6 reasons technology alone can't solve water scarcity

Catch Will Sarni in person at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.

The drought in California is great test bed for how the private and public sector is addressing, or not addressing, water scarcity (the “drought” is likely the “new normal” for water in the state and not a temporary condition). It also highlights a bias for technology instead of the more challenging solutions in order to rethink both how we value water and change behavior.

The drought in California is starting to bite, with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion and 17,100 part-time and seasonal farm jobs this year. A report by the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences (PDF) finds that agriculture in the state is experiencing the “greatest water loss ever seen,” a result of warming winters, thinning seasonal snow packs, drier rivers and, through it all, heavier reliance on water pumped from underground.

Welcome to the “new normal.”

So what is our response to the new normal: Increase supply through conventional and innovative technology solutions?

This is not the complete answer. Remember, “wicked problems” require “wickedly smart solutions,” which in my view is a combination of water technology innovation and “soft path water” approaches.

Let me elaborate. We appear to be overwhelmingly focused on technology as a cure-all for water issues. How many times have we heard, “Why can’t we just desalinate sea water?” Essentially, create more supply so we can maintain business as usual from a consumption perspective.

Sustainably addressing water scarcity will require technology solutions both conventional and innovative — both the “hard path for water” and the soft path for water. The conventional “hard path for water” is characterized by centralized infrastructure and decision-making using technology and institutions developed in the 19th and 20th centuries: large dams and reservoirs, pipelines and treatment plants, public water departments and agencies and private companies.

The soft path for water defines a “new approach to managing water resources,” says the Pacific Institute. It seeks to take advantage of the potential for decentralized facilities, efficient technologies, flexible public and private institutions, innovative economics and human capital. It strives to improve the overall productivity of water use rather than seek endless sources of new supply. It works with water users at local and community scales and seeks to protect the critical ecological services such as nutrient cycling, flood protection, aquatic habitat, as well as waste dilution and removal that water also provides.

The Pacific Institute distinguishes the soft and hard paths for water in these six ways:

1. The soft path directs governments, companies and individuals to focus on sustainable ways to satisfy the needs of people and businesses, instead of just supplying water. People want clean clothes or to be able to produce goods and services — they do not care how much water is used and may not care if water is used at all.

2. The soft path leads to water systems that supply water of various qualities for different uses. For instance, storm runoff, greywater and reclaimed wastewater are well-suited to irrigate landscaping or for some industrial purposes.

3. The soft path for water recognizes that investing in decentralized infrastructure can be just as cost-effective as investing in large, centralized facilities. Nothing is inherently better about providing irrigation water from a massive reservoir instead of using decentralized rainwater capture and storage. 

4. The soft path requires water agency or company personnel to interact closely with water users and to engage community groups in water management. The hard path, governed by an engineering mentality, is accustomed to meeting generic needs.

5. The soft path recognizes that the health of our natural world and the activities that depend on it (such as swimming and tourism) are important to water users and people in general. Often times, the hard path — by not returning enough water to the natural world — harms other water users downstream.

6. The soft path recognizes the complexities of water economics, including the power of economies of scope. An economy of scope exists when a combined decision-making process would allow specific services to be delivered at a lower cost than would result from separate decision-making.

At the state level or country level, "hard path" technology solutions and infrastructure coupled with soft path solutions such as public policy, pricing and behavior change are needed together to address water scarcity.

The same is the case for companies trying to maintain their social license to operate and resiliency in the face of increased competition for water and prolonged droughts — focus on water efficiency, reuse, recycling and collective action programs with stakeholders within a watershed (the soft path).

Technology alone can’t save us.

Top image of water-saving drip irrigation by Max Lindenthaler via Shutterstock.