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A Problem With An Obvious Solution

Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times has a dispatch from a drought-stricken region of Spain:

Murcia, traditionally a poor farming region, has undergone a resort-building boom in recent years, even as many of its farmers have switched to more thirsty crops, encouraged by water transfer plans, which have become increasingly untenable. The combination has put new pressures on the land and its dwindling supply of water.

This year, farmers are fighting developers over water rights. They are fighting one another over who gets to water their crops. And in a sign of their mounting desperation, they are buying and selling water like gold on a rapidly growing black market, mostly from illegal wells.

I really don't mean for this to sound heartless, but the thing to do here is to realize that you live in a desert and start using water accordingly. Don't grow lettuce! Charge more for greens fees at golf courses! Use better irrigation methods! It would make sense for the Spanish government to cushion the transition to a less water-intensive lifestyle in the region, but the reality is there's plenty of water almost anywhere for routine human consumption if you use it carefully. This can come about either as a result of water markets or through more heavy-handed regulation (preferably the former), but the first step is for government to stop making the problem worse by stoking unrealistic expectations about abundance.

Obviously, in the real world politics make the resolution more difficult because people are irrational and politicians have short-term incentives to pander. And it's true that if entire countries dry out, that would necessitate wrenching changes on a society-wide scale, since cross-border mobility is low. But we're not close to that point yet.

--Josh Patashnik

Photo: Getty Images (La Manga Golf Course in Murcia)