As we continue to consider the prospect for global water resources, we need first to make a major adjustment to how we measure the water we use, how we value it, and how we allocate it (and to whom) for what purpose.
That is a huge undertaking given the fact that we have fundamentally taken water for granted and used it, while certainly knowing its essential need, with little restriction. Recently, I was visiting a friend at his new small farm in the high desert region of Oregon in a beautiful, distinctive micro-climate both wet and dry and bordered by picturesque mountain views. There were flat fields with large watering systems everywhere. At one point, he turned on pumps and began to let water collected in a pond and drawn from wells on his 40 acres flow without purpose into the adjacent river. As a member of a local irrigation association, he was allocated a certain volume annually to use--or lose. This water was being deliberately wasted. All agreed this behavior was absurd, and all realized that the historical attitudes and structures for water management in this locale were obsolete and inadequate to the changing circumstance. This problem exists worldwide, suddenly now in places where water supply has seemed secure, but long extant in places distant and poor and dry where the inhabitants have been living on marginal water for centuries.
What is required is a complete overhaul of water inventory and use measurement in a new green economy. In 2012, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued an invaluable Report by a Sustainable Water Management Working Group, "Measuring Water Use in a Green Economy", that addresses the need and opportunities for change to water concepts and frameworks, data collection and access, and methodologies for quantifying water use and environmental impacts through such tools as water registers, accounting, scarcity indicators, use assessments, corporate monitoring, and stewardship techniques.
The Report describes the present situation of a world economy based on a global ecosystem reliant on unrestricted natural capital to provide material inputs for production, then consumed, leaving the system to absorb the waste outputs and continue with no consideration of sustainable supply, growing demand, pollution, or enhanced efficiency or conservation as part of the process.
The UNEP Report then envisions "a green economy" incorporating natural capital and ecosystem services, sustained and resilient, with a more efficient economy of manufacturers and financial capital, and human well-being, social and human capital, with enhanced social equity and fair distribution of use and burden. What follows, despite the jargon of such reports, is a very new and very sensible way of understanding water as a "service" - water cycling as a supportive service, water flow control, purification, and waste treatment as a regulating service, and water for plants, fish, and organisms grown in or around the ecosystem as a provisioning service - all measured, monetized, and distributed within a very different set of social considerations and resultant actions.
The Report contains some existing, effective examples of present day best practice. For measuring water use, it cites the Jordan Water Information System, a body of data that depicts water use patterns, reveals physical water flows, provides analyses of indirect water consumption and collateral demand, and suggests ways to integrate and economize on national supply and future needs. A second example focuses on Singapore, a city of 4.4 million, that despite ample rainfall and aquifers, has been challenged by the consumption requirements of both its growing population and its emergence as a major global manufacturing economy. The key to its success has been made possible by a Public Utilities Board that currently manages the entire water cycle of Singapore - to include sewage, protection and expansion of water sources, storm-water management, desalination, demand management, pricing, community-driven programs, catchment management, and public education and outreach, leading to waste water treatment and reuse on an unprecedented scale. The board also administers electricity and gas, applying similar systems and values.
This integrated holistic approach is devoutly to be wished, not always necessarily as a mammoth centralized system, but certainly as an attitude and approach that pervades water and ocean management at every level of government planning, management, and implementation. What is required is a willingness and commitment by individuals, institutions, corporations, and administrative agencies to define a "water mark," a design impressed into our very being that will guide us as citizens to the balance of water use - how much, for what, at what cost, for whom - that is essential for our future.