Can the World Learn to Live on Less Water?

Can the World Learn to Live on Less Water?



This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Green Carmichael: The 2022 drought continues to affect worldwide shipping, food production, hydropower and nuclear generation. Dwindling snowpacks mean water scarcity is likely to continue as global warming increases. You’re the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and previously head of the International Development Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. Some of your earlier work looked at urban transport, violence, political leadership, and housing. How did you become interested in water?

Diane Davis, professor of regional planning and urbanism, Harvard Graduate School of Design: Almost every major city is on a body of water, whether it’s a river, a lake, or the ocean. And it’s a global problem: there’s either too much water , or not enough water; there’s water in places it’s not supposed to be, and water not in places it’s supposed to be. This is one of the most important issues on the planet.

SGC: There’s currently a traffic jam on the Mississippi River created by low water levels, something we’ve also seen recently on the Danube and the Rhine. What can be done to keep those rivers navigable?

DD: The thing about rivers is that you can’t solve the problem at the site; you have to solve the problem along the entire length of that waterway. And that usually means — especially in the European context — that you have not only different provinces or states, but also different countries. How does one create a regional decision-making body that’s cross-national but smaller than the EU? This is the question for planners and policymakers.

One of the things we need to be thinking about is whether we need new political jurisdictions to govern water. Water doesn’t follow those political boundaries. Look at the Colorado River Valley. Each one of those different states has different policies about who controls water , who gets to decide whether water is for agricultural or for urban uses, and then those are fought over in their legislatures. And of course, the private sector is intervening in there too. I see water as a problem of governance and not just climate change.

SGC: There’s also a lot more at stake than shipping. Farmers rely on this water to grow food; for example, there are millions of people in the Horn of Africa facing hunger as a result of drought. Many countries rely on dams for hydropower. And in France, cooling river water is needed for nuclear plants.

DD: We need a larger mission of protecting the natural resources that have been important for urbanization and modernization and economic growth. We also need to integrate our thinking about where energy comes from [with other priorities]. Should we be using rivers for energy, or should we be using something else for energy because we need the rivers for other things — for transport, for food? Urbanization has grown national economies for so long, but we’re not thinking enough about coming back to a more sustainable way of building cities.

SGC: You mentioned earlier that part of the problem is too much water in some areas and not enough in others. This might be a naïve question, but is there a realistic way to move the water from the areas that have too much to the areas with too little? I’m sort of imagining something like a Roman viaduct.

DD: Expensive, massive infrastructure would be required, which could include canals or an extensive drainage or underground piping system. Viaducts work too, as in your mention of the Roman period. There is a lot of engineering ingenuity out there, but to bring water from one location to another involves sovereignty questions of who owns the water in the first place. In some countries — in Mexico, for example — underground water is owned by the nation, but states have jurisdiction over rivers. Moreover, in a federal system like the US it would be a challenge to build a new water infrastructure that channeled water from one state to another, unless there were regional coordination or a national mandate.

There are some interesting examples of transboundary water agreements — many in the Middle East, including between Turkey and Syria a few decades ago and between Israel and Jordan more recently — that facilitated the building of infrastructure that piped water from elsewhere, including from countries with access to ocean waters that could be purified and transported inland. I would hope for more innovation on this front. But the political challenges are as tricky as the engineering challenges.

SGC: What about our own responsibilities as individuals? Every summer in Massachusetts, where we live, municipalities will ban the use of town water on lawns — yet every summer, I drive by big houses with lush lawns with signs saying, “Well water in use.” And I’m like, “But wait, doesn’t that come from the same aquifer?” Do we need more public awareness campaigns to help us save water?

DD: There have been some. Back in the ’80s, in California I remember that they told us, like, we shouldn’t flush our toilets [as often]. So historically, campaigns have been used on the state level. But now in Massachusetts, we keep on hearing on the news about this record drought, but I haven’t seen any public messaging campaigns. In the United States, this has to start locally, because nobody’s going to want the federal government to tell them what to do.

SGC: What about other ways of pushing people to conserve water?

DD: Water costs money, so there’s always the market way of dealing with it. But does that mean that people who can afford it are going to put water on their flowers, while low-income people can’t afford to pay the rate? There are a huge number of equity questions about trying to conserve water — not just rich and poor, but urban and rural.

There are developers buying land in Southern California just for the water rights. They’re not even planning to grow things on the land. They’re just getting access to the water. This may have a distorting effect on property markets. We’re going to have to think more about the metrics you use to value a property depending on if it does or doesn’t have water. In Mexico, for example, you can’t get a permit to build housing unless you show you have access to water.

How do we incentivize sustainable actions without stepping on the dynamics of the market in ways that are going to create a political pushback? That’s the huge question.

SGC: Are there other places you’ve seen competition over water between different groups?

DD: I worked on a project with a team of landscape architects and lawyers to deal with a problem of aquifer depletion outside Mexico City. We looked at struggles between the Corona brewery, which is owned by InBev, and local farmers. These farmers are growing barley for the brewery, but they need water to grow the barley; the industrialists need the water to process the beer.

My part on that team was to think about offering an alternative regional coordination mechanism built around this set of connected aquifers. In Mexico and many places, decisions about water permits are given by the municipality. But the municipality is smaller than the aquifer. And in fact, in this area, there were five different municipalities around the aquifer. So the challenge is working with 19th century political institutions — municipal, state, federal territories — in the 21st century.

SGC: And on the governance piece, are there governance solutions that you have seen work or would like to see more of?

DD: I’d like to see experimentation. Are there informal kind of models or pilot projects that bring communities that share an aquifer together to test the waters — sorry for the metaphor — for making decisions about basic resources like water?

The other thing is, [water scarcity] could speed up or slow down depending on what happens with climate change. Maybe we’ll have lots of rain and then a couple of years of drought. So we need governance mechanisms that aren’t frozen in time.

SGC: What about technological solutions?

DD: There are technologies for processing and purifying water [more efficiently]. There are nature-based solutions, like replanting different things in those areas that allow more conservation of water. We can also look at indigenous communities and [traditional] farmers and reincorporate some of their traditions in thinking about conservation. And there’s also innovations in the architectural world about capturing water, rainwater harvesting.

These are micro solutions to the larger problem. They could be part of the solution in combination with innovation, rethinking buildings, and public policy — from local campaigns to bigger public policy changes. We’ve got to just start moving forward in whatever way we can.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• San Francisco’s Empty Train Cars Spell Trouble for Public Transit: Justin Fox

• Italy’s Winemakers, and Grapes, Are Adapting to Climate Change: Frank Wilkinson

• The Global Energy Order Is Unravelling Fast: Liam Denning

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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Jorge Oliveira