In the end, they come down to a political choiceFeb 28th 2019Print edition | Special report
AFTER RATTLING into the hillside outside Jerusalem for 7km, the little three-carriage railway reaches the end of the line, some 300 metres underground. The diminishing speck of light at the tunnel’s opening has long vanished altogether. This, for now, is as far as it goes. The German-Austrian contractor will eventually bore about 13.5km. But progress is fitful, depending on the rock being drilled through and whether it will need some artificial strengthening. The drill has already negotiated one large cave, complete with stalactites, which had to be reinforced with concrete. More such obstacles are expected. The contractor works non-stop, but the average progress made by Isabel, as their “double gripper” boring machine has been named, is just 22 metres a day. As its jaws grind into the wall of rock ahead, conveyor belts carry the rubble out to the tunnel’s opening.
The tunnel will accommodate a tube 2.6 metres wide, the deepest potable-water pipe in the world, that will pump (mostly desalinated) water through 30km of tunnel from sea-level to an elevation of 860 metres to supply much of Jerusalem’s drinking-water needs. In a country famous for its ambitious water-supply schemes, this is the biggest since the 1960s. It was in 1964 that Israel inaugurated its National Water Carrier, a public-works project to bring water from the north of the country down to the Negev desert in the south. It was an emblem of the young country’s determination to survive. And it is a dominant theme in water policy to this day. In a dramatic symbol of a determination to shape the natural order to human needs, the direction of water-flow in the national carrier is to be reversed, to give clean, desalinated water back to “nature” in the north of the country.
Water “megaprojects” are not unique to Israel. Humanity has long embraced what Peter Gleick, a scientist who co-founded the Pacific Institute, a think-tank in California, calls “the hard path” to solving its water problems: one that relies “almost exclusively on centralised infrastructure to capture, treat and deliver water supplies”. When water has been short, the solution has been to find a new source, or to bring it from somewhere else, in ancient times using large amounts of human labour.
Ancient Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia dug canals. More than 4,000 years ago Egyptian farmers relied on the Nile—traces of their irrigation systems survive today. Throughout the Roman Empire cities were supplied by manmade aqueducts. High in the Andes in present-day Peru the Incas and their predecessors built cisterns and irrigation canals, and carved terraces into the hillsides.
Modern technology means that megaprojects now are on a scale the ancients could only dream of. China’s are the grandest. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangzi river, which went into full operation in 2012, involved the flooding of hundreds of villages and the displacement of 1.2m people. The reservoir it created is 600km long. Besides providing energy for one of the world’s biggest power stations, the project was touted for improving navigation and preventing floods. Ever since it was first mooted as an idea a century ago, however, the dam has been controversial, with worries about its impact on biodiversity, cultural heritage and even seismology.
Environmentalists are also leery of another proud boast of modern Chinese hydraulic engineering: its south-to-north water- diversion project (pictured overleaf), by some measures the most expensive infrastructure project in the world. It counts as the largest transfer of water between river basins in history. It recognises that, for all China’s well-publicised struggles with air pollution, a shortage of water is its biggest environmental problem. That shortage is acute in the north, where 11 provinces have less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year, the usual international measure of water stress. Those provinces include four of China’s five biggest agricultural producers.
So, since 2014, two-thirds of the tap water and one-third of the total water supply in Beijing, in the arid north, has come by canal and pipeline from a reservoir 1,400km to the south, fed by a tributary of the Yangzi. China hails the project as an unqualified success, supplying more than 50m people in its early years of operation. And it is part of an even bigger project that will see up to 45bn cubic metres of water a year transferred—7% of Chinese consumption. Environmentalists and water experts at home and abroad are more sceptical, however. Mr Biswas at the Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore says the project gives China at best “a few years’ grace”. The worry is that it is a distraction from more pressing and important policy changes—cutting demand for water—and may actually encourage wasteful use. As elsewhere, the authorities fear that charging users for the true cost of their water might provoke protests and threaten social stability.
Similar doubts surround India’s scheme to “interlink” 37 rivers through a network of 15,000km of canals, the ultimate aim being, as in China, to move water from well-endowed regions—such as some of the Himalayan foothills in the north—to areas of scarcity. The plan has been discussed for decades. The current government has tried to give it fresh impetus. But even if it forges a political consensus in Delhi behind the plan, it would be hard to realise because of tensions between different states over water.
With so many cities around the world facing an acute need for water, “the hard path” will not be abandoned. It will always seem easier to bring water in, or to exploit a new source, than to move tens of millions of people, or completely redraw the map of agricultural production. The scale of the problem was suggested by research published in 2014 by The Nature Conservancy, an American charity. Its list of water-stressed cities was dominated by places in India and China—with Delhi second, Shanghai fourth and Beijing fifth. Mexico City came third. But top of the list was Tokyo. Other rich-world cities were also high up, including Los Angeles (eighth) and even London (15th).
Few, however, would disagree with Mr Gleick that the hard path alone is no longer enough and that it needs to be complemented with a “soft” one that seeks to improve the way water is used, rather than to find new sources of supply. That means spending on local facilities, efficient technologies and education and training.
How to do this is already known. In water-scarce regions where people—usually women—have to spend hours each day fetching water from a distant source, it may mean building pipes or bore-wells and training people to maintain them. In places with heavy seasonal rain followed by long dry seasons it means building (or in many cases restoring) storage systems, ideally in places where evaporation will be low. (In Bermuda, with abundant year-round rain, domestic water needs are met by harvesting rainwater from the islands’ roofs, which building regulations stipulate must make room for storage tanks.) And to ensure that the water people drink does not kill them, the discharge of untreated effluent has to be stopped, and people have to use toilets.
Waste water, as Israel and Singapore have shown, can be treated as a resource to exploit rather than a problem to dispose of. As the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the targets for 2030 adopted in 2015, acknowledge, water-management has to be “integrated”, that is co-ordinated both between the various bodies responsible for different bits of the water cycle and other policies that have an impact on water. At times this will entail cross-border co-operation. It will always require community involvement.
None of this is rocket science, which helps explain a paradox of most conversations with scientists, ecologists and charity-workers who have devoted their lives to solving the world’s water problems. Most are full of horror stories about how woefully the world is misusing and wasting its water. Yet most will profess cautious optimism about the long-term future.
The World Bank has even sought to cost the water-related SDGs. It estimated that, to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all” and “achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation for all and end open defecation” would need $114bn a year, 69% of it spent on sanitation. So to provide access to drinking water for the whole world would cost not much more than $30bn a year, or roughly the size of the defence budget in, say, Italy or Brazil.
The total of $114bn would amount to just 0.39% of the GDPs of the 140 countries the World Bank studied. That would, however, be 0.27 percentage points more than is currently spent globally. It would require a massive reallocation of resources. For that to be realised, three issues need to be tackled: ownership; price; and political priorities. On ownership, India and Israel represent two extremes. In India it may be hard to repeal the British-era law giving landowners the right to all the water on and under their property. But it should be possible to mitigate some of its effects by, for example, penalising the over-extraction of groundwater. Israel’s nationalisation of all water supplies has helped “integrate” policy, but may not be replicable elsewhere. In many countries water rights are less clear and subject to litigation. America, for example, still suffers from tension between two different doctrines adopted in the early days of the modern nation: a “riparian” one in the east, giving rights to those near to a body of water, and the “prior-appropriation” one in the west, giving rights to the earliest users.
Pricing will be even harder. Few utilities in the world charge consumers the full cost of the water they use. And even in countries where they do, a water subsidy may be included in the cost of the goods people buy in shops. To persuade people to recognise and pay for the water-intensity of their lifestyles may require concerted campaigns of the type that have helped cut smoking rates in many places. But because they will affect the entire population, it will be even harder. On the other hand, as experience in some unlikely places has shown—Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, for example—poor people will pay for a clean, reliable source of water. After all, in much of the world, they already pay over the odds for dirty, dangerous and erratic supplies.
Finally, even if the world is cajoled into using water more sustainably, that will still leave questions of allocation. On the global level, it is easy to see where the priorities should lie: in the hundreds of millions who do not yet have access to safe and adequate drinking water and sanitation. At the national and subnational level, there will always be powerful interests lobbying for their own needs, whereas those without access to clean water are, almost by definition, the powerless. So, as Jonathan Farr, senior policy analyst at WaterAid, puts it, water management—however sustainable, progressive and integrated—has first to concentrate on access. Money is not the binding constraint. Nor is technology. It is a political choice.