Critical Trends in the Future of Water:

Balancing Our Resource Trade-Offs in a Smarter Manner
— Mar 26, 2012

It seems likely that water will become increasingly recognized as one of the key “factors of production” in industry – a key criterion in the development of public policy and in both economic and personal decision making. Economists have traditionally pointed to labor, capital and energy as primary criteria in economic decision making. We will see the availability of water begin to be regarded as a more critical criterion – and one that will increasingly need to be balanced against other factors of production.  

Water will become a more critical issue and key determinant in almost all personal, economic and business decisions. But water is obviously not the only factor or input that we have to consider in making economic or social decisions. Unfortunately, a seemingly logical and well-thought-out approach toward more sustainable behavior with respect to a given objective may often be at odds with respect to another objective. For example, we’ll find that it’s often not possible to minimize our carbon and water footprints at the same time. Buying asparagus grown in the Central Valley of California with scarce water transported from hundreds of miles away may not be very good for our water footprint. But buying asparagus grown in Peru and shipped by jet and truck to the local grocery store is not very good for our carbon footprint. Consumers are going to have to make trade-offs.

Consider another example – the “buy local” consumer trend that is emerging in many parts of the United States as a means of promoting local agriculture, encouraging people to eat healthier, fresher food, and reducing the carbon footprint of large-scale food transportation around the world. The buy-local movement, although it has many attractive aspects, may often be in conflict with the concept of water footprint or indeed, simply the local availability of actual water. Does it really make sense to use very scarce water trying to grow vegetables in the desert outside of Santa Fe, N.M., so that wealthy residents can enjoy the satisfaction of buying local at the farmer’s market? If you look around at many of the major and growing cities in the Southwest and elsewhere around the world, there simply isn’t sufficient water or the appropriate climate in many areas to locally grow all the needed food.

It’s not just water or energy considerations that go into these difficult decisions and trade-offs. Other inputs and decision factors also enter into the equation. Labor costs and labor conditions are often issues. The capital costs of manufacturing something in a given locale can differ significantly because of widely variable environmental regulations – that’s one reason so much mining and manufacturing has moved out of the United States. Geopolitical, moral and ethical considerations can also cloud and complicate these types of decisions. Should we buy jogging shoes made in a plant in Asia under poor working conditions, when boycotting those shoes may put the plant out of business altogether and drive those workers into even deeper poverty?

Sometimes, carefully evaluating a decision or a behavior and trying to take into account all of these critical inputs can lead to some interesting, counterintuitive or even slightly humorous conclusions. Put another way, when attempting to take into account energy consumption, and implied water and carbon footprints in carrying out routine daily tasks, some researchers have come to some rather surprising findings.

For example, it’s been suggested that in some cases, it may be more environmentally sustainable to drive your car to the store to pick up a few items than it would be to bike or walk. How can that be? Let’s say you live in Norway – which is close to abundant fossil fuel production – but where much of your food has to be grown far away, say on farms in Spain. Those farms have to be irrigated and treated with chemical fertilizers. When they are ready to be harvested, those water and energy-intensive foodstuffs are flown in high-carbon-footprint jets to Norway and then trucked to the store, where you buy them to provide your body with enough energy to walk or ride your bike to the store. Taking all of these various concerns and inputs into consideration, researchers have (only half tongue-in-check) been able to show that it is better to just hop in the car powered by cheap local energy if you need something from the store – and save all that “energy” that must be generated in order for you to ride your bike there. As you might guess, this effect is even more pronounced, depending on whether you’re a vegan or if you get your sustenance from eating beef.

On the other hand, if you don’t ride your bike to the store, you won’t have to use so much water to wash your sweaty clothes, and therefore you won’t have to dump as much phosphorus into the sewer from your detergents. Then again, water is plentiful in Norway. Obviously, these issues can be argued around and around, but this reveals the complexity of looking at an issue or a given behavior from a broad environmental sustainability perspective. What is a unit of water worth, versus a unit of energy, versus not releasing a bit of carbon into the atmosphere? A single idea, approach or philosophy – like the water footprint – may appear very logical or elegant when viewed in isolation, but when it is viewed from a more holistic and integrated perspective, things can become murkier, and it becomes more obvious that many approaches and objectives have to be considered and balanced. As we step back and take a more global view, it becomes clearer that everything is tied together. None of these individual issues can be viewed in isolation. For each individual in a specific place around the globe, carbon footprints, water footprints, agricultural footprints and food consumption are all tied together in different, intriguing and complex ways.

By Steve Maxwell - from Maxwell Report, UIM April 2012

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