01 November 2013

Consider the whole, not the parts

Chris Perry forwarded an email with his comments on a paper by Mark Zeitoun, Tony Allan et al. on Yemen's water shortages:
Your paper left me somewhat bemused. Yes indeed dark forces develop and prosper in any situation where a valuable resource is mismanaged or unmanaged, and there is scope to capture the value of that resource.

You link your argument to "demand management", which has surely proved to be yet another catchphrase in the sequence of "solutions" that have been proposed over the years to solve the problem of excessive, uncontrolled and unsustainable water consumption.

In making that link you quote a few papers I have been associated with (Cornish et al, perry et al, and Hellegers et al). What you miss, which is relevant if not fundamental to your analysis, is that all these papers made the case that two of the major interventions proposed as a basis to achieve demand management were either entirely counter-productive (higher irrigation efficiency) or irrelevant at the scale proposed (water charging), and indeed ran counter to one another. In practice. Improved on farm irrigation efficiency results in higher levels of water CONSUMPTION, higher levels of production per unit of water pumped, and in consequence higher profits (or the potential to maintain profits while pumping from deeper levels). Water charges were proposed as a means to reduce profits from pumping and hence reduce demand, but nobody figured out ex ante the level of charges that would be needed to actually impact substantively on demand (which is what Hellegers tried to do), so nobody thought through the likely minimal impact of increasing prices within realistic boundaries, or the fact that the improved irrigation efficiencies counteracted such minimal impacts many times over.

So it's not as if the failure of demand management was the overturning of potentially effective interventions by dark powers: there were no effective interventions on the table.

That perhaps leaves your main line of argument unchanged, even if it provides a fuller context.

But your main line sees to me to be too narrow, in precisely the same way that engineer's solutions are too narrow (upgrade the concrete); institutional specialists solutions are too narrow (organise the farmers); and lawyers solutions are too narrow (codify water rights). Your narrow view is that it's all politics.

In fact ALL these things have to work together and when one link in the chain (or more often several) is inadequate, then chaos reigns and chaos inevitably leads to capture by the powerful, or a continuing contest among the powerful until stalemate is reached. When the valuable resource in question is land, we call this "war", but in the case of water we seem to think that each disciplinary perspective (politics, engineering, economics, institutions, the law) can separately explain the chaos.

We have to take a holistic view of each of the elements in turn. Political choices are forced by defining and agreeing how much of the resource we can use. In Yemen's case, the options are either continued unsustainable consumption levels until the majority of Ag users run out, or setting and enforcing priorities among users. That debate has yet to be joined because of silly ideas such as improved technology or pricing, which have little to offer. Perhaps Yemen's Choice is precisely to pump the aquifers to extinction, which is fine if it is the actual explicit informed choice of the people. Only when that debate is properly joined will we find out--and the outcome will be defined priorities (which are the role of politicians); translation into rules (by the lawyers); implementation of the rules (institutions) and infrastructure as required (engineers).

Absent the information and the debate, the rest is hopeless. Absent the rest, perhaps the debate is hopeless. But it is not a one dimensional topic.
The authors' responses to his email ("thank you for your cerebral view") explains how academics get their useless reputation. As further reading, check out a post I wrote five years ago about the importance of context in finding solutions.

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