#TBT: 2016, when we could no longer see water problems as “just” science or engineering
It is arguable that water issues have never been “just” a matter for science and engineering, but 2016 certainly marks a turning point: the biggest water stories in the past year cannot be fully understood without broad understanding of the political, social, economic, indeed, cultural, dimensions that they raise.
Writing in Circle of Blue, Keith Schneider’s year-end summary illustrates a number of points that clarify how water issues have grown to encompass important new perspectives. The two biggest water stories in the United States, the crises at Flint MI and Standing Rock ND, both illustrate failures of the old ways in which water has been managed as well as the emergence of new voices, coalitions, and social movements to seek broad-based structural change. Related to these headline stories, Schneider sees patterns of changing investment in multi-billion dollar water infrastructure projects, “stranded assets” as global energy sources shift, and emerging civic opposition to mismanaged water projects as trends taking place across the globe. Furthermore, he notes how drought has ravaged countries and economies on nearly every continent. In the U.S., we tend to hear only about California’s drought; similar conditions in Zimbabwe, along the Mekong, and in India are equally dire.
Closer to home, Brett Walton writes that water affordability has become a “new Civil Rights movement in the United States.” Again, Flint and Standing Rock have grabbed the headlines, but across much of the country water rates have risen much faster than other segments of the economy, putting stress on low income families particularly in the Midwest and New England. With water infrastructure repair bills estimated in the trillions coming up in the next decade or so, the stage is set for ongoing debate.
Both of these stories really deserve to be read carefully, and the myriad links and references followed thoroughly. Together, they set a stage for innovative research, education and policy development that is much more inclusive than we have previously seen. Citizen involvement in water governance will have to grow and evolve, perhaps through traditional means such as public meetings and community activism, perhaps through forms not yet imagined. Water is life, and if we are going to understand how and by whom it is managed, there is a sea change of awareness and action needed.