Sunday, May 27, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

Fascinating article on water, its trading, and agriculture.

Water, Water
By Roger Bate
From the May/June 2007 Issue
Filed under: World Watch, Big Ideas, Economic Policy

It may be everywhere, but it’s scarce as well. How to use water most efficiently? Roger Bate finds the solution in a nation undergoing the worst drought in 1,000 years: Australia.

“Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Australia has entered the fifth year of what one government official calls a “one-in-a-thousand-year drought.” The Murray-Darling river system, which provides three-fourths of the water consumed nationally, is more than 50 percent below its record minimum. The drought offers a vision of the future for many arid parts of the world, including the American West. But as bad as it is, Australia’s drought would be far worse if the country had not, two decades ago, initiated what is the world’s best system for trading water rights. As a result, water is flowing to its most productive uses, and there is more of it for drinking.

As Coleridge understood, the paradox is that, while there’s a lot of water in the world, it’s mostly either the wrong type or in the wrong place. Only 3 percent is fresh and much of that is locked in icebergs, glaciers, and inaccessible aquifers. Some countries have much more of the world’s supply than others. Canada has over 137,335 cubic yards of water per person, while Tunisia has only 654. But there is still plenty to go around if—and it’s a big if—it is used efficiently.

Water is recognized practically everywhere as a human right. Certainly, everyone should have enough for drinking, bathing, and other essentials. But by using a language of rights, governments often ignore the reality that water is scarce and that the best way to distribute any scarce resource is through trading. Instead, one economic sector in particular has been showered with water at a very low price, subsidized by the rest of the population. That sector is agriculture.