When the Political Levee Breaks
If this year’s flooding and wildfires came as a surprise to inhabitants of rich countries, that is because the modern political compact was built on effective water management. As natural forces overwhelm these countries’ infrastructure, their political institutions will come under growing strain.
LONDON – Swaths of Europe are flooded, and the American west is engulfed in heat, fire, and drought. Wealthy countries are experiencing what many developing countries have always known: a changing climate can become quickly unmanageable when our control of water fails.
Following this summer’s disasters, political leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Oregon Governor Kate Brown have duly called for accelerating the global fight against climate change. But while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is urgently needed, it isn’t enough. Wealthy communities’ loss of water security is evidence not only of a changing climate but also of a broader political failure.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, everyone was routinely exposed to difficult climate conditions. The west of the United States, for example, was largely uninhabitable for those accustomed to mild climates. The orchards of California’s Imperial Valley were still to come, their rich soils baked dry into an unplowable crust. The cities that now occupy the region’s deserts – San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix – were waterless outposts that could not support anything near their modern populations.