The thirst to rethink droughts

From Finland to South Africa, residents have shown that lack of water is mainly a dry spell of imagination about being in harmony with nature.

A member of Navajo Nation gets water for his livestock during a drought in Gap, Arizona.

Nearly half of the continental United States is experiencing prolonged drought, according to federal scientists. Precipitation models predict that winter will provide little relief in much of the West and South. An independent study found the last two decades in the Southwest to be the driest continuous stretch since the 1500s.

On the other side of the continent, half of the Northeast had reached the levels of “severe” or “extreme” by September. At this moment, 72 million Americans are living in drought conditions. Globally, more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing what the United Nations calls high water stress.

The effects of climate change are neither consistent nor uniform. In recent years, for example, the Midwest has experienced both widespread flooding and persistent drought. Yet as water experts grapple with understanding these unusual weather patterns, assumptions about water are shifting as well. As Jens Berggren, a Swedish sustainability expert, told Deutsche Welle, “It’s not a lack of water per se, it’s a lack of water governance.” If people could reduce water use by almost half, he said, that would “give ample opportunity to meet all our needs.”

Last year researchers in Finland asked a novel question: Can there be water scarcity with an abundance of water? Despite Finland having ample water resources and typically no significant dry season, the study found that local drought-like effects were being caused by population concentration, drainage of wetlands, and inefficient water use. The finding led to a rethink of human development in order to find a balance with water resources.

A good example of a place that did reset its harmony with nature is Cape Town, South Africa. In March 2018, following three years of severe drought, the city’s main reservoir had fallen to 11% capacity. This month it reached overflow capacity. A return of better-than-average rainfall helped, but the real change was civic. The city imposed strict water-use practices, and residents quickly adapted. Researchers of this mass shift found “thirsty participants share water more often equally with powerless, anonymous others than they do money.” Cape Town is now better poised to avoid water stress because people created different lifestyles.

Adapting to a changing planet requires more than a physical response to scarcity. It entails seeing abundance in people’s ability to innovate, join together in common cause, and be open to letting go of destructive behavior. Those traits are not scarce. And neither is humanity’s ability to draw upon them.

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