, more development, and greater demand for water – water these nations don’t have.

Their dependence on imported food leaves them vulnerable. When external factors lead to increases in the price of food worldwide, they lack the security of domestic production to bail them out. A severe drought in Russia in 2010 left agro-production in shambles. With decreased foodstuffs, prices soared. MENA nations felt this pressure directly.

Indeed, this pressure, coupled with political frustration, inspired Tunisian market stallholder Mohamed Bouazizi, in December of 2010, to commit self-immolation. The streets were filled in the subsequent days by the first protests of the Arab Spring. The protestors shouted, “Water and bread, yes! Ben Ali, no!”

I consume a lot of food. This food is grown with lots of water, both domestically and worldwide. I buy a lot of clothing, made from water-intense cotton produced worldwide. I consume electronics, drinks, and rugs produced by imported machinery from MENA nations. Machinery and electronics require water and energy. And energy requires water. Lots of it.

The water-intensity of industrial and agricultural production worldwide creates severe water pressures on national economies. National economies are expanding, exacerbating global trends of water scarcity through interconnected consumption patterns. Aggregate consumption in the US affects prices worldwide, and alters global markets. Aggregate energy use in the US produces 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide missions, a major contributor to global warming. Global warming has been linked to drought, increased variability in rainfall, and severe flooding. Our consumption of goods and energy is inescapably linked to worldwide water issues. Our water footprints span the globe.

Though I am not alone responsible for the Arab Spring, my consumption, and that of millions of Americans, reflects an invisible, or virtual, water footprint that affects people across the globe. Global stressors in turn stir up domestic strife. The fury of the Arab Spring was not isolated. We all played a role.