A Tale of Many Cities

Water has been a fundamental aspect of life since the ancient world. For example, agriculture in the Nile basin was historically heavily dependent on the annual Nile flood. A complex system of dikes and irrigation networks helped harness the flood’s agricultural potential, sustaining an advanced civilization through numerous political upheavals and other destabilizing events over some 5,000 years. When the Nile’s summer flood significantly deviated above or below its optimal level, agricultural output sharply dropped the following harvest. The impacts of water availability even affected the structure of Egyptian society: famine following droughts or floods decreased the power of the political authority over the religious authorities.

Flash-forward to the present and the impacts of water scarcity remain striking. In Peru, the public water infrastructure fails to adequately serve millions of poor Peruvians. While citizens oppose government proposals to privately manage the water utility due to expected bill increases, water supply is increasingly threatened by lower rainfall levels and shrinking glaciers. This scarcity has led to demonstrations and conflict. This is true elsewhere: rainfall shocks have been shown to trigger land invasions in Brazil, armed conflict in Colombia, rebel recruitment in Burundi, and communal riots in India.

Floods have had similar impacts: too much rainfall can be as bad as too little. Arid regions are usually cursed with both, and when the rains finally come, the soil is often too damaged to absorb moisture (the so called “green droughts”). Many such regions have large populations and public policy is faced with the dilemma of choosing people over places, sometimes leading to forced migration.

Even in the absence of such traumatic displacements, arid regions are often stuck in a poverty trap due to the constraining climatic conditions. Economists understand that society’s transition towards development — from primary goods to manufacturing to services — starts with profits from agricultural producers slowly flowing into newer and riskier manufacturing activities. Strikingly, another sort of poverty trap potentially resulting from water scarcity — one only recently highlighted and still little understood — operates through cognitive capacity. Behavioral psychologists have recently shown that scarcity (be it income, time, calorie, or social scarcity) impairs decision-making and impulse control. A recent study with sugar cane producers in India has shown that farmers undergo IQ changes right before the harvest (when they are “poor”) compared to right after (when they are “rich”), large enough to move them from “cognitively impaired” to “average” on the IQ scale. Water scarcity is expected to produce similar effects, leading farmers to make bad decisions in everything from weeding in preparation for cropping (a time-sensitive and attention-intensive activity crucial for agricultural productivity) to being less attentive to their children’s school performance. Such hypotheses are the focus of an emerging study in the hinterlands of Brazil.

In the developed world, by contrast, water is often considered what economists call a public good: when one opens his or her tap in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it does not feel like there is less water for others as a result; moreover, it does not seem like it is possible to exclude others from having access to it. However, nothing could be further from the truth in many developing countries, particularly when it comes to clean water, required for consumption or crop irrigation. As in many other dimensions of life, from immunization to high-quality education, in developed countries one takes it for granted that such goods are readily available. In the developing world, these goods can be scarce. For example, providing children with minimally adequate living standards might demand conscious effort from parents, absorbing time, energy, and resources (both financial and cognitive) which could be devoted to other tasks. In fact, in Kenya, participants of a study about spring-cleaning stated they would exchange the equivalent in earnings of 56 workdays for one year of spring water protected by chlorine dispensers.

In both the developed and developing world, urban and rural environments face different challenges in managing water usage. If urban users have in general better access to clean water through public infrastructure, cities have to manage environmental degradation both within and downstream of urban centers due to their much higher population density. With urban growth accelerating worldwide (since 2010, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities), water resources are being extracted further from urban users, and investments in wastewater management, which could be used for irrigation in agriculture, have not kept pace.

Clearly, water and water scarcity are crucial issues around the world. Despite our efforts to convince ourselves otherwise in the developed world, water underpins every aspect of modern life, from the food we eat to the fuel we burn to our personal health. Because water is so central to our lives, it is impossible to fully discuss any aspect of sustainable development without discussing water; conversely, it is impossible to discuss water without discussing all the ways in which water scarcity both affects and is affected by our uses of it over both the short and long run.

A holistic view of water is necessary in a world that is increasingly complex, interconnected, and water-stressed. In the following articles we have striven to give as broad an overview of the subject of water as possible in order to help you, our readers, better understand water, in all its forms, all around the world. We’ll discuss the economics of water, how it impacts (and is impacted by) energy, and how it is governed (and its impact on governance). Lastly, we’ll provide an overview of how communities around the world are dealing with the growing problem of water scarcity, and how the thinking around water management is changing with the times.

The rest of the series will include the following:

On Tuesday, Tom Gole will discuss the economics of water management.

On Wednesday, Zach Green will dissect some of the issues appearing at the water / energy nexus.

On Thursday, Julia Martins and Jack Becker will describe some of the ways water is governed around the world, and the changing thinking around this critical subject.

On Friday, Kim Smet will cover the potential solutions to water issues currently being developed, and Jisung Park will interview noted water expert John Briscoe.

We hope you enjoy it. As always, please feel free to let us know what you think.

Image Credit: By PDphoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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