The State and Water Politics (Print Version)
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, April
15, 2010, No 277.

When European settlers first settled at the southern tip of Africa, they were met by a group of local Africans who lived off the land and the sea as hunters, gatherers, and fisherman. At a later time, they discovered another group of African who lived in the northeastern regions on the fringe of the grasslands and herded cattle for food. The European settlers had knowledge of irrigation, dams and agriculture. They built private dams on what they claimed as their property and used irrigation to sustain their crops.

While the southern tip of Africa essentially enjoyed a Mediterranean climate, the weather patterns in other locations within the same area were vastly different. The northeastern region underwent repeated annual cycles of drought and flood, but the innovative use of irrigation, along with private dams on private property, allowed European settlers to practice agriculture. During the early years of British and European expansion across much of the United States, South America and Australia, settlers used the same methods to sustain agriculture.

In one region in Australia, the territorial government outlawed private dams on private property and built its own large mega dams. During severe drought, however, the high rate of evaporation and seepage from the mega dams literally exposed the dry dam floors. By comparison, evaporation from covered private dams on private property was minimal, as was seepage that anyway could be put to productive use to sustain some form of agricultural production.

Changing Weather Patterns

Much of the world has in recent years experienced some type of change in local weather patterns. Historically, not all societies and nations coped well with changing weather patterns. Despite their incredible technical prowess, the Maya and Inca in many locations across South and Central America were forced to migrate in response to sudden changes in weather patterns. In modern times, governments have also proven to be inept at managing changing climate.

Throughout most of Africa, large segments of the population still survive the way their ancestors survived. The concept of communal property still predominates across much of the continent. Private covered dams on private property are rare outside of regions where Europeans had practiced agriculture. While a few state-built dams exist, across much of Africa, most of the population still obtains water from rivers, streams and groundwater.

State Water Policies

State-built mega dams in hot climates are subject to high rates of evaporation and seepage. To protect the water, most governments forbid any kind of residential or agricultural development near the dam wall, where seepage would be greatest. The result is that seepage water often evaporates instead of being put to productive use. Simultaneously, germ- and disease-infected birds may have easy access to the water in the dam.

The Southwestern United States currently faces a water shortage at a time when farmers receive subsidized water. Instead of providing water to their plants using underground water distribution, they spray water through the air or distribute water through above ground channels. Both methods involve water loss through evaporation. But the subsidized water program is regarded as politically sacred and therefore untouchable.

Technology and Water

There are several low-cost technological methods that exist for water provision and storage. Dew fences are installed across the valleys of many coastal mountains in Chile to provide water for villages. The water is collected from mist and fog that winds carry from Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. Such technology could be adapted for use in coastal mountains at many other locations around the world.

Thermal power stations that produce steam also generate much waste heat that may be productively used to desalinate seawater. Desalination provides most of the potable water in several Middle Eastern countries located between the Red Sea and The Gulf. The technology of thermal desalination is expected to spread worldwide as the demand for potable water increases.

Private Development

Private developers have built exclusive gated communities in many parts of the world. A desalination plant provides potable water to an island community off the coast of California where seawater is used to flush toilets. Private developers have also begun to build business and commercial districts in select locations in India and China. Recent advances in cost-competitive, small-site thermal power generation technology will allow developers to provide electric power and desalinated potable water to their clientele who will occupy buildings at coastal locations, with toilets flushed using seawater.

The range of power generation technologies include micro-turbine engines that can operate at the thermal efficiency levels of multi-mega-watt power stations, and mini-nuclear technology from companies such as Toshiba and NuScale Power. Solar salt ponds are among the least expensive forms of solar energy that can be used to generate electric power and/or desalinate seawater. Whereas fresh water reflects solar thermal radiation, highly saline water absorbs it. The pond floor can reach 90 C or 194 F, enough to drive a heat engine or energize a desalination plant.

For private entrepreneurs to develop cost-competitive business districts and attractive residential accommodations in regions where potable water is scarce, governments need to allow for entrepreneurial freedom to prevail without the constraints of state economic regulation. India and China may be willing to allow for such entrepreneurial freedom in select locations. If the demand for potable water increases, exhaust heat from thermal power stations at coastal locations and trapped heat from coastal salt ponds may provide the energy required by thermal desalination plants.

The Canadian cod fish industry collapsed while being subject to regulation by the federal government, proving the downside of state control over a resource. Several African nations experienced famine courtesy of government policies during times when water was actually available. As much as private water development may be despised by some well-intentioned elites, it offers hope and new opportunities to many parts of the world that face the prospect of prolonged drought.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.