The Water Wars are Here

September 2020

As we write in mid-September, Hurricane Sally has stretches of the US Gulf Coast well under water, and Japan is still recovering from the flooding of Typhoon Haishen.  Yet while way too much water is the problem in some places, not enough water is the big problem elsewhere.  A Washington Post headline on September 15 captures the latest example: “Mexican famers occupy dam to stop water payments to the United States.”  Infrastructure Ideas believes we’ll see many more of these types of headlines, and in this issue we’ll explore some of the implications for infrastructure.

The ongoing conflict in the Mexican state of Chihuahua featured in the news is tied to a long-standing, complex arrangement.  Under a water-sharing treaty signed in 1944, Mexico and the United States annually send water for irrigation across the border in both directions – three-quarters flowing south to Mexico.  The issue which has flared up now is the different geography of water flows: Mexico’s share is sent north from the Rio Grande and Conchas rivers, mostly from Chihuahua, while the US share is sent south from the Colorado River elsewhere along the border.  Local farmers in Chihuahua have occupied the Boquilla dam, on the Conchas River, to protest the central government’s sending water across the border.  Mexico’s national guard was sent to clear out the protesters, killed one protester and failed to dislodge the farmers.  A leader of the protest said “We tried to have a dialogue, but nobody listened to us.  We are prepared to stay here and defend our rights to this water.”  A second protest broke out this past weekend at the Cuidad Juárez border bridge, demanding justice for the death at Boquilla and the cessation of water flows.

Mexican Riot Police Guard Dam in Chihuahua (Washington Post)

Leaving aside the specifics of the Chihuahua situation, one does not need to go far to observe similar protests.  Driving last week in record-breaking heat along California’s Central Valley, we could see every twenty miles or so, interspersed among the unending line of fruit orchards, signs calling for more dam-building to provide water to the Valley’s farmers. 

Published in the New York Times

In the American West, conflicts over insufficient water supplies have raged for over a century, though not coming (at least recently) to the armed conflict appearing in Chihuahua.  As Climate Change creates more drought conditions in more places, these conflicts will only grow.  While some of the coverage of the issue tends to melodramatic and/or dystopian, the science behind what will happen and where is getting much more precise.  Over 500 past and present water-related conflicts are catalogued by, and earlier this year a new analytical tool was launched to help predict where such conflicts might arise, and it is not too early to focus on the practical infrastructure consequences.

We see five principal implications from these growing water shortages for infrastructure:

  1. more demand for long-distance water transport
  2. lower reliability of the same, and need for investors to focus not only on support from political leaders, but also broader support from local population,
  3. more demand for local/smaller dams
  4. greater focus on efficiency of water infrastructure
  5. a push for more widespread pricing of water

Let’s look at each of these implications in turn.

More demand for long-distance water transport.  Three inter-related drivers will create growing demand for water pipelines and canals: increased Climate-Change related water-stress in many places, population growth, and continued growing urbanization.  These drivers will mean that at the same time cities demand more water for taps and showerheads while farmlands demand more water to grow the food that increased numbers of city-dwellers consume.  Local water sources, whether from rivers or underground water tables, in many areas either are failing to keep up with demand growth or diminishing altogether.  Cities have historically found it more politically expedient to address such problems first by buying needed water from elsewhere, before asking their citizens to change their ways.  In some cases that elsewhere can be a very long ways away: the longest water pipeline today is the “Great Man-Made River,” which stretches over 1,000 miles and provides water to the main cities of Libya.  It will soon have a rival for this distinction, as the “North-South Water Transfer Project” in China, under construction since 2015, aims to deliver water to China’s southern cities over close to 2,000 miles of pipelines.  The Trans-Africa Pipeline (TAP), now on the drawing board, seeks to pump water across the Sahel over an even longer 5,000 miles.  Most future pipeline projects won’t be this long, but they will still be long enough to very expensive, both in construction and operation – as moving water across long distances is highly energy-intensive (when water is not being pumped up hills, dampers have to slow the water on downhills).  Both the politics and the economics of these projects will be immensely challenging, but nonetheless we can expect to see their numbers rise.

Lower reliability of long-distance water transport arrangements.  More demand is not the same as more reliability.  The current conflict in Chihuahua perfectly illustrates the dynamics that are likely to accompany a number of water pipelines or canals.  Recipients insist on receiving their contracted allotments, climate change creates unforeseen water stresses in the area sending water out, and local populations protest decisions made by central authorities elsewhere.  For those relying on the pipelines, or in the case of private financing those investing in the projects, the lesson is to not rely solely on agreements made by central political leaders, but to understand the degree of support from the local population in the area from which the water is coming.  This political risk will layer on top of good old-fashioned construction risk, with high chances of major delays and cost overruns in these types of projects, while Global Warming will increase evaporation in many canal-based systems (between 2000 and 2014, the inflow to the Colorado River went down by nearly 20%, with 1/3 of that reduction from global warming).  Infrastructure Ideas has also written previously about the growing cyber-risks associated with some infrastructure systems, and long-distance water transport control systems could be a prime area of vulnerability.

More demand for local/smaller dams.  Where bringing water from far away is too difficult, too expensive, and/or risky, we will see demand for local authorities to create insurance in the form of more close-by reservoirs.  The current advocacy by large-scale agro-industry in California Central Valley is one of many examples.  In many cases, such projects will be politically appealing, but not always likely to solve the underlying problem – dams not receiving enough supply of water will themselves become dry, which is part of the problem at the moment in Chihuahua.  Dam-building also suffers from a high degree of construction delay and cost overrun risk, and potential co-benefits from dams which may be argued by producing clean energy are likely to bump into the increasingly unattractive cost of new hydropower generation.  Nonetheless, we expect that political appeal will see an increase in this type of infrastructure projects.

A greater focus on efficiency of water infrastructure.  Efficiency has historically been the poor stepchild of the water sector.  Up to 30-50% of water supplies are lost in pipelines, whether long-distance or simply in consumer distribution systems, due to a combination of poor management and other priorities.  Among other things, shiny new pipelines or treatment stations have always looked politically more appealing than the nitty-gritty of reducing leaks.  As more places feel the pinch on water supplies, and the difficulties of executing large construction projects such as pipelines and dams become more apparent, we can expect efficiency to climb up in priority.  There is no shortage of examples of better technology and practices from which city authorities or water management companies can choose.  Among others, miniaturized, submersible drones are likely to become in high demand as a tool for reducing the costs and improving the speed of finding and fixing leaks (see Infrastructure Ideas’ “The Drones are Here” for previous coverage).

More widespread pricing of water.  “Free water” is an idea which is politically and ethically appealing.  In low income areas, the argument for free water will remain strong.  Yet at the same time, the absence of economic incentives for avoiding the waste of water – especially for large users – has long been an impediment to water conservation and efficiency.  For the same reasons as discussed immediately above, one can expect that a greater focus on efficiency of water infrastructure will be accompanied by a push for more widespread pricing of water.  This in turn will enable more cities and regions to tap into private capital for financing a part of their growing bills for water infrastructure – if they can overcome political resistance.  As has been seen in many places, that resistance is often the fiercest coming from large users, and not from poorer segments of the population.

It would be nice to be able to give a sixth likely infrastructure implication from the growing incidence of water conflicts: greater policy coordination.  The non-existence of such coordination or cooperation in many places is a large factor the spreading geography of water shortage, the American West being one of the most prominent examples.  Unwillingness of political actors to speak with each other, or the inability to maintain such dialogue consistently, bedevils water use from the Nile to the Himalayas to Indochina.  Regrettably, with populism on the rise in so many places, trailing unilateralist tendencies in its wake, it seems hard to imagine greater policy coordination on the horizon anytime soon.  One can always hope.

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