Water As Capital: The Wealth of Life

In order to ​truly ​understand and ​solve the ​problems ​inherent in our ​relationship ​with the ​natural world, ​I have long ​argued for the ​freshwater/​ocean continuum ​as the most ​essential ​element in any ​effective ​response to ​decades of ​extraction, ​transformation, ​and pollution ​in the name of ​consumption, in ​the United ​States and ​around the ​world. ​

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From this ​perspective, ​water as ​manifest in all ​its circles and ​cycles of ​conveyance ​around the ​world ​constitute a de ​facto system of ​“​watershed,​” from ​the mountain-​top to the ​abyssal plain, ​encompassing ​aquifer, ​springs, rivers,​ lakes and ​ponds, glaciers,​ and open ocean,​ the protection ​and equitable ​utilization of ​which ​constitutes a ​solution to ​serious ​problems we ​face worldwide. ​

It is a big ​idea, a quiet ​answer to a ​loud question, ​and I continue ​to search for ​metaphors and ​explanations ​that will help ​us understand ​the concept and ​the steps ​required to ​enable it as a ​strategy for ​survival in the ​21st century. ​

Since the ​Industrial ​Revolution, we ​have viewed ​fossil fuels ​– coal, ​oil, gas, and ​their ​derivative ​chemicals and ​plastic — ​as the capital ​that funds our ​way of life. We ​have invested ​in it ​extravagantly ​with little or ​no concern for ​consequences ​that today are ​evident in air ​we cannot ​breathe, water ​we cannot drink,​ and the ​exponential ​growth of ​externalities ​and failure to ​manage by-​products and ​waste. ​

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We responded ​through ​regulations, ​laws, and ​international ​treaties by ​which we made ​some progress ​in limiting and ​mitigating the ​consequences of ​this global ​strategic ​experience. ​Today those ​restrictions, ​even the ​alternative ​strategies to ​recycle and ​replace these ​behaviors, are ​under ​regressive ​attack and the ​world risks a ​sudden return ​to values, ​policies, and ​behaviors ​already proven ​obsolete and ​bankrupt. ​

How do we ​respond to the ​necessity for ​change? How do ​we re-align our ​engagement with ​the natural ​world, through ​new technology ​and changing ​political will? ​How do we shift ​our fundamental ​premise for ​managing ​increased ​population, ​demand for ​growth, and ​sustainable use ​of what the ​earth provides? ​How do we re-​imagine life ​and implement ​the health and ​welfare of ​ensuing ​generations? ​How do we ​galvanize ​public ​engagement to ​demand change, ​soon enough in ​time?

I argue that ​we accept water ​as the new ​capital, the ​product that we ​manage and ​sustain in all ​our financial ​and political ​enterprise, the ​system around ​which we ​organize our ​governance as a ​form of ​watershed ​management, and ​the true, all-​encompassing ​measure by ​which we ​calculate value ​as its ​contribution to ​our profit and ​loss. ​

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If we accept ​this, then we ​accept a new ​balance sheet ​where we offset ​expense with ​revenue — ​expense defined ​as what is paid ​for and ​inclusive of ​what is saved ​by the ​efficiency and ​economy of the ​alternative, ​and revenue as ​what is gained ​beyond ​transaction ​inclusive of ​intangible ​benefit. This ​is not as ​complicated as ​it may first ​seem. If we ​accurately ​present the ​cost of oil in ​terms of direct ​expenditure as ​well as the ​additional cost ​of consequence, ​not to mention ​the loss of ​that resource ​expended and ​non-recoverable,​ we will come ​up with a very ​different set ​of categories ​and amounts on ​the expense ​side.

If we ​accurately ​present the ​return in terms ​of savings ​through ​alternatives, ​then we will ​come up with a ​very different ​set of ​categories and ​amounts on the ​revenue side.​ If you ​agree that we ​are living in a ​society with a ​fundamental ​structural ​deficit, ​measured in the ​debt of ​governments and ​individuals, ​then you may ​also agree that ​this new way is ​a viable ​approach to ​change that ​imbalance ​between global ​profit and loss.​

This does not ​mean that we ​reduce water to ​a commodity to ​be traded like ​oil. No: quite ​the opposite. ​As I have ​argued before, ​in this ​scenario water ​is first ​accepted as a ​basic human ​right by which ​every ​individual on ​earth is ​guaranteed a ​basic volume to ​enable a ​society that ​thrives through ​adequacy, ​parity and ​equality. ​

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That ​established, ​then water ​becomes the ​determining ​currency of ​transaction, ​the natural ​element priced ​as a sustainable ​symbol and ​reality of a ​democratic, ​harmonious ​society, priced ​as ecosystem ​service and ​sustained as a ​clean, clear, ​and copious ​supply for ​generations to ​come.

If capital can ​be defined as ​“any form ​of wealth that ​can be employed ​in the ​production of ​more wealth,​” then ​water as ​capital becomes ​an investment ​endlessly ​returning to ​all of us who ​share its value ​as food, energy,​ work, health, ​community, and ​peace. ​

Water is the wealth of life.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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