Water rationing in Taiwan and California is not the start of a ‘global water crisis’

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Political leaders and international experts are discussing the future of water resources management at the 7th World Water Forum in Korea, a forum that meets every three years to raise public awareness about water issues. But public awareness about water issues may already be at its high since Taiwan and California have put in place emergency measures in terms of water rationing.

In Taiwan, more than one million households are affected as water supplies will be cut off entirely for two days each week, on a rotating basis, in several northern cities (New Taipei City, neighbouring Taoyuan City and Hsinchu County all in the north of the island). In California, the Governor, Jerry Brown, has ordered statewide mandatory water restrictions directing cities and communities to reduce usage by 25 percent.

Could these two events reveal the spectrum of a broader global water crisis? In two interviews with the Today Show and the BBC World Service, I argued that this unfortunate combination of events should not be seen as a manifestation of a global water crisis.

Discrediting alarmist calls of water wars

While it would be unreasonable to deny the fact that climate change will have an important impact on water resources with a higher risk of flooding and more frequent droughts, it may be unwise to place these two specific crises as just an illustration of this trend. Indeed, these crises need to be understood as context specific and perhaps more importantly as representing historical legacies of bad management practices and policy choices. It is important for people and news reporters that the water wars of the next century are unlikely to happen. As I elaborated in a recent TED-like talk for the Geneva Water Hub, alarmist calls should be discredited.

So what were these bad management practices?

For Taiwan it has been reported in the news that water pricing and the lack of investment in the old water infrastructure were the key causes. The logic is as follows, under-pricing water leads to unsustainable behaviour and consumption, and old water infrastructure to leakages. Naturally the answer is to better value this precious resource. Some water specialists would argue that this can be done by increasing the price of water and that water should be seen as an economic good. But this proposed solution has clear limits. Valuing water is not just about pricing. In fact, water pricing has been adopted in California with the creation of water markets but this has not stopped the state of California to be confronted with a similar water crisis than the one Taiwan is experiencing.

Going beyond economics

In fact, taking such a narrow economic logic has its clear limits (just look at oil and energy demand).  What do these two examples tell us? Valuing water resources is needed but not from a narrow economic point of view. The politics of water needs to be understood alongside the politics of development and development models need to align themselves with the resources available.

If we are being logical, is it really a surprise to have a water crisis when you develop large cities and grow water intensive crops (e.g. almonds) in a desert (California). Let us stop with our fear about a global water crisis and look at the facts!

Image: Diego Rivera, Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees, California, 1931 by Joaquín Martínez on Flickr (cc-by 2.0)

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