Is Water the Next Oil

Spike Narayan-


Spike Narayan

Spike Narayan is a seasoned hi-tech executive managing exploratory research in science and technology at IBM.

For many of us in the Indian diaspora who immigrated to the US a few decades ago, water was not a topic of conversation when we were growing up in India nor was it one when we came to this country and were focusing on our families and careers in the 80s and 90s. Not only was it a non-issue but it was plentiful and taken for granted for good reason.

Growing up as a child in India and taking the train for our summer vacations I fondly remember jumping off the train at stations and taking a drink of water from a platform water faucet and filling up our water bottles to last us till the next station. There was never a word of caution about drinking the water. Moving to this country in the 80s, in my case to Pennsylvania and later to New York, water as a resource in abundance. Greenery was everywhere and neighborhoods were lined with houses with large well-manicured lawns. In addition, water was a “free” utility in that there was no monthly water bill! As a surprise to many, there is no water bill for residents in New York City even today! By the turn of the century (or millennium in this case), however, everything changed – both in India and in many parts of the US. What really happened in these short 20 years?.

The answer, as you might suspect, is quite complex. Without too much effort, one can rattle off a number of factors (all intertwined) like climate change, unpredictable rainfall, population growth, urbanization and farming need to name just a few. While all these are true to varying degrees, their interplay can be quite different depending on which part of the world you are in. Recently Bloomberg published a detailed view on global water stress and where we are headed if we do not act with a sense of urgency. That said, the water quality and quantity in India have reached near crisis levels and parts of the US like the southwestern states are seeing unprecedented water stress. While water shortage is the most visible effect, like in California, there are other insidious factors that are starting to impact water quality in many parts of the US.

The most notable example in the recent past is the lead poisoning in city water in Flint, Michigan. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began in 2014, when the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move. The lead was not a contaminant in the river but was leached out from the aging pipes that were used to transport the water to the homes. The ensuing drama has many political overtones and is not a topic of this article. There are other even more unpredictable factors like arsenic poisoning which is not necessarily man-made as receding water tables come in contact with new sub-surface geology like in Bangladesh and in Louisiana.

In the southwestern US, the water stress is due to different factors and dominated by years of dry winters, excessive consumption/waste and politically motivated water supply restrictions for farming. Let us dig a little deeper into these aspects. The changing weather patterns and unpredictable rains in the winter months are one where we have the least control but consumption and policies have a lot to do with if it leads to drought or not. The average per capita water needs in the world is about 50 liters/day. In sharp contrast, it is 360 liters/day in the US – more than 7 times the global average!! Europe is closer to the global average. As we speak, the water shortage in California is acute and yet lawn watering has not stopped! It is true that in California 80% of the water is used by farming as pointed out by The Washington Post and so the Post asks “is it  worth squeezing the cities when farms consume 80 percent of the water that people use in California, while they generate only 2 percent of its economic activity?”

Certainly a debatable question and can drive policy decisions that will impact drought conditions. To further complicate situations, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has an Endangered Species Protection (ESP) program that drives more policy decisions at the state level that influences the free flow of water from the Sierras and the Delta regions of the state. As stated on their website “The State Water Project (SWP) is operated in a manner that protects endangered and threatened species under the State and federal endangered species acts. DWR does this in part through compliance with a permit granted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). The permit, called the Incidental Take Permit (ITP), represents a novel but prudent way for the SWP to ensure species protection — through science, collaboration and transparency — while protecting water delivery to millions of Californians”. In short, state agencies and political agendas do not necessarily work together to ease drought conditions. It is hard to argue that state water consumption levels should not be tempered in parallel as well.

In closing, the access to clean water has become a global crisis and it happened in a relatively short span of time uniformly under the watch of all the political leaders the world over. The pace of the onset of shortages is quite rapid  for governments to react with their 5 and 10-year plans. That said, there is now a sense of urgency and some level of a feeling of helplessness. The water quality and strategy still rests mostly with local and city governments and there is bound to be some level of inconsistencies across states and municipalities for the near future till it becomes a national initiative. If scarcities go unchecked then water will become a geopolitical instrument like oil is now.