The world of water resources is of substantial political relevance. Ensuring that water is available where and when needed for food production, energy conversion, or urban living is foundational to modern life.
It is also a field of arresting complexity. For example, water managers need to supply enough irrigation water to satisfy grain demand — itself driven by demographics, taste, economics — while the rainfall that feeds its sources is subject to seasonal, interannual, and decadal variability. That is, effectively, an attempt to plan for Vladimir Putin’s foreign exchange needs while at the same time adjusting for the North Atlantic Oscillation.
There was a time when water management was the dominant enabler of an ordered society. The power Mulholland had in California just before the collapse of the St. Francis dam was second to none. The prominence afforded to the hydraulic engineers of Nehru’s India, when dams like Bhakra were supposed to be the “temples” of the newly independent democracy, was enormous. These are just two examples of the status afforded to water projects in the not-too-distant past: they reflected the social standing of water engineering, the saliency of its solutions, and the magnitude of its economic influence.
That was an era when natural resource planning was the principal instrument of domestic sovereignty, infrastructure development was the manifestation of a new-found public underwriting capacity, water security was the result of a novel commitment to a welfare state, and ubiquitous hydraulic engineering was the symptom of a world in awe of the science of the second industrial revolution.
But those days are long gone. Today, while engineers and managers are busy directing billions of dollars in infrastructure and systems that can turn a chaotic planetary signal into a controlled one, their task is to make sure that most of the population can keep living their life blithely unaware that anything remarkable at all is happening. Their success is invisibility, hardly the basis for celebration. Obscurity is the product of their craft — fame only really attained when something goes wrong.
Despite its unquestionable importance, and to the disappointment of many water resource experts, water management is mostly invisible, hidden somewhere in the subconscious of society.
This is all about to change, of course. The hydrology of the planet is responding to climate change. In fact, the water cycle is likely to become the dominant vehicle for the signal of a rapidly changing climate. As water resource management becomes the principal line of defence against droughts and floods, it will step into the limelight and face the consequences of being, once again, a sector too important to ignore.
Water managers will find themselves advising governments on spending more money on complex responses to chronic water security problems. They will have to guide the public in changing their relationship with the landscape, in some cases dramatically so. To be effective — to be able to influence critical economic decisions in affected sectors, to explain to the public why hard choices are necessary, to justify unpopular decisions — they will need to gain the trust of a citizenship that has become accustomed to not knowing they exist. How to gain that trust? Now is the time to ask that question, for building trust in technical fields is a process fraught with dangerous pitfalls.
How can problems that are defined scientifically — ones in which judging the severity of the issue and the efficacy of solution depends almost entirely on technical knowledge — be solved through political systems designed to offer a space in which everyone’s authorship ought to be reflected in collective action?
The legitimacy of a democratic process to modify the landscape depends on answering this question. To be truly democratic, even if concerned with as technical a problem as hydraulics, a decision-making process must accommodate second-best solutions, allow for choices that, in retrospect, can be wrong: democracies must be able to make mistakes. Because it is the space of action, of human realisation, by its very nature politics cannot be reduced to the implementation of a science-driven recipe alone. How to marry that freedom with the technical expertise required to guide decision-making is the crux of the issue.
I recently wrote a piece on what we can learn from the experience of COVID-19. The COVID pandemic has laid bare the complexity of modern, scientifically-driven policy responses. At first glance, the problem of confronting the COVID pandemic appeared to be one of technical preparedness. But in truth, what is most extraordinary about the world’s response is the public and political engagement it provoked.
The privileged role of medical science and public health institutions in contemporary politics is the result of work over decades. First, of course, is the fact that health is one of the largest expenditures in most countries’ national accounts: close to 10 percent of GDP in OECD countries. Much of that expenditure is public, part of the post-war welfare promises that have led the state to become the biggest economic actor in the modern economy. It coordinates a myriad of services that citizens experience over the course of their lifetime.
Health is also highly bureaucratised and institutionalised: all countries have a ministry of health, which coordinates the expenditures of the state and regulators that set standards for the private sector, scientific advisory structures, institutions staffed by medical and health experts, and, crucially, vast delivery organisations — hospitals, clinics — with capillary territorial reach, all united by a common body of knowledge and epistemological framework.
It is that complex institutional architecture that plays both an advisory function to the branches of government, and the public outreach that individualises the experience of medicine. That complex architecture speaks the same language and operates under the same basic deontology. It is the fact that the family doctor belongs to the same institutional architecture as the government advisors or, hopefully, the pharmaceutical developer, which ensures that medical language is not entirely lost to the public, and that individual health can be part of the story of individual political agency. That is the architecture that has built the trust health officials enjoy to legitimately influence policy.
So, what does the water sector need to learn from this experience? The central insight of COVID as far as water resource management is concerned is that the quality of the institutions that are supposed to both advise the state and give voice to the experience of the individual will matter a great deal. This is not an entirely new insight in the water sector. For example, the Army Corp of Engineers — arguably the pre-eminent modernist water institution in the world — has learnt a long time ago of the necessity to build a capillary system of outreach when dealing with complicated water issues: that is why the Lower Mississippi River Commission conducts a recurring exercise of stakeholder engagement along the river every year.
But the question water institutions around the world should be asking right now is how to generalise and institutionalise those experiences, so that, when the time comes, a dialogue with the population has been built, as have robust institutions capable of intermediating difficult technical and political choices.
This will likely require operating at multiple levels. Educational institutions, for example, have an important role to play. Schools of medicine do not just teach medical science. They also teach — or should teach — empathy and deontology. The water managers who will have a fundamental role to play in helping individuals and communities understand their experience in a changing world should therefore not just be seen as technical operators but as agents operating in society, equipped with a broad understanding of the processes they are trying to influence.
Public institutions that deal with the landscape — agricultural ministries, environment ministries, energy ministries, water ministries — are currently organised to reflect economic categories, but will need to coordinate across their domains to deliver a national landscape that is resilient to a different water cycle. Policies will have to reflect that integration if they are to mobilise private investment in economic infrastructure that is also supposed to deliver water security. Even more so, if that water security will be delivered through the sophisticated management of landscape and ecosystem processes.
In the end, the lesson of the COVID response is this: if the problem is framed solely in technical terms — what solutions are needed to deliver a sustainable world — the answer is likely to be a technocratic plan. But if the problem is framed in political terms — how to ensure the state serves its citizens by delivering a free, secure, and just society under conditions of climate change — then institutions are likely to be the answer.
The political institutions that mediate individual experience into collective agency are crucial to our social life. What is needed to ensure a politically legitimate management of the interface between water and society in the face of rapid change is a robust, capillary and reputable institutional architecture, which can both advise a political process and reassure individual citizens of the legitimacy of their knowledge.