28 May 2014

Remember the big picture

A colleague here read Living with Water Scarcity over the weekend. He was exactly the kind of reader I'm looking for: a thoughtful expert in his own work who wants to know how water policies should work but don't.

He asked several questions that reminded me of why I wrote the book. They all touched on the difference between the piece of the water puzzle we see (or are told to see) and how that piece fits into the larger picture. Some examples might be:*
  1. Shouldn't we subsidize irrigation if we want food security?
  2. Shouldn't we minimize the price of water so the poor can afford it?
  3. Why pay attention to water issues when climate change is going to have a huge impact?
Each of these questions carry implied weights in terms of the distribution of costs and benefits and differences between present and future impacts from various policies. Most people are capable of listing those tradeoffs, and many have opinions about their relative weights, but it takes a lot of thinking, I believe, before you can separate, relate and structure all those ideas into a decent concept of how various water flows interact and affect us, individually and socially. In any case, that's what I claim to put forward in my book -- a decent concept of how the pieces fit together.

Bottom Line: Remember to look for other impacts from your favorite (change in) policy.

* Larger picture:
  1. Subsidies that increase water use don't usually deliver the food you want to your table when you need it. Trade for food now. Store water and food for use later.
  2. Minimal prices may reduce network reliability or size, which tends to hurt the poor even more. The rich tend to use the most water, so they gain disproportionately from subsidies.
  3. Climate change impacts will arrive through variations in the water cycle, making efficient water management even more important.