Options for water management are shaped by circumstances: the size of the future population, the size of the settlement, the nature of the local soil and the weather, the inheritance of water infrastructures for collection and treatment, the presence or absence of groundwater and deep reservoirs, local rivers, crops and politics . . .

It is true that all our options are shaped by such things but, given the diversity of circumstances and the detail and ingenuity of water management, this, to be sure, is a moment to apply lean thinking’s principle of pull—looking to the local particular for solutions rather than just accruing information because it is there.

There are crucial differences in the kinds of provision needed for water, ranging from the massive irrigation systems described in Unlean to the chalk streams and water-rich villages of England’s Hampshire. And there are thousands of organisations whose speciality is the conservation, treatment or use of water.

So here, in brief, are some of the questions, and some of the sources where answers may be sought:

1. Is local water abundant? Is coordinated work on the level of the locality, the watershed or the region needed to maintain a reliable supply?

2. How critical is water conservation in the area? Where do the opportunities for conservation lie: in the household? in food-growing? in manufacture? in power generation? in the wider—forested, grassland, or agricultural—environment?

3. What provision is needed to capture and conserve nutrients which would otherwise be carried off in waste water—that is, phosphates, nitrogen and the micronutrients—and at the same time, to conserve the quality of the water returning into the natural environment?

4. Is the local community sufficiently developed to enable effective local water management? If not, how could it be improved?

5. What opportunities are there for developing aquaculture systems, linking up their potential as an exceptionally productive source of nutrition with other needs such as waste treatment and conserving local fertility?

A preliminary guide to sources on water is at this endnote.W1

From the point of view of the long-term, decentralised Lean Economy, then, there is a range of options and means, most of them well-researched and accessible. But there is another aspect of water to note. Short of a radical failure of the climate, it is rather unlikely that today’s developed economies in the temperate areas of the world will experience a breakdown in the availability of water, even after the climacteric.

However, it is by no means unlikely that there could be breakdowns in supply. The total amount of water on the planet does not change, but its location and quality does. If there are enduring outages in energy supplies, and/or in the essential conditions which transport water workers to work and pay their wages, then the water supply grids would be disrupted to the point that nothing will happen when we turn on the tap. At the same time, waste disposal systems will fail, dumping raw sewage into rivers on which we rely for clean water. We need also to recognise the risk of industrial pollution from (for instance) shale gas mining or a nuclear accident, making entire watersheds unusable. That is, breakdowns in the distribution of energy and food are likely to be followed by corresponding breakdowns in the distribution of water.

This belongs to the class of problems to which there is no solution after the event. And prevention itself is in trouble, owing to the many demands on the use of land—notably the invasion of watersheds by housing and roads to accommodate a growing population. The industrial economy’s undefended and overlooked exposure to water shock ought to be factored into planning decisions even at this late stage.

It is not just that water is precious. It is magic. You can watch a spring with its constant gift of clear cold water and briefly think that all is right with the world.


Related entries:

Casuistry, Commons, Encounter, Planned Economy, Script.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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