Thursday, 3 October 2013

Efficiency, the para-commons, and being a waterist

So it’s now about a month since I met with Professor Bruce Lankford at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, but I think it’s worth touching on some of the interesting ideas that he shared with me. Bruce has just published a book, Resource Efficiency Complexity and the Commons, which examines resource efficiency from the perspective of common pool resources. One of the key questions is: who gets the saving when efficiency gains are made? Who wins, and just as importantly, who loses?

When we make an efficiency saving in water resource use, it means that water that was considered ‘unused’ is converted into useful resources. This includes situations like the irrigation infrastructure projects in Australia, where most of the savings so far have come from improving the delivery infrastructure, so that less water is lost through seepage from delivery channels. But where did those losses go? For the most part, they entered groundwater systems, and in some cases, ended up in rivers or wetlands.

In the western US, ‘unused’ extracted water, may end up being available for other users (via groundwater or returned flows to the river), at which point it may no longer be the property of the original extractor. In some states, and depending on the historical use data, efficiency on the part of the original extractor, by using more of the water that they pump from the river or their groundwater bore, may in fact be viewed as theft from the downstream users.
All water goes somewhere, and approaching these questions from the perspective of a common pool resource highlights the difficulty of efficiency as a solution to water scarcity. Bruce introduces the concept of the ‘paracommons’, which reflects the uncertain nature of the ownership of efficiency savings, and the uncertain nature of the benefits of efficiency.

This is not to say that there aren’t any, of course. But it does require you to engage with the question on a more nuanced scale. Returning to the Australian example of irrigation infrastructure improvements, one of the early elements of this project was to figure out where the leaked water was going: which of the wetlands and aquatic ecosystems was dependent on the system operating in its current form? Some of the high value ecosystems were insulated from the efficiency calculation: the water they depended on was not included in the calculation of the savings, and their water was protected. Further, the saved water was split three ways: one third to irrigators, one third to the city of Melbourne and one third went to the environment. This water has been made available as an entitlement in storage, which means it can be used in a more targeted fashion to deliver environmental outcomes: at the right time, in the right places, at the right flows.

Consumptive water users aren’t the only ones having to consider efficiency. As I discussed in an earlier post, there has been tremendous work to get the environment on the efficiency band wagon too. Bruce came up with one of the earliest statement of principles around environmental efficiency in 2003, and these principles are at work in Australia today, where environmental watering infrastructure is being used to deliver flood events that would otherwise require substantially higher flows (see, for example, my earlier post on the regulator at the Hattah Lakes in Victoria).

After all this, one of the big ideas that Bruce left me with was the idea of being a ‘waterist’. In chapter 7 of his book, he makes the point that when asked to find solutions to complex problems, most of us reach back to our career specialisation. For example, economists tend to reach for markets or pricing solutions, lawyers offer governance or legal solutions, and engineers can focus on the technical and physical aspects of the system. In a world where the interdisciplinarity of complex problems has been well-recognised, it’s important to be able to reach beyond our own preferred modes of thinking and find truly transdisciplinary solutions. Bruce’s suggestion here is to be a waterist: someone who seeks out water users who are already operating at the margins, and who have experience in managing their resources prudently, carefully and sometimes innovatively. By becoming the champion of the users of the resource, solutions can be embedded in what works, and can take advantage of innovations that have already emerged at the margins to deal with scarcity. For Bruce, being a waterist is about reaching beyond our ideological boundaries, investigating systems on the ground and engaging directly with those "least likely to represent themselves... but if engaged with might contribute their experience".

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