Hard Wisdom for Scarce Water

Unlike other commodities, the price of water is very often a political decision, subject to the influence of interest groups that lobby for subsidies. As long as these distortions persist, new technologies will struggle to compete.

CAMBRIDGE – In California, residential consumers are being fined for wasting water. The goal is to combat a severe drought by reducing residential consumption by 20%. The trouble is that residential water use accounts for less than 15% of total consumption. The rest is used mainly for agriculture. Even if the desired cuts are achieved, they will account for less than 3% of total demand – a drop in an otherwise empty bucket.

Meanwhile, in China, some 30,000 workers are trying to change the weather, attempting to seed clouds from airplanes or using anti-aircraft guns to shoot shells into the air, hoping to coax some rain from the sky. There is no statistical proof that this type of weather manipulation works, but cloud seeders are also busy in the United States, mainly in the west.

These pointless policies are what I have come to call “political placebos”: attempts by governments to demonstrate to their citizens that they are doing something – anything! – to alleviate water shortages. Placebos may have their place in medicine, but when they distract from efforts to address the underlying malady, they can do more harm than good. Measures like those in California are like instructing police officers to blare their sirens wherever they drive to create the impression that crime is being fought. As climate change leads to deeper and more frequent droughts, the resulting water shortages will require new, sometimes difficult, solutions that go beyond futile attempts to placate the public.

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