Water reallocation is a necessity for management of water as an economy develops and changes, particularly in meeting national and global food security, and potential changes in water distribution due to climate change. Traditionally, water resource development has been geared to mobilisation of water from the natural environment to provide blue water for productive use in agriculture, and society’s needs in industry, urban and other domestic requirements. The trajectory taken by many advanced economies has been effectively conceptualised by Allan (2001, 2003), and also embodies the idea of ‘Peak Water’ (Gleick and Palaniappan 2010). The trajectory sees water diversions rise significantly during the development phase, and then reduce during a politically complex process of reallocating water resources (Gilmont and Antonelli, 2013). The impacts and costs of how this development trajectory has been realised during the 20th century has important implications for agricultural and other development trajectories in emerging economies.
Water Allocation Paradigms
Five paradigms of water development have been characterised by Allan (2003): The pre-modern, the hydraulic mission, environmental awareness, economic reform and institutional and political reform. The last three stages involve paying attention to environmental stewardship and the consequential need to restore water from over-abstracted environments, and shift water to higher value uses while minimising negative social and economic impact. The paradigms are proposed by Allan as being sequenced and exclusive – see for example Allan 2003, Figure One. However evidence from history suggests that overlapping and co-evolving behaviours are a more accurate reflection of reality. Examples of incorporating overlapping paradigms include Turton et al. 2007 and Brown et al. (1998) who present new management paradigms co-existing with previous behaviours.
This era is characterised by local development and control of water resources. Social and agricultural water needs are met by direct abstraction from rivers (surface water) or wells (ground water) with small scale storages, including in cisterns and local reservoirs. Direct in-stream or near stream power generation from water wheels is a further pre-modern behaviour. Control by local landowners or communities, or religious bodies and customs, provided a social and legal check on water use (Newson, 1992).
The hydraulic mission refers to the mass-mobilisation of water resources for productive use, with transfer of large volumes of water in space (through canals or pipelines) or time (through dams). A large-scale mobilisation of water requires centralised control of resources at a basin or even cross-basin scale. Historic examples of hydraulic mission behaviour are ancient irrigation civilisations such as those in the Middle East and Asia. More recent examples, emerging during the late 19th century and taking-off in the mid 20th century include significant water transfers in the Western United States, enabling desert agriculture to flourish, and cities including Los Angeles and Las Vegas to grow to levels unsustainable with locally available water resources. Dams built on the Colorado provide inter-annual storage to maintain supplies, with the Hoover Dam being a prominent example. The development of dam-based irrigation in Australia’s Murray Darling basin commenced in the 1920s, but massively expanded after World War 2, especially from the 1950s to late 1970s. Elsewhere, in Central Asia, the abstraction of water from the rivers feeding the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton, provide a further example of the hydraulic mission. Globally approximately 50,000 dams have been built since 1900, with capacity to store around 6,000km3 of water (WWF, 2013).
In regions where surface water is limited, the hydraulic mission has also mobilised ground water. The use of groundwater has enabled the further development of irrigation. Certain instance of development have mobilised ‘fossil groundwater’. These aquifers were established by rainfall under previous climatic regimes and are no longer replenished. This unsustainable source of water development has been an important source for recent irrigation expansion in the gulf (Woertz, 2013).
Irrigation development has been demonstrated to deliver quick increases in agricultural output. Therefore irrigation expansion presents an attractive means to increase agricultural production in areas where productivity is low, including future expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa (Keulertz and Sojamo, 2013). In particular, foreign investors view the quick increase in agricultural yields through irrigation as a secure return on investment and meeting food security needs (Hoffmann, 2013).
The extraction of water from the natural environment during the hydraulic mission exposes environmental limits, and often results in significant environmental degradation. The disappearance of the Aral Sea is a globally extreme example of environmental over abstraction. Nearly every major irrigation development will have some degree of environmental externality associated with it. Other examples of environmental decline include the reduction of flows in the River Jordan and the consequential lowering of the Dead Sea, the closure of the mouth of Australia’s River Murray, and the significant decline of the Ogallala aquifer in the Western United States due to pumping of water to meet irrigation demands. In democratic political contexts, decline of environmental resources is associated with raised social and political awareness, leading to attempts, initially to halt decline and protect remaining ecosystem services. Without democratic accountability and social awareness, as is the case with the Aral Sea, over abstraction continues unchecked.
Examples of early environmental protection include the United States Wild and Scenic Rivers of 1968, whereby complete rivers or particular stretches of rivers were protected from water development (National Wild and Scenic Rivers System 2013). The 1983 Tasmanian Dam’s Cast, a legal battle between the Australian Government and State of Tasmania, halted the construction of a new hydro-electric dam on environmental grounds (High Court of Australia, 1983). The legacy of the case has been the absence of new large dams proposed or constructed in Australia.
The pressures for continued expansion or maintenance of supply volumes mean that environmental sentiments at best slow water development and limit further environmental decline. Historically environmental attention alone is not shown to halt or reverse existing decline.
The limits of environmentally motivated actions are that while further development can potentially be checked, rectifying degradation involves redressing the over-abstraction that caused or contributed to that degradation. This rectification involves reallocating water, which becomes a political, rather than a challenge (Allan, 2003). This next state of reallocation was first experienced in advanced economies in the 1980s, at the height of the neoliberal market-orientated solutions. Economic instruments became the primary tool of attempting reallocation by introducing a price on water.
Key economically-based instruments include block rate water pricing and water trading to shift water allocation patterns. Block rate pricing, primarily used in urban settings involves charging initial use at a lower rate, with higher volumes of use charged at progressively higher rates, disincentivising higher water uses. Water trade, primarily used in agricultural and inter-regional demand management involves the transfer of water between agricultural or urban users under a system of willing buyers and willing sellers. The market value of water also incentivises farmers to invest in improving irrigation efficiency, increasing the amount of crop per drop of water. Early examples include California’s San Joaquin Valley, with state-facilitated water-banks initially used to assist with alleviating drought stress (Wichelns, 2006). Australia’s Murray-Darling basin provides the largest scale example of the adoption of water trade, initiated with reforms in 1994, and developing over the subsequent decades. Recent work by Garrick et al. (2013) however illustrates the high political and financial transaction costs associated with initiating and maintaining and functioning market, with continued government-led investment needed to support market operation. Water markets therefore may not necessarily be considered the low-cost means of reallocation they were initially thought to be.
Political and Institutional reform
The limits of the market to act as a sole effective instrument of reallocation have initiated a further stage of reform. This reform has focused on revisiting fundamental political behaviours and institutional and organisational structures that underpin water allocation and management. Reform can be designed to realign institutional structures with addressing allocation of water rather than expansion of water resources, and increase coordination of reallocation. Where this final stage has been adopted, it has often proven to be politically contentious and invariably costly.
Key examples of recent institutional reform include:
- South Africa’s 1997 Water Services Act – delivering on revised state priorities in the post Apartheid era, establishing a framework for state-based allocation, equitable access, sustainable use, protection of water quality and integrated management (Republic of South Africa, 1998).
- California’s 2000 CALFED process – coordinating water management in the Sacramento Bay Delta System, through a partnership between state and federal bodies (CALFED Bay Delta Program, 2000). The program has dual goals of ecosystem protection and water supply reliability, but suffered from an early politically driven reduction in federal support (Kallis et al., 2009)
- Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin in 2007 – replacement of state-based management structure in place since 1915, with federally-controlled Basin Authority, responsible for determining Sustainable Diversion Limits for the basin (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007).
The development of water to an unsustainable peak, characterised by Allan’s Five-stage model also knits to the idea of ‘Peak Water’ development by the scientists Peter Gleick and Meena Palaniappan (2010). The idea identifies three peaks in water development: peak renewable water governed by limits of flows, peak non-renewable water governed by abstraction exceeding recharge and peak ecological water governed by the relative costs of ecological damage versus value of production gained through water use. Gleick and Palaniappan identify that many water basins have or are on a trajectory to exceed their peak production. They cited the United States which overall is now experiencing a decline in water abstractions.
The idea of peak water mirrors the five stage of water development, with the hydraulic mission generating a development of peak water, followed by attempts to reallocate that over allocated water. Reallocating water to remedy over-abstraction, while maintaining agricultural production necessary to meet food needs requires investing in efficiency and changed irrigation practices.
Implications for Developing Economies
Traditional water development trajectories, with focus on irrigation-led agriculture, tend to lead to over-abstraction of water from the environment. This requires politically and economically costly remedies, and the permanent cost of environmental damage which can never be fully repaired.
Agricultural development needs to be perused in a way that avoids a ‘peak water’ scenario. Rather than traditional water development based on a hydraulic mission trajectory, a cheaper long-term trajectory can be achieved using sustainable intensification. A development pathway of sustainable intensification would use the knowledge and capacity acquired through the mistakes of past development experiences as a means of generating more environmentally and socially sustainable development pathways. This behaviour would avoid what Gilmont and Antonelli (2013) observe as “paying twice for the same water or productive capacity” (p.409), that has occurred in many advanced economies including Australia and the United States, as a result of a Peak Water scenario having been confronted. The lessons from attempting to remedy over-abstraction caused by 20th century development indicate that focusing on single goals or tools, for example environmental protection or economic instruments alone, have proved ineffective. The multi-faceted policies of sustainable intensification, combining environmental goals, economic instruments, and appropriate institutional structures need to be recognised by governments and communities and international agencies engaged in agricultural and water resource development.
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