From the Pharaoh’s property to an endangered public good
.... comprehensive solutions to the emerging global water crisis.
Water scarcity is the phenomenon when fresh water supply falls below the standard demand. Water can become scarce both due to a fall in supply (e.g. due to droughts) and due to increased water use (e.g. due to increased population or increased water-heavy industries). In this context, we usually talk about reducing water use, but solutions have to go beyond individual behavioural changes and water-saving efforts in industry. In this article, we will look at a technological solution aimed at recharging our natural water storages, as well as on the legal and political debates surrounding water. This will bring us to a more comprehensive solution to potential and actual water crises.
Water management, even if of course under different names, is in no ways a new topic. From the beginning of history, there have been many attempts to optimise the use of scarce water resources in order to ensure that more food is grown and more people can access drinking water. For example, one can think of irrigation in agriculture, prevalent in the Middle East since the dawn of history, as a form of water management. In sum, what we would now call water management has always been a matter of literal life and death in many parts of the world.
What is new is that water management is becoming an increasingly pressing issue as more and more countries face water scarcity, therefore the way water resources are managed becomes more and more important. An increasing population leads to an increased demand for water, which then leads to problems such as over-extracting groundwater (with the environmental burdens that it brings), while the climate emergency can lead to water shortages due to increased droughts.
For example, a 2019 study by England’s Environmental Agency reported that, due to these twin pressures, England, a country usually associated with rainy weather, will face water shortages in 25 years.
Meanwhile, other water-related issues, such as flooding and rising sea levels, are also more and more common.
There are many methods of efficient water management. This month, we are sharing with you the key findings from a guide on best practices of managed aquifer recharge, developed in the frame of a project, Deepwater CE, in which our expert, Tadej Žurman has participated.
MAR, as this suggests, is not a single solution but a family of methods that can be used to recharge the aquifer. Such methods vary from flooding to river bank infiltration to shallow well infiltration. Appropriate methods might vary between the various locations. This study, which encompasses five European nations, is a helpful guide to settle such issues.
But while it is important to find the right methods of water management, we also need to focus on how water is understood socially, politically and legally. Fortunately, Tadej also knows a fair bit about that.
The ancient Egyptians saw water as the property of the Pharaoh. In contrast, the Justinian Code understood water as a common good, by which we mean not only the property of the people, but something that the people had a common right of use. This is an interpretation many of us would still agree with today: water, at least as found in nature, is what economists call a “public good”, something that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous: you cannot bar others from accessing water, and by using water you don’t diminish other people’s ability to access it. But what we increasingly see is that water is fast becoming rivalrous - i.e., it is no longer evident that by using “too much” water, I am not simultaneously limiting other people’s abilities to use water. And, of course, the idea that we pay for water is already commonplace.
The Justinian Code, crucially, had a governing body as well. The Romans saw water as a resource to be regulated. Currently, as Tadej explained in his PhD thesis, the issue is around regulation.
To summarise his arguments, on the one hand, poorly designed regulation can lead to “red tape and burdensome administrative demands”, as well as “unnecessary financial burdens on companies who are forced to adopt specified processes, technologies, and strategies in order to comply with legal requirements.” It can also stifle innovation. However, regulation can also serve as “a general framework for finance and funding conditions as well as for intellectual property rights, which set important principles for, and grease the wheels of innovation”, creating clarity, stability, and certainty in the entreneurial operating environment. Regulation also underpins “egal obligations and thereby bound liability for all parties.”
The challenge is therefore to create the right regulatory framework that can make water users use water resources more efficiently, in order to ensure that everyone can continue to access this vital natural resource in sufficient amounts.
Cities can play a vital role in these debates. As many municipalities around Europe often own their local waterworks and sewage works, they can play a vital role in creating more efficient water management policies at these utility companies (e.g. they can introduce policies of water reuse). Second, as population centres, cities could foster cultural shifts towards more sensitivity around how we use - or waste - our water resources. But cities could foster better water management by better design, for example, by being more conscious of how rainwater is used - or not used. To go back to our earlier example, cities could explore if their rainwater could be utilised in an MAR scheme.
Good water management can be literally lifesaving - and a must if we want to be equipped to face the challenges of the climate emergency. The Transnational decision support toolbox for designating potential MAR locations in Central Europe publication written by the DeepWater-CE Consortium is available from now on BURST's ISSUU platform.
Tadej Žurman is BURST’s lead expert of environmental and green issues. Tadej is primarily involved in projects with an emphasis on the emerging circular and collaborative economy subject areas. These approaches entail cross-sector resource recovery strategies and projects with their implementation into public and private sector. Tadej is also involved in smaller and more particular environmental problem solving activities actively trying to finding solutions for various types of wastes generated in municipal areas as well as construction and demolition and industrial waste. He cooperates with various national Ministries and local governments and authorities with the aim of incorporating legislative norms into practice, and forming new policies, norms and strategies on local, regional and national level.