California, the world’s 8th largest economy (bigger than U.N. Security Council member and nuclear power Russia and just barely smaller than Brazil) is on the verge of having no water left. That is according to a senior NASA water scientist, who said over the weekend that the “Golden State” is just one-year away from running out of water in its reservoirs.
Yet this isn’t front-page news. An economy with GDP of more than $2 trillion and home to more than 50 Fortune 500 companies, including the world’s most valuable company, Apple. An economy that produces more than 95 percent of all U.S. artichokes, broccoli, walnuts, kiwis, plums, grapes, celery and garlic, and overall half of all fruits, vegetables and nuts that Americans consume every day. Plus being America’s top dairy producer. The state also exports a lot of the food it produces, so the impact isn’t just domestic.
So why isn’t there a global panic? If Russia were about to run out of water, stock markets would tank, currencies would get jittery, and fears of mass migration and social dislocation would be stalking the halls of the EU in Brussels and the Hague. U.N. resolutions would be passed. Aid packages would be cobbled together. CNN would create a snappy new news alert and call it something like “WaterRussiaGate”.
But there is an almost deafening silence as sunny California — home of Disney la-la land, the Hollywood dream machine and the sometimes nauseating hubris of Silicon Valley’s often trivial innovators — marches merrily toward its own demise, and in doing so threatens to disrupt the global economy and countless lives.
It’s not as if the international water threat isn’t well known. The World Economic Forum said that in 2015 water crisis is the top global risk facing the world. And 2015 is the last year of the International Decade of Water, so presumably we’ve all been fully educated over the last 10 years about the size of the problem. Right?
Yet on the eve of the 22nd World Water Day (next week, March 22), water is still the red-headed step-child of the natural resource discussion. The media hardly cover it compared to energy. No sexy billionaire has made it their pet issue in the same way that Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and others have become the sugar daddies of energy innovation.
So here we are, on the brink of a major disaster for the world’s 8th largest economy.
Just as Hurricane Sandy brought the impact of climate change home for many Americans for the first time, could it be that the California water crisis is the event we need to finally get serious on the issue? The destruction of Sandy was quick and dramatic, while the crisis in California has been slower to develop. Until now. According to NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti, the clock is ticking. There is now an urgency that was previously missing.
Hopefully Gov. Brown will stop supporting fracking and start worrying about water. Reform of water pricing must get serious. Introduction of drip irrigation must be mandatory in agriculture (which uses more than 2/3 of the state’s water), and other conservation and efficiency measures must become a more ingrained way of domestic and business life. Investment in water infrastructure and innovation needs to be accelerated as well.
Famiglietti also suggested three immediate steps: water rationing, accelerating implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the formation of a task force with vision and teeth.
I am not a water expert. But I know stupidity and myopia when I see them. It’s time to get smart and to have clarity. It’s time to act. And it’s time to treat water like the invaluable natural asset that it is.