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The Water Crises Aren’t Coming-They’re Here

Alec Wilkinson, Esquire on August 23, 2018

For eons, the earth has had the same amount of water—no more, no less. What the ancient Romans used for crops and Nefertiti drank? It’s the same stuff we bathe with. Yet with more than seven billion people on the planet, experts now worry we’re running out of usable water. The symptoms are here: multiyear droughts, large-scale crop failures, a major city—Cape Town—on the verge of going dry, increasing outbreaks of violence, fears of full-scale water wars. The big question: How do we keep the H20 flowing?/p>

Here’s a concept: paper water. Paper water is water the government grants certain farmers who are drawing water from a river or a watershed in, say, California. The phrase describes the water the farmer, under premium conditions, is entitled to. Practically, however, paper water is mostly notional water, conceptual water, wish water, since over the years California has awarded many times as much paper water as there is actual water—which, to distinguish it, is quasi-legally called wet water. Some paper water might be made real during years of exceptional abundance, but most of it will forever be speculative and essentially useless, since it can’t realistically be traded, having no value. Paper water thus amounts to a type of hypothetical currency, backed by the Bank of Nowhere, Representing Nothing since 1960 (or thereabouts), when modern water troubles arrived in America and especially in California, where the wildly expanding citizenry required new state and federally managed water systems run by Watercrats.

Paper water is also a signifier of a domestic and global concern called peak water, a term proposed in 2010 by the hydrologist Peter Gleick in a paper he wrote with Meena Palaniappan that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gleick meant the phrase to be applied to worldwide circumstances, such as those that currently prevail in Cape Town, South Africa, where, as a result of a ferocious three-year drought, the taps might before long run dry, possibly in 2019—Day Zero, it’s been called.

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