A Kuznets curve for H2O?

The New Yorker on water: Gloom, doom and an unexpected trickle of hope.

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 24, 2006 11:29PM (EDT)

About 90 percent of "The Last Drop," the New Yorker's superb recent article on water, is devoted to detailing how perilous the world's water woes are, particularly in India. You read along with an increasing sense of dread: the problem of getting enough clean water to everyone in a world that is expected to have a population of 9 billion by 2050 seems insuperable.

Then, near the end, writer Michael Specter suddenly delivers a promise of hope. He quotes Peter Gleick, president of Oakland's Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security: "It is a little-known fact that the United States today uses far less water per person, and less water in total, than we did twenty-five years ago... It's a shocker. People don't believe it, but it's true."

"Finland, parts of Australia, much of Europe, and even Hong Kong also have experienced decreases in per-capita water consumption," writes Specter, suggesting that the phenomenon falls into the same category as environmental improvements that appear to track growing economic affluence -- a phenomenon referred to as the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC).

Specter presents the EKC as something of a fait accompli. But as has been pointed out here before, the EKC doesn't always work. It's good when measuring things that are visible and annoying to large numbers of people, like particulate matter in the air, or sewage flowing in the streets. It's not so good for things that are less obtrusive, like increasing carbon emissions or deforestation. It's also not immediately obvious how it applies to using less water per capita. Is there really an EKC for energy efficiency or conservation of resources?

Maybe that's a side issue. The deeper, and profoundly hopeful, message is that the United States' track record with water appears to prove that a growing economically affluent population does not have to consume more water over time. It can, amazingly, consume less. (Although it must be noted that Americans still consume more water, per capita, per day, then anyone else on the planet.) If the same could be true for other precious commodities (oil, anyone?) then our prospects for an extended stay on this planet for the human race might be looking up.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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