The Growing Water Crisis: Public Policy versus Private Property Rights

By Timmons, James D.; Womack, Lara | Real Estate Issues, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Growing Water Crisis: Public Policy versus Private Property Rights


Timmons, James D., Womack, Lara, Real Estate Issues


Water is the staff of life. We cannot survive without it. We drink it, cook with it, bathe in it, play in it, irrigate crops with it, and use it in manufacturing. Will water be in the 21st century what oil was to the last? It is quite possible that vast fortunes will be amassed by those who control water and nations will go to war to preserve access to one of earth's most precious resources.

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

From a distance, Planet Earth looks like a beautiful blue sphere. This special color arises from the vast amounts of water found on Earth. However, the apparent abundance of this life-giving source is an illusion. Almost all the water on Earth is salt water in the oceans and is not useful for normal human consumption. Only about 2 percent is fresh water, and of that, less than half is available for use by the nearly six billion people around the world.

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years. (1) That is twice as fast as the world's rate of population growth, and according to United Nations data, more than one billion people on Earth already lack access to fresh drinking water. The U.N. estimates that by 2025, approximately 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages if consumption continues at current rates. (2)

Obviously, some areas, like the Amazon River basin, have a surplus of water. Other parts of the world, such as the arid deserts of Africa and the Outback region of Australia, have very little. Water shortages are likely to grow as the world population increases and as the number of "mega-cities" continue to expand. In the past, many cities were located next to rivers. Today, a growing number of large cities, such as Mexico City and Los Angeles, depend upon distant outside sources for their water supply. Drought, pollution and unsanitary sewage conditions, and private control of water rights are some of the factors escalating the urban water crisis. History is littered with tales of major cities that disappeared mainly because they ran out of water. Can what happened in the past, happen again in the future?

U.S. PERSPECTIVE

This article will focus on water issues in the United States. North America is a region that is generally rich in water resources. In the U.S. most of the health problems associated with poor water quality have been alleviated, but we still may be facing a water crisis. Throughout the country, a recent drought and population growth have placed a premium on water. In many states, the days of plentiful water are gone. As the population grows and droughts occur, states will face continuing pressures on their limited supplies. To a large extent, the way we deal with this issue will determine our economic future and the quality of life we enjoy.

Who owns the water, and how will it be distributed for human consumption, agricultural needs, and recreational uses? The politics of water are becoming quite interesting. Private property rights will be severely tested as urban areas find they cannot sustain growth without securing water rights that may come from great distances. City dwellers will compete with farmers and ranchers for adequate amounts of affordable water. States sharing water resources such as rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers are already battling their neighbors when they perceive an unfair overuse of this precious commodity.

It is certainly true that water is no longer a "free good" so abundant and so commonly available that no person has to pay for its use. Rapid population growth, especially in the American "Sun Belt," has led to numerous conservation efforts, and in some cases outright rationing. Water seems to have suddenly become a valuable commodity, and cities, individuals, and businesses have found that it has become much more expensive. Mark Twain once commented "whiskey's for drinking, and water's for fighting." This may have always been true out West, and today it may be true in many parts of the country. …

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