When the political levee breaks
London—At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone was routinely exposed to difficult climate conditions. The west of the United States, for example, was largely uninhabitable for those accustomed to mild climates. The orchards of California’s Imperial Valley were still to come, their rich soils baked dry into an unplowable crust. The cities that now occupy the region’s deserts—San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix—were waterless outposts that could not support anything near their modern populations.
Similarly, since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the European landscape had remained largely untamed. We may now think of the continent’s old forests as a romantic wilderness, but 19th-century children’s fairy tales described them more accurately as impenetrable, swampy places inhabited by wolves and bandits. For centuries, Dutch engineers attempted to reclaim lands across the continent but consistently failed to achieve permanent security.
At the time, Qing China had acquired global fame for its ability to control Asia’s powerful rivers (a skill that Adam Smith saw as a remarkable source of comparative advantage). And yet, even the Celestial Empire could not avoid recurring natural disasters. At the start of the 20th century, the climate system still ruled the landscape. The only universal form of “climate adaptation” was acceptance.
Then, everything changed. Two world wars and growing political enfranchisement fueled demands for universal welfare. Economic growth—a relatively uninteresting phenomenon to 19th-century elites who did not have to share wealth—became the principal preoccupation of politicians answerable to the unemployed and the insecure. Reliable access to water became a political imperative, an instrument in state-building.
As cities grew, floods—a tragic fact of life up to that point—became politically intolerable. Unsanitary conditions were swept away by near-universal access to clean water supplies. The shape of the modern landscape slowly changed as it filled with levees, flood defenses, dams, canals, and reservoirs. These were invariably financed by the new economic power of the state and supported by the aspirations of a broadened electorate.
Investments in modern water infrastructure spread around the world, driving planetary-scale transformation. At the beginning of the 20th century, humanity had virtually no water storage and practically no large dams; yet by the 1970s, infrastructure could catch roughly one-fifth of all runoff on the planet. As people replumbed the landscape—leaving a wide trail of unintended environmental consequences in their wake—a modernist dream was nurtured: Finally, people could be fully insulated from the effects of a difficult climate.
Over time, many of those living in rich countries simply forgot about all the water flowing behind the dams and levees. Though floods and droughts routinely afflict hundreds of millions of poor people around the world, these events seldom make the news (the main exceptions being in rich counties, as when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans’ poor, mainly African-American, Lower Ninth Ward in 2005). In an echo of the Malthusian fallacy that treats poverty as a symptom of moral failure, the disasters that strike developing countries are dismissed as an inevitable consequence of underdevelopment.
But water security is not simply a product of development and political stability. Rather, it contributes to both. Modern economies and stable political institutions were built on the promise of water security and the opportunities that it furnished. Our institutions’ increasingly evident failure to fulfill that promise thus poses a direct threat to the civic compact that binds citizens and the state.
The supposedly permanent solutions of the 20th century are proving inadequate. This century’s climate disasters are harbingers of a new relationship with our environment, raising questions that we have not had to ask for many generations. What do we want our landscape to look like? What risks are we able to tolerate? What should we expect of the state when it comes to our environmental security, and what authority does that entail?
These are not technical questions. They are political ones, and they will increasingly occupy center stage in the 21st century. Project Syndicate
Giulio Boccaletti is an honorary research associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford. He is the author of “Water: A Biography.”
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