06/10/2011 04:34 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

The Quiet Crisis

An Oxfam report published recently predicts that the average cost of major food crops will rise between 120 and 180% by 2030. Oxfam warns of a tightening squeeze on people already struggling with inadequate food supplies. Climate change, with its higher temperatures and prolonged droughts, will cause at least half future price rises, largely because of catastrophic water shortages. We're sleepwalking our way into a chronically thirsty future, apparently oblivious of potential cataclysm. Our blue planet has many gifts to bestow, but none of them approach that of water -- truly our lifeblood.

This is a quiet crisis of rising temperatures, persistent droughts, and rising food prices in the face of rapid population increases. The crisis is upon us because the world's supply of fresh water is finite and always has been. Now there are billions more people than even half a century ago drawing on a fixed "bank account" of fresh water that is shrinking daily, with no relief in sight.

Weathering the Crisis

A tidal wave of books and articles offer prescriptions for weathering the crisis. Many have hidden, or not-so-hidden, agendas. Farmers want to pump more water from aquifers and favor more dams. "Build more dams," Western farmers cry, but there is simply no more water to fill them. Nevertheless, systematic improvements on storage and delivery, and especially to the infrastructure behind water supplies, offer considerable promise. Underground reservoirs, lining earth-bottomed canals, and irrigating plants at just their roots with just the right amount of water could help a great deal. One could make farming less thirsty by using drought-resistant, higher-yielding, even genetically modified crops. This is much easier said than done, for significant technological breakthroughs lie a long way in the future.

We talk about desalinization, oblivious to the cost of energy to run plants and to transport the water inland. Then there are those ambitious souls who want to tow icebergs from the Arctic to water starved California, or pipe the abundant waters of the Great Lakes to New Mexico. All these potential solutions bristle with environmental and political problems that require both long- and short-term planning and debate -- and long-term thinking isn't exactly fashionable in a political world ruled by election cycles. Then there's conservation, which requires completely new attitudes toward water in a future world where water in many places may become more expensive than oil.

What the Sumerians Teach Us

There are lessons here from history, from as long ago as 5,000 years ago when Sumerian farmers irrigated their fields in Mesopotamia with water from the Euphrates. Their irrigation works endured for centuries, because they were organized not by anonymous officials, but by individual villages and farmers. Uruk in southern Iraq, now a desolate ruin, was once the "Venice of Mesopotamia." The villages that surrounded and fed Uruk depended on furrow irrigation and long strip fields. The fields formed large blocks laid out in herringbone patterns off both sides of canals. Such farming required local expertise, close cooperation between those who cultivated the fields and those who managed them, perhaps temples. Decisions about water allocation and digging canals could only be made by small communities and by officials who knew local conditions. Water was shared, water was precisely controlled, and water was precious -- a lesson for today.

Sharing and Local Solutions

Even countries like Britain, which usually has abundant rainfall, suffer from the water crisis. The world is warming, raising the specter of prolonged droughts in the United Kingdom. East Anglia, northeast of London, is one of the driest areas, where water pumping has to be sustainable in a future that will be drier and warmer. Add rapid population growth and an estimated 600,000 houses to be built by 2021, and all the ingredients for a water crisis are in place. With the Environment Agency's encouragement, farmers throughout Britain have formed Water Abstractor Groups (WAGs) that share water between members and often self-police their water management. In this way, individual farmers, not just large agricultural combines, have a say in water allocation.

Industrial societies tend to think of water on a large scale, each a patchwork of water authorities, water districts, municipal water companies, and so on. Until recently, most of them operated as largely independent entities, but change is afoot. Water districts in southern Nevada are cooperating with one another, sharing water in times of drought on a reciprocal basis that has enabled them to weather major shortfalls.

The trend is bound to continue, for it works. One is irresistibly reminded of small villages in East Africa, of the Sumerians and Ancient Egyptian villages, which allocated water by discussion and on the basis of mutual need. They sustained themselves for many centuries and so could we. We have much to learn from the hydrologists of long-vanished societies.