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Global water crisis: too little, too much, or lack of a plan?

The global water crisis – caused by drought, flood, and climate change – is less about supply than it is about recognizing water's true value, using it efficiently, and planning for a different future, say experts.

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If these problems are not managed, food supplies could decline, the risk of waterborne diseases could increase, and energy shortages might hamper growth. (More than 15 countries rely on hydropower to generate at least 80 percent of their electricity. And, in the US, nuclear, hydroelectric, coal-fired, and gas-fired power plants account for half of water withdrawals.)

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Pessimistic scenarios may be averted

But the picture may not be as bad as it seems. While the projections about the growing global water crisis drastically underestimate how bad things really are, says Upmanu Lall, director of the Water Center at Columbia University, they also underestimate the scale of waste and the water efficiency improvements that could make adaptation easier.

"Things could actually be worse than what these guys are putting out," says Professor Lall. "They are too optimistic about the current situation compared to what it actually is. And they're too pessimistic about the situation for the future ... I do see a way to get there."

That's what he's learned from much of his work on water issues in India, which he calls "a basket case for water." He adds: "You could actually eliminate water stress in India if you were just a little bit smarter about which places you were procuring which crops from."

Science, he says, is part of the solution: Agricultural efficiency can be drastically improved with a better mix of what is grown where, accounting for geography, water constraints, and income; governments will have a role to play in setting economic signals to promote conservation and the right mix of crops, and regulation to ensure access in urban and rural areas; cheap soil-moisture sensors could improve agricultural water efficiency by 10 to 15 percent by reducing waste in irrigation systems; recycled waste water could save in the billions of dollars that the US spends purifying water up to drinking quality even though only 10 percent is used for drinking and cooking; flood-control systems can be repurposed to store water.

But most important, says Lall, "the economics of it has to be sorted out." Water allocations for personal consumption and ecological preservation should be protected, he said, but about 75 percent of water consumed globally should be subject to more competitive pricing. In a sense, he argues, water should be treated like oil, allowing developers a guaranteed allocation as an incentive to develop it. About a quarter of water supplies should be protected to ensure people have water for drinking and to preserve ecology, he says. But everyone – from the home-owner watering the lawn to big industry and agriculture – should pay more for water.

Instability, conflict, and economic stagnation may be the prod societies need before they adapt, says Lall.

He deems the US system for allocating water rights as "not too bad." Where those rights were not tradable, he says, "things are a mess."

Some states – Arizona, California, Idaho, and Texas – have water banks that facilitate leases between rights-holders and users. But since these water banks don't incorporate forecasting, they fail to make deals until a drought begins. What the US needs, says Lall, is a national water policy that incorporates forecasts, trading mechanisms, options, and the coordinated use of both surface and ground-water resources.

While the tools and strategies exist to cope with the impending pressures of a warmer and more populous planet, Lall says, "the question is, will we do it right?"

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