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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    A soluble crisis

    Matt Stonecolumnist
    Matt Stone
    columnist

    Water is an acute problem in Arizona, but around the world, its scarcity has become a source of conflict and strife for millions.

    In Shanhou, China, the recent diversion of the Juma River to a petrochemical plant in Beijing has negatively affected 120,000 villagers who rely on the Juma as their primary source of drinking and irrigation water. Crop yields in Shanhou have since dropped to an all-time low.

    In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel pursue the unsustainable cultivation of wheat and rice, both water-intensive crops, in one of the most arid regions in the world. Alleged water hoarding by Israel has made water resources an especially sticky point in any future peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

    In Somalia, a two-year “”war of the well”” near the village of Rabdore left 250 men dead as gun-toting warlords and thugs hoarded the precious few water wells in the area. As Fatuma Ali Mahmood, a widow of a man who died in the fighting, explained, “”Thirst forces men to this horror of war.””

    Somalia may be at the vanguard of a larger trend in the international system. Within East Africa itself, 11 million people have been affected by a long-running drought that has ravaged livestock and agricultural crops. Some scholars have even tied the ongoing genocide in Darfur to increasingly scarce water resources in the region.

    In 1994, the acclaimed journalist Robert Kaplan published a piece in the Atlantic Monthly titled “”The Coming Anarchy,”” which outlined the disintegration of the nation-state into resource-hungry private armies throughout the nondeveloped world. According to many Clinton administration officials, Kaplan’s pessimistic outlook on the future of international relations had a profound effect on President Clinton himself and became a “”de riguer citation among Cabinet members appearing before Congress.””

    Kaplan’s “”coming anarchy”” may or may not transpire – it may be occurring now – but it is not inevitable. The tools to build a water-resource-sustainable society are already at hand.

    One such tool is known is demand management, which entails compelling consumers – whether private citizens, industries or farmers – to cut down on water use. How? By connecting water usage to prices, thereby giving consumers an economic incentive to use less water.

    Already, Chile, South Africa and Australia have successfully employed such a policy. In South Africa, the first 25 liters of water per day – considered a “”reasonable minimum”” – are completely free, after which prices for water rise sharply. Chile charges everyone for water use but provides the poor with stamps to redeem against their bills.

    Australia has allowed a bigger role for the private sector as well. Whereas all water is considered firmly under government control, private companies can compete for service contracts that are temporary and tradable.

    A system of water exchanges has also been instituted: If the city of Adelaide requires more water than allotted, it can purchase water rights from those farmers who have a surplus of water. The price mechanism encourages water-efficient practices by companies, farmers, governments and citizens alike.

    The tools to build a water-resource-sustainable society are already at hand.

    But the most effective means to reduce water consumption lies in the agriculture sector. In the developed world, nearly 50 percent of water is consumed by agriculture; in the nondeveloped world, that figure stands at 80 percent. Agricultural subsidies allow farmers to plant water-intensive crops when, in a true market system, they could not compete.

    Highly subsidized sugar crops in Florida are contributing to the desiccation of the Everglades. In Saudi Arabia, agricultural subsidies allow farmers to grow wheat at a cost 100 times the world price. Not only does this make no economic sense, it is also environmentally catastrophic.

    Such policies are inept. America too will need to decide how to avoid its own water-born “”coming anarchy.”” It starts with tying water usage to price and eliminating thickheaded agricultural subsidies.

    In the meantime, Mark Twain’s famous witticism will continue to resound: “”Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.””


    Matt Stone is a junior majoring in international studies and economics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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