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Enough to Go Around

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Earlier this year, we discussed Cape Town, South Africa’s extreme water crisis. Three years of drought, population expansion, and insufficient planning brought the city to the brink of cutting off municipal water supplies and imposing emergency rationing, also known as “Day Zero.” Thanks to extreme conservation efforts, Day Zero has been pushed back beyond 2019. Today, the city’s dams are at 50%, the highest in the last 18 months, although water restrictions remain in place.

While this is good news for Cape Town, other countries are facing similar crises, as Water Efficiency editor Laura Sanchez wrote about previously on the blog, particularly in the Middle East.

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In Iraq, for example, the government recently banned farming of several summer crops, including rice, a food staple for the country, reports the Associated Press. The government says the country only has enough water for half its farmland as a result of high temperatures and not enough rain. One in five Iraqis work in agriculture, according to the article, and 70% of Iraq’s water flows in from other countries. Farmers blame Turkey for taking more than its share of water from the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Iraqi government for not modernizing how irrigation and water are managed. The country still largely relies on flood irrigation, which is much less efficient than drip irrigation.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Iran, 97% of the country is experiencing some degree of drought, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. In southern Iran, high salinity and mud have made local water sources undrinkable, leaving people reliant on water provided by the government. When a local agency reported that the water was unsafe even for cooking and laundry, protesters took to the streets. In early July, Al Jazeera reported that a clash with security forces injured nearly a dozen people.

South Africa, Iran, and Iraq, however, all seem mighty far away. Yet even here in the US, tensions around water are rising.

On July 6, the California State Water Resources Control Board released a plan to keep more water in the San Joaquin River Delta, hoping to protect critically endangered fish species. The tiny Delta smelt fish, which is endemic to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is almost gone entirely. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which does four-month sampling trawls every year, turned up only four Delta smelt in 2017, the lowest since sampling began in 1967. And according to the Water Education Foundation, there were once millions of Chinook salmon runs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins. Now, there are only four runs in the Sacramento River, and The Sacramento Bee reports the salmon are still struggling to recover from California’s historic five-year drought. The fall-run of Chinook salmon is a  $1.4 billion industry and supports 23,000 jobs.

But the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta also provides a portion of the drinking water of 25 million Californians and irrigation for 4.5 million acres of the nation’s most fertile farmland, according to the Water Education Foundation. More water heading downstream for fish means less water for other users, particularly farmers. The Sacramento Bee reports that up to 1,600 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley could be lost, although the California Farm Water Coalition argues that this number will be a much higher 6,500 jobs. Chris Scheuring, counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told The Sacramento Bee that the state’s goals are “just not achievable without staggering human costs.” 

The tension around the Board’s plan for the San Joaquin River Delta is all the more intense because on both sides are positions we can support. On the one hand, the health and biodiversity of the Delta is an obvious boon, not least because the fishing industry relies on healthy Chinook populations. On the other, the farmland around the Delta represents not only the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working Californians but a vital breadbasket for the state and the country. To further complicate matters, controversy has also swirled around Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed California WaterFix, two massive tunnels that would divert water before it reached the Delta and channel it to the drier southern portion of the state. It’s unclear what effect the State Water Resources Control Board proposal would have on the WaterFix tunnels.

While the situation around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta isn’t as dire as in Iraq, South Africa, or Iran (so far the Board’s plan is still just a plan; there are no farming or drastic water restrictions, and citizens are not lining up for bottled water), there are familiar patterns. Long-term droughts, overdrawn water supplies, growing populations, and economic pressures are putting pressure on water resources around the globe. But there may still be hope for the Delta. The National Resource Defence Council has argued that improving agricultural efficiency, greater use of recycled water, better stormwater capture, and more urban efficiency could save California up to 14 million acre-feet of water. Any possible solution, however, will require the cooperation of many different agencies, interest groups, and municipalities—and when water is tight and tensions are high, that can seem unimaginable.

As Shuring put it, “Obviously there’s not enough (water) to go around.”

What solutions do you see to increasing water tensions—not just in California, but around the globe? Are there any good models for balancing environmental and human needs? Let us know in the comments. WE_bug_web

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  1. This is about water and Africa—it is just an example. A portion of what I will be discussing is based on experience in Africa, while with the U.S Government and or official banks and during the Cold War. The influence of the Cold War, the lingering effect from its drivers, and the mentality of those still in charge has been slow to change. Much of Africa is agrarian-based which means an increasing dependence upon irrigation schemes if rainfall is insufficient. But, are these irrigation schemes being used for food production or export-generating cash crops? In many areas, Africa is drying up and desertification is ever increasing. That means that some areas will not be self supporting. But if we have cash crops that are exported, then what? Hungry people are seldom happy. Many of the nations in Africa are often poorly governed and infrastructural institutions are often disorganized, underfunded, and corrupt. A significant portion of the continent has typically seen nations that are either at or recovering from conflict. The debts from the aftermath of such conflicts often sees damaged states and their economies and now there are even examples of stateless economies. A significant portion of this is the result of competition of the various outside factions during the Cold War and then proxy wars generated by competing interests. Many of the underlying tensions may be just below the surface.
    Because much of Africa is agrarian, repayment of loans and generation of funds will rely on agriculture and to a significant extent, on irrigated cash crops. But, cash crops often compete for land and water needed for internal sustenance. An important confounder that is also entering the picture is the purchase or control of agricultural lands by foreign national interests, e.g., China and India. To a certain extent, these foreign interests derive from areas that, through time and mismanagement, have destroyed their own soils.
    The substitution of food crops for cash crops can be induced by outside influences, often banks that want repayment of loans. What we will be discussing also relates to the effects from the pressures exerted on developing nations by banks, both commercial and official. Some of the loans made little sense. You will no doubt remember past issues with banking, the various adverse impacts on the economy that reflected the dicey adventures by banks into new avenues of investment that failed and thus the disruption of the economy. For those of you who have not read the works of John Perkins and his exploits as an economic hit-man, a review of his writings would bring this into sharper focus.
    A bank, in part, survives or does not survive based on how it loans out its funds. There are times that competition for tight money induces banks to lower their criteria for the bower’s creditworthiness. This happened internationally a few years back and projects within the developing world were being less rigorously reviewed. Because of that and the bad international financial situation, many banks fell upon hard times. Their fall back was taxpayer bailout or pushing a developing nation into cash crops. But, if you were a bank and you did not lend, the bank down the street would, so you had better do something.
    For international development projects such as big irrigation schemes, hydro power, etc., part of a nation’s monetary oversight accrues to the official international lending institutions. These include the IMF and its sister agencies, such as the World Bank. There are several such agencies and they can review economic conditions within a country, comment on its financial needs, and suggest monetary reforms, including the move toward more cash crops. As noted by Perkins, through poor choices or corruption, national leaders can be placed in squeeze positions which can be used to manipulate their choices, hence economies, and allegiances.
    Also affecting all of this is the overlay that we were in the cold war and listening posts sited in strategic areas were, and are important. Are we getting back into an escalation of this old posturing? In the old days, we had the Soviets and Chinese doing very much the same thing we were doing. You wanted access to the governments of these strategically critical listening post nations. An important thing to remember from a pragmatic perspective was access to strategic real estate, not necessarily anything to do with the helping the people, although that might be one of the normative inducements.
    Big electrification, road/transport or hydrology/irrigation schemes were an important inducement. Often these were funded for a five-year term, then the borrowing nation was to assumed more if not all of the control and the lenders would start to see their return.
    Careful analysis of repayment capacity and longer-term viability of projects often took a back seat to expedience of maintaining a diplomatic foothold in a critical country. During this interim, commercial banks might be induced to participate.
    Did official banks, critical members of which were basically controlled by the U.S. interests seek situations and inducements for commercial banks to enter the picture? Was this what was seen by those of us who had insider views of the system? Some of us with a sharper view certainly thought so.
    So, back to water. Let’s take the Nile drainage. Egypt, controlled the Nile by an antiquated structural agreement emplaced during the time of the British Crown Rule of Eastern and Northern Africa. This agreement considered the Nile as something mainly belonging to Egypt. Little if any of the water reaching Egypt actually falls as rain over Egypt. Egypt is a child of the Nile but its mother is the rains falling in the upper part of the drainage, in Ethiopia. Moving up-stream from Egypt, we have the Sudan (now two) and these nations hold seemingly boundless irrigable soils. Then, from the Blue Nile, coming out of Ethiopia, we have vast potentials for irrigation. In fact, these schemes are planned, hence the massive Ethiopian dam under construction on the Blue Nile—the river that makes up 80% of the Nile’s flow. This is a threat to Egypt.
    Coming off other portions of the Ethiopian highlands are other rivers with large irrigation potential. Of Ethiopia’s annual rainfall as renewable freshwater, the roughly 122 billion cubic meters, it is estimated that 97 percent of this amount leaves the country. Some not entering the Blue Nile, drains to Kenya, some to Uganda, and some to Somalia. Of that remaining to fall on Ethiopia, with its vastly destroyed forest cover, the soils are washed away and leave the country. This is what Egypt and other Nile riparians, and other exterior nations in the drainage below, received as nutrient input for millennia. The ancient Egyptians grew their grains on transferred Ethiopian soils. The eastern flank of the Ethiopian highlands has two major drainages leading to Somalia; The Jubba and the Schebelli.
    So, within this portion of Africa, a continent where something like 60% is either in or recovering from conflict, we have the potential to see escalating challenges for control of a diminishing resource—-water. As old Cold War contestants start to dust off their uniforms, how will water play into the new Great Game?

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