Can we practice water resource management in a vacuum? Should we? These are the questions I pondered after viewing Water Wars, a recently released documentary written and directed by Jim Burroughs. Taking Bangladesh as a test case, the documentary makes the case that what’s happening in one region of the world can happen—and, in fact, is happening—anywhere and everywhere. And what’s happening in Bangladesh amounts to a water crisis “greatest hits” list: flooding, drought, groundwater depletion, irrigation demands, arsenic poisoning, and ongoing conflicts with neighboring nations about riparian rights and the diversion of international river flows.
On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—and the beginning of yet another hurricane season for the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico—flooding is certainly on our minds. And yet, while many of us attribute the subsequent destruction of New Orleans’s lower 9th Ward (and the damage throughout the city) to the storm itself, in actuality the flooding was a result of failed water resource management: specifically the failure of the levies to hold back the 25-foot storm surge, combined with poor urban planning, an unwieldy and unpredictable Mississippi, and the destruction of coastal wetlands.
When it comes to levies and flood planning, the world looks to the Netherlands for expertise and advice. In 1953, the North Sea breached the Netherlands’ levy system—the largest in the world—causing over 1,800 deaths and catastrophic property damage. Since that time, the Dutch have refocused their water resource management strategy, fine-tuning and expanding flood control technology. In Water Wars, we see how the Netherlands is exporting its flood expertise by deploying a team of Dutch experts to tour the world and collaborate with other countries (like the US and Bangladesh) in order to collect the best other nations have to offer in terms of water resource management, and then disseminate that information to the global community.
Water Wars makes the case that what is currently happening in Bangladesh should serve as a warning to the rest of us. Bangladesh, historically vulnerable to flooding, is the canary in the coalmine: the blinking red light we should all be paying attention to. And that’s not just because of the environmental factors that have increased the severity of the country’s floods and droughts. Surrounded by India and south of China (the location of the headwaters for many of Bangladesh’s rivers), Bangladesh must now contend with the water resource management decisions of its larger neighbors. For example, as part of a billion dollar dam infrastructure plan, India plans to build over 40 dams in the next few years—effectively cutting off 65% of Bangladesh’s water supply. The main reason for India’s “River Interlinking Project” may surprise you: The new dam system will ultimately generate over 60 times the energy currently used by India, and so the country plans to export the excess electricity to an international grid in order to sell power to the countries of Southeast Asia: Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Yet even India’s grand plans could be thwarted should China decide to divert the rivers that flow into India and Pakistan for its own purposes.
These may seem like problems happening in a galaxy far, far away, but the truth is what’s happening in the Indian subcontinent is also happening in the parts of the US: including flooding in the heartland, riparian struggles in the south, and drought and fragile delta systems in the west and southwest. In fact, the Sacramento River Delta—with its vulnerable levies, threatened ecosystems, and riparian-rights struggle—is in many ways merely an echo of the situation in Bangladesh. Add water-quality issues (like arsenic contamination), allotment issues with both the Sacramento and Colorado rivers, and the region’s insatiable irrigation demands, and the situation in California starts to look quite precarious.
So what do you think? We’ve often talked about sharing knowledge and resources, but can we learn from the resource management failures as well as the success stories? Are we ignoring the water crisis in other parts of the world at our peril? Can we practice water resource management in a vacuum? Should we?