Water, Water Everywhere? Sustaining Scarce Resources in the Desert
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Life here in the desert southwest is richly complex and oftentimes a great challenge. A hint of frontier culture remains even as rampant growth and homogenization take hold at breakneck speed. People love the landscapes and the history, but can still sit and watch both disappear in the name of "progress." At times it seems as if a strange double consciousness exists here, nowhere more prominently than in our relationship to water.
It's interesting to live in a place where you regularly see coyotes, roadrunners, hawks, antelopes, and javelina (just to name a few local species) with packs of the latter still roaming through our downtowns. People have horses in their front yards, gunracks on their cars, and cacti in their burritos. In a few hours time you can go from a densely-packed urban center to the Grand Canyon, watching the landscape change from desert hills to mountain forests and back again. Despite ubiquitous strip malls, golf courses, and backyard swimming pools, the southwest is still magical in many ways.
The trouble is, as many already well know, there's not much water left here. California is dry too, and Florida will be soon. Atlanta has already run out more than once. Australia is basically permanently drought-stricken and agriculturally bankrupt. It's one thing when the desert is bereft of water, but the marshlands? The nation's agricultural leader? Major cities? Whole continents? And this is only the beginning.
Whereas the wars of the recent past were fought over oil, the ones of the near future almost certainly will devolve upon water. Like they say in these parts, "Whiskey's for drinkin', but water's for fightin'." If contemporary wars are any gauge, it isn't going to be pretty when the pump don't work -- regardless of who took the handles.
Consider that the earth's surface is about two-thirds water, and we humans are made up of roughly the same percentage. Water is the lifeblood of the planet, and of ourselves as well. While abundant in a general sense, much of the planet's water is in the oceans, and desalination takes large energy inputs (often reliant upon oil, no less) in order to yield any net benefit. Global climate change is melting arctic ice and playing havoc with the water cycle, creating rising tides and disastrous floods, which presents us with the irony of having too much water of the wrong kind -- much as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ancient mariner had experienced:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
As this essential resource dwindles, two related phenomena take hold. First, military strategists overtly cite "resource control" as a principle aim of national security, blithely observing that conflicts to attain it will dominate the coming decades. Secondly, at the same time, multinational corporations are pumping water as fast as possible, turning a previously common resource into one that is privatized and engendering a global commodity trade that gives new meaning to "liquidity." In both cases, the aim is to wrest water supplies away from localities and set up a distribution system that simultaneously turns a profit and forces people to become dependent on others for a basic need.
It's bad enough to watch public goods such as energy, education, health care, and the airwaves become privatized. But when it reaches the level of water, we're talking about something that no one can do without under any circumstance. This raises the stakes considerably and threatens to tighten the sense of blackmail that often pervades the machinations of the military-industrial complex. Yes, President Eisenhower warned us about this as he prepared to leave office, but it doesn't seem as if we've done a whole lot to prevent his prophecy from materializing.