Why we need a new paradigm for water resource management

The way we solve complex problems is not immune from bias. This is well known in the scientific literature. For example, we used to ride horses, so we invented a “saddle” draped over the back of the horse. Then came the wheel, and we invented a bicycle, so we used the horse analog and called the seat a “saddle”, even though it is profoundly uncomfortable and not the ideal solution.

So, paradigms matter. They create an intellectual scaffold that we use to connect concepts and ideas when we develop solutions. They create a filter through which we view problems and they tacitly pre-select solutions.

Over the last century we have developed modern economies by essentially building dams and burning coal to generate steam to create electricity. Dams and fossil fuels are the very foundation of our modern economy, but both are now running into severe limitations, mostly of an ecological nature. In short, these two “solutions” are now driving a family of “problems”, best captured under the broad banner of the Paradigm of Scarcity.

In essence the Paradigm of Scarcity is about chasing a dwindling resource. It is a clumsy response to a growing population base, but it also remains blind to that simple fact; and it fails to allow other more modern technologies to be considered in the first place. Stated simply, if the only tool in your workshop is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

If we have “water scarcity” we logically think we simply need more “dams”. But what happens when all the rivers have been reduced to a cascade of dams, and a warming climate triggers accelerated loss due to evaporation? Then what happens when the ecological processes collapse, because they need a natural flood pulse to sustain themselves? Then what happens when these severely altered aquatic ecosystems become receiving bodies for masses of untreated sewage? Then what happens when estuaries become hyper-saline, because of the loss of freshwater inflows, triggering a collapse of ocean ecological systems such as the spawning of species that later migrate to sea to become food for people elsewhere? Then what happens when the aquifers are sucked dry, and the last remaining groundwater-dependent ecosystems crash, leaving nothing but a desert populated by angry people banded together in marauding parties fighting over what is left?

This is the logical outcome of the Paradigm of Scarcity, and it is upon us whether we choose to accept it or not.

However, in South Africa our Paradigm of Scarcity is underpinned by a Culture of Impunity, driven by the political system in which decisions are made. That Culture of Impunity means that no new ideas are tolerated. It also means that the decision-makers are not informed by the best available science, engineering and technology advisors, simply because those advisors are part of the Culture of Impunity. They survive off the flow of resources given to them by the decision-making elites, thereby becoming powerful gatekeepers that control the flow of information into the black box of decision-making.

This Culture of Impunity is inextricably linked with the Politics of Patronage – in which the resources of the state, typically taxes collected by the fiscus, are diverted to the select few.

This is how State Capture has occurred, in which power is derived from controlling access to the trough from which the connected few are allowed to feed, in return for the patronage they give in sustaining that parasitic system.

By being blind to changing population dynamics, the Paradigm of Scarcity inadvertently, but also logically, becomes the quest for an increasingly small slice of a pie that cannot be made bigger. This becomes self-defeating because it eventually drives away investors, causing the economy to stagnate and putrefy.

State Capture hastens the process of demise, because the energy that sustains the system – taxpayers’ money diverted from the fiscus to the trough-feeders – starts to dwindle to the point where the economy collapses, jobs are lost, revenues to SARS decrease and we no longer have the money needed to fund the very technology on which our future survival depends.

In the Political Science literature this is called a zero-sum game, where the gains of one equate to the loss of another. Tennis works like that, where there can ultimately be only one winner. In economics literature, this is called Malthusianism.

The Paradigm of Abundance is based on the cumulative knowledge of more than a century of technological innovation made possible by the First Industrial Revolution, now accelerated by the Knowledge Economy. More importantly, the Paradigm of Abundance is based on robust science that tells us water is a flux, moving in time and space. This means that water is an infinite resource, unlike fossil fuel. It can be replenished and reused, theoretically an infinite number of times. All that we need to do this is to embrace the very best science, engineering and technology, to create a new hydraulic foundation to our national economy. That foundation is what I call a Dual Stream Reticulation Economy, in which water of different quality and price, is used for different purposes in different parts of our economy.

More importantly, the Paradigm of Abundance is based on a Culture of Accountability. This replaces the existing gatekeeping elites with a new breed of technologically and financially savvy people, who understand that water is essentially like capital, in that it flows to the highest value user over time. Both water and money flow. This is a profoundly important concept that is central to the Paradigm of Abundance. Hydrologists and financial analysts are two peas in the same pod, using almost identical tools to describe different things that are inextricably linked.

The Paradigm of Abundance recognises that the core problem being addressed is not water scarcity, but rather the relationship between the water that is available, and the growing population that it has to sustain. Of even greater significance, it recognizes that water is not just something that people drink. It is the foundation of the very economy and social fabric that holds us together in a stable enough structure to avert the catastrophic chaos of overpopulation.

The Paradigm of Abundance therefore understands that water is needed for food production, as well as every other element in a modern diversified economy. More importantly, the clever financial analysts are now able to quantify the relative “return to water” in every step of the value chain, or in every sector of society. This tells us, with a high level of confidence, that a unit of water in a water-constrained economy, creates more “jobs per drop” in the tourism sector, than it does in the manufacturing or mining sector.

This is profound, because it unlocks a whole new world of possibility, where water mobilized for tourism is recaptured and recycled into a cascade of other job-creating sectors.

But for our Paradigm of Abundance to succeed, it has to create the policy framework that is capable of attracting both capital and technology, for these are necessary but insufficient condition for success.

Our policy reform process therefore has to be based on three core pillars:

• The recovery of water from waste streams.
• The removal of salt from seawater.
• The storage of surplus water in aquifer systems, safe from the ravages of evaporation, that we know will accelerate as climate change tightens its relentless grip.

Central to this is the Dual Stream Reticulation Economy, that will become the foundation for the massive public work schemes needed to upgrade the plumbing of our society. The analog for this is the grand-scale public work schemes initiated during the Great Depression, that put the unemployed masses back to work as part of a global public good. It is like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-ravaged Europe and made it the biggest single market on the planet. These schemes restore the hope which has been lost under the law of diminishing returns intrinsic to the Paradigm of Scarcity, as it plays itself out in the final phases.

In Political Science literature this is called a plus-sum game, where the gains of one do not equate to the losses of another. It is about making the pie bigger, so that everybody can have a reasonable slice of it. In economics literature this is called Cornucopia.

This is entirely achievable in South Africa. In fact, it is necessary if we are to have a viable future at all.

Anthony Turton is a water strategist and a member of the Water Leapathon Steering Committee

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