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Speaking of Water: Mapping People, Power, and Water w/ Giulio Boccaletti and Parag Khanna - Energy And Water Development Corp

Speaking of Water: Mapping People, Power, and Water w/ Giulio Boccaletti and Parag Khanna


J. Carl Ganter:

Since the dawn of civilization, water has defined where people live, when they thrive, and when they move. I’m J. Carl Ganter, and this is Speaking of Water from Circle of Blue.

Giulio Boccaletti:

Water doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict. In fact, it more frequently leads to cooperation, unless societies don’t have the institutions to negotiate with each other.

Parag Khanna:

It’s time for them to move. And I don’t say that in a heartless way. I say that in a humanitarian’s way. It is time to move.

JCG:

Today is a special episode. We’ve brought together two authors, Giulio Boccaletti and Parag Khanna, to interview each other about their new books that are capturing attention around the world and provoking debate about borders, conflicts, and what sustainability may look like for the human race.

JCG:

Let’s start with water right off the bat with Giulio. You went really deep into history for water, I think deeper than… Sorry, puns always included. For Water: a Biography, you really follow the pathway backwards, and with some sites forwards. But being a water guy, I’m really curious. What are the two or three things that surprised you most when you are writing this book in water’s role in shaping civilization?

GB:

Well, it’s a good question. I mean, I think several things. I mean, partly the book is a bit of an exercise in an archeology of ideas. The intent was to reveal the DNA of the relationship between society and water, as it is expressed in the institutions of society today. So you go look at the legal system or you look at our institutions of government and you ask yourself, “Well, where did this relationship with the landscape, relationship with geography,” which in a sense is what also Parag has been thinking about for many years, “Where does that actually show up and how obvious is it?”

GB:

One of the surprising things that I think I realized as I was digging back is that the symptoms of that relationship are almost invisible to us today. But they were obvious to people all the way up to the early 19th century. I mean, we live in a very unusual time in which we don’t have a real relationship with our landscape and with the geography and the nature of the geography around us.

GB:

So when you start looking back, it doesn’t take a lot to unearth the relationship between water and society, and the way it influences the legal system, and the ways in which it influences political systems simply because controlling water on the landscape is exercising power, and power is intermediated by institutions and society. And so it was sort of as simple as that in a way.

GB:

So that was one thing that was surprising. The other thing that was surprising, which again, I think also in Parag’s work sort of arises in a way, is that historically there’s been extraordinary diversity in the way in which societies have dealt with creating institutions to tackle some of these kind of landscape issues.

GB:

And we live in a very peculiar time when, whether you’re in Singapore, in London, in Japan, or in California, your environment kind of looks all the same. And that’s sort of an accident. It’s an anomaly in the history of humanity, one that makes us blind to the diversity that we live in. And also one that makes us blind to the diversity of solutions that you might be able to bring to wrestling with some of these environmental and governance issues.

GB:

So those are a couple of things that were surprising to me, just how easy it was to reveal that relationship and the degree to which diversity actually exists in the solutions that humanity has developed to solve some of these issues.

JCG:

Great. Well, thanks, Giulio. And the same really question for you, Parag. You love maps and working on Move. What were the really two or three things that caught you by surprise the most? And maybe even come back to a touch on water and some of the resource drivers that we’re facing today?

PK:

Absolutely. Well, by the way, I wanted to say, it just occurred to me that I bet Giulio and I both knew exactly what the titles of our books would be before they were written. Just that one word that you know captures everything you want to say. It’s obviously far more concrete, let’s say, with water. Move is slightly more ethereal concept, but still that one word we needed to build everything around as a kind of scaffolding.

PK:

So I did want to go back also to ancient times, really to the very beginning, to the first human steps out of Africa and explore mobility, not just anatomically. It wound up becoming a meta study in a way of all forms of mobility. And of course it’s often reduced to just migration, but fundamentally it’s about human geography, the distribution human beings around the world. How did we get to where we are over the last hundred thousand years? And where are we going over the next merely 10, 20, 30 years is going to contain enough dynamism that one doesn’t have to look much further than that.

PK:

And so I wanted to kind of focus on what will be different in human mobility in the coming decades, and what will be the distribution of the 8 billion, 9 billion people on the planet in the year 2050, and reverse engineer over the next 30 years. How did we get there? Where are we? Why are we there? And so forth. And of course water plays an enormous role in that story. It always has. And it always will.

PK:

The technological solutions that we can conjure up to water shortages and water crises are insufficient to the scale of the problem that we have in terms of our demographics. Right? So it’s one thing to identify desalination or atmospheric water generation, and I go into all of those technologies. But we are still dealing with, again, the human geography issue.

PK:

So in a way, of course, water explains to a large degree our human geography right now. But it also therefore explains what our future human geography is given the way in which water resources have been misused, exploited, and in many cases eviscerated. And so that kind of scramble, if you will, for water is going to shape that future human geography and our present migrations, and one sees it in the news, of course, every single day. So in that sense, there’s a deep, deep intersection.

PK:

I just want to say one last thing, which is that the demographics and the geography, that’s really what this is about. And our demographics, actually right now, we’re at a moment where the world population is reaching a plateau much sooner than anyone expected. There really won’t be, I really doubt, and I’m happy to debate this ad nauseum with experts. But I actually don’t think the world population will cross 9 billion people.

There does come a point where you don’t fight nature, you flee. -Parag Khanna

I really don’t. We’ve been so massively wrong on this issue the last 20 years. Remember 20 years ago, the forecast was 15 billion people. Today the forecast before the pandemic was 10-ish. And if you have been following the news, the baby bust from the pandemic is so severe that it will massively reduce fertility, already has.

PK:

So our problem is a distribution problem. They’re only going to be 9 billion people that will live at the same time on the earth. And we have 150 million square kilometers of territory. Much of that is habitable, livable for human beings. Much of it has ample water resources. And as a political geographer I ask myself this question, how will our borders, how will our norms, how will our institutions adapt to cope with that distribution problem, that misalignment of the geography of water and natural resources and the current geography of people?

JCG:

Go for it, please.

GB:

I’m actually very interested in a kind of challenge that I faced in writing my own book, which Parag, I suspect you’ve had to navigate in the process of writing, not just this book, but all the books that you’ve written around the power of geography. It’s the kind of issue of teasing out sort of the dialectic relationship between the agency of society and the environment that people live in without falling into sort of naive determinism, which is often the criticism that books like ours sort of get, the issue people get accused of sort of engaging in. Right?

GB:

Because I don’t think your argument and certainly not my argument is that the environment uniquely defines the trajectory of humanity. In fact, you engage in scenario planning all the time. But in the dialogue with the environment, we end up generating a constraint sort of choices, and it’s amongst those that we end up choosing. So I wonder if you could reflect on that tension between revealing the role of the environment and the role of geography as a determinant, whilst at the same time not falling prey to sort of traditional 19th century sort of [Killen 00:09:48] and the likes, sort of geographical [inaudible 00:09:51].

PK:

I love it when people cite Killen,.it brings me back about 25 years to geopolitics class in college.

GB:

That’s right.

PK:

But that’s actually a brilliant question. And I do use complexity as an approach, right? So in complexity, you push the system and the system pushes back, right? And so in a way, that’s the way in which I navigate the relationship, the dynamic between human society, civilization and the environment. It isn’t that one can master the other, or one is fully beholden to the other. And of course that is very consistent with particularly 20th century history, with our rapid technological evolution. And of course, it’s going to be technologies, the ones I mentioned earlier and many others, will play a role in us trying to tame nature.

PK:

But at the same time, fundamentally there are two caveats. One is, as mammals, we are imbued with a certain fight or flight instinct, right? So there does come a point where you don’t fight nature, you flee, right? So that’s part of it. So that’s not determinism, but it’s saying, “Okay, we lost this round. Let us find another geography to conquer and to prevail upon.”

PK:

The other caveat would be the water caveat, which is, again, we obviously can’t survive without it. And within the water issue, water stress, too much water or too little water. I’d be very curious to ask you this. You know, this may be very, very live, but you know, too much water is, quote unquote, a less severe problem than too little water, right? I mean, if you think about the floods in Germany, or anywhere for that matter, people can move upland, right? They can simply relocate. They can cleanse that water. They can use that water, harness that water, and so forth. You can relocate, but you are still near water.

PK:

But just today, if you saw one of the headlines about the [inaudible 00:11:55] region of Kenya, where they’re saying that the drought is so severe that they will die. And I look at a situation like that, and I say, “You know, the next rain, even if it comes is nothing but a very temporary salve. It’s time for them to move.” And I don’t say a heartless way. I say that in a humanitarian way. So, you know, it is time to move.

PK:

So I’m curious, Giulio, from what you’ve seen. When you look at the geography of water and the geography of people, kind of this misalignment of geographies, does it kind of tug at you? Do you say people should be able to live, and have the right to live in places that are abundant in water, provided, of course, that we do so in a sustainable way?

GB:

Well, it’s just a great question. I think there’s less a symmetry than I think you’re implying, in my view at least, the question of too much water, too little water. There are three sorts of interesting geographical distributions. One is the shared distribution of demography and where people live. The second is indeed the distribution of water. And if you took that at face value, you could sort of map the gaps and say, “Well, people live here. There’s not enough water definitely. Might move over there.”

GB:

But there’s a third distribution, which is really important, which is the distribution of collective power, which is essentially effected through the institutions of the state in the 20th and 21st century. And that’s where you end up with the situation where Dubai exists, right? So you have the Emirates carrying capacity of circa 20,000 people, but 10 million people live there because you’re essentially using other people’s water and then just importing all of the food.

GB:

So, there is a solution, but it’s a solution… and it can be sustainable by the way. I mean, it’s not intrinsically unsustainable, sustainable socially economically. It’s not environmentally necessarily unsustainable. But there is this kind of third dimension of having the capacity, most of the resources, the collective resources, to solve the problem you face. And societies get unhinged from that environment and move when that stock of institutional and human capital is missing.

GB:

And so the East African example is a great one. I’ve worked for many years in Southern Ethiopia, at the boundary with Kenya. And there you still have the [inaudible 00:14:24] tribes who are extremely vulnerable to changes in water, actually both floods and droughts. And they will move very, very quickly.

GB:

So, I think in a way Move is an index of institutional vulnerability. The other thing that might happen by the way is if you have that institutional scarcity, is conflict. Water doesn’t let necessarily lead to conflict. In fact, it more frequently leads to cooperation unless societies don’t have the institutions to negotiate with each other. If they don’t, as in the case of the border with Kenya and Ethiopia, then you end up in conflict over scarce resources. So I think those three dimensions that matter, so mapping power is as important as mapping people and mapping water.

PK:

Very true. I mean, there is that phrase, by the way about whenever someone says water wars, you could point out that water wars don’t create more water.

GB:

Exactly.

PK:

As you’d say, very often it is a cause for diplomatic efforts to produce sort of joint conservation areas. I mean, I guess the outcome is different in each part of the world where you have tension over water. Obviously the Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia situation is different from the Mekong River situation and so forth.

PK:

But on the institutions, I mean, it leads to another question though, because this idea of extended urbanization, of planetary urbanization as it’s known, which is the phenomenon you’re referring to. Right? People can be in Dubai, but you are basically importing water by way of importing food. But that obviously has very negative effects on gas emissions and agricultural supply chains being so long.

PK:

So many advocate that we return to this so called [inaudible 00:16:10], this notion that we try to produce as much food locally, and obviously generate our fuel locally as well through alternative renewable sources. So yes, we can stay where we are. The population of Dubai can grow and grow, and even if that’s, quote unquote, sustainable as you say from a social and economic standpoint and a political standpoint, because they have the wealth to finance it, that doesn’t make it sustainable environmentally unless they change their practices. So I still wonder whether we’d be better off having populations concentrated in areas where they can actually produce their own, obviously. The sort of food, energy, water nexus can be in a tighter geographic radius.

GB:

Well, yes. So this in a way is kind of the issue, and also leads me to a question for you. Because on the one hand, we have this kind of a very well-honed system for trading goods and services, a system that by the way has existed for a long time. I mean, we had integrated regional systems in the Bronze Age. We had integrated regional systems all through the Roman period. So this is not new. Where we sort of move crops around, and we are able to keep people fixed because we can move what they need from one place to another.

GB:

As a result, the international institutions’ architecture designed to help states negotiate these trades is actually quite sophisticated. And now you might argue that the end result is an unsustainable one, and in a way that critique is ultimately a critique of that globalized integrated system.

GB:

So then you flip to this question of, could people move instead, right? Rather than moving goods, you start readjusting the distribution of people. And then the question becomes, and I wonder what reflection you have on that, is what institutional architecture, international institutional architecture would you need? Because it strikes me that the sort of institutions that we have to deal with movement of people are quite a bit less sophisticated and quite a bit less honed than those that we have paradoxically to move goods around.

PK:

Right. Maybe it’s not paradoxical at all in the sense that this is something that I address very directly, because we have hopes that we could have a global migration accord, a global migration compact, or whatever the case may be. But I dare say in a pessimistic note here that it’s the one thing that we will never have any supernational governance over. I believe that the governments of the world will agree on the protocols for colonizing the moon before they will agree on a common international mobility accord or agreement. In fact, it could be that the very last vestige of sovereignty that remains is the control over one’s borders against the flow of people.

PK:

Because we don’t prevent the flow of goods per se. Global tariffs have been reduced by 98% over the past century. We can’t prevent pathogens, or cyber hacks, or air pollution from crossing borders. It’s the only thing left of sovereignty. And it’s what states are designed to do practically in the physical sense of the bordered territorial sovereign state.

PK:

So it’s unfortunate that the movement of people is perhaps the best way to rectify the misalignments between the geography of people and the geography of resources and the geography of infrastructure and economics. But that one layer of geography, borders, gets in the way of that. And it literally always will. The best we can hope for is bilateral kinds of geographic swaps, demographic swaps, which is a fancy way of saying countries that absorb lots of migrants. So Canada is one. Britain, America, Germany, eventually Russia, Japan, and so forth.

PK:

The so-called climate oases of the future are gradually opening up significantly to mass migration. Not because of climate change. Much more because of their own demographics, because the Northern hemisphere, OECD countries are aging so rapidly. But climate migration in this century does outnumber political or economic migration. So there’s no question that countries have to get more prepared for it. It’s just that they won’t prepare for it collectively. And I think that’s obviously very, very unfortunate.

GB:

Yeah. Which then of course means that in this world in which boundaries have sort of this moral value that prevents, they’re not porous. Then in order to accommodate those bilateral migrations, in order to then maintain that legitimacy, I suspect governments will have to exercise another part of their sovereignty ever more, which is their power over the landscape. I mean, the alternative if everybody stays put in a world of climate change, then you’ll have to modify your landscape ever more in order to accommodate a rapidly changing hydrology.

GB:

We see this even in the recent Biden infrastructure plan. If you think about it, that’s a massive investment in what the landscape looks like, in what America actually ends up looking like, what the landscape looks like, what the rural areas look like. I think a lot of people had gotten used to thinking that we’ll all live in cities, and our reality is confined to the urban space, and everything that happens out there is the domain of 22% of the population. And in fact, that’s the instrument of security in a world in which people don’t move out of your country.

PK:

I definitely think that the US and other countries that are, quote unquote, turning inward and now investing more industrial policy and infrastructure, hopefully will do so in a way that that thinks about climate change first and foremost as a driver of the geographies that should be better cultivated or inhabited, and directing resources there first and foremost.

PK:

It’s a controversial point that I’ve been making recently, but it’s also a practical one. But isn’t there in terms of exercising one’s sovereignty over one’s own resources, even for countries that not necessarily as radical or progressive in emissions cuts and other kinds of things. Isn’t there good evidence that they are now working more and more around bio-conservation areas and so forth. I’m alluding to phenomena like the role of the WWF or the IUCN in helping countries to designate protected wetland areas and all other kinds of, again, natural conservation tools.

PK:

Are you noticing that even countries, maybe Brazil is worth exploring, and I’d love your view or your insight to what’s happening there. Are some of the most vulnerable, but strategically important ecological, national ecological zones, actually either under the radar or explicitly calling out for help and for support and for investment to preserve those ecosystems that are so important for their economies?

GB:

Well, yes, it’s an ambiguous story at best right now, I think. There are a lot of attempts at integrating nature in the story of sustainability. Of course, nature means lots of things to different people. And it’s a flag under which you can cover and hide a lot of sins, right? And so I’m quite ambivalent about whether we are actually making any progress there. Certainly rhetorically, it’s a source of political energy. So it’s a mobilizing theme and inevitably becomes a political theme. But whether practically we are actually making a significant difference to scientifically defined areas of biodiversity, I’m less convinced. And in fact, I fear that the green mantle of environmentalism is becoming a cover for a lot of other sins.

GB:

And this is not the first time this has happened. I mean, I’m from Italy. There’s a mountain in Italy where there’s a large kind of writing on a side of mounting that spells out Dux, D-U-X, because Mussolini had it inscribed in the forest as he set up his forestry core that was supposed to renew the landscape of the country. So I have a bit of an instinctive distrust of environmentalism that’s sort of siloed from any other consideration of social and economic justice. And I fear that that’s a bit what’s happening.

GB:

Biodiversity becomes the excuse for acts of sovereignty on the environment, but not necessarily acts of justice towards, for example, the indigenous people that live there, or those that are disenfranchised in the landscape.

JCG:

Wow. So many great questions. A quick question for you guys both is we just came out, of course, COP26, the UN climate conference in Glasgow. We’re talking about some really profound pieces of the puzzle that popped up here and there at COP. But I would say, migration was definitely an issue, but not to the level of gravity, Parag, that you’re articulating. Water, finally on the stage, but not of course to the water folks getting its full due. On the road to COP27 when we’re going to see more changes, we see more commitments. What do you think should be the core message if we take the Move meets Water approach controversy versus practicality versus political buy-in?

PK:

Well, I guess for me, it’s a very easy one. Because finally climate adaptation rather than just mitigation also came up on the agenda very strongly. And by the end of COP26, the statements were saying that half of future climate finance should be devoted to adaptation. And that’s definitely the tune that I’ve been singing. I obviously believe that we need the Manhattan project in scale when it comes to decarbonization of industry and so forth. But adaptation is a priority for yesterday, for today, for tomorrow.

PK:

It’s here and now. There’s immense suffering and we’re not investing nearly enough in helping vulnerable populations adapt. It’s just open and shut fact. So I would like to see a lot more capital committed to that. And I think that climate adaptation is now going to be spoken about and a lot more sort of thinking we’ll go into the categories of interventions that constitute adaptation.

GB:

Yeah. I tend to agree, although I do think that there’s a bit of a divergence between the sort of political agenda that gets illustrated through the debates that are all around COP, and then the actual technical negotiations that end up enshrining progress into the treaties. I do think that there’s growing awareness, Parag is right, on adaptation. And it’s an important development politically. I don’t know that the UNFCCC is the right framework through which to affect anything particularly meaningful. I mean, the failure to, yet again, deliver on this promise of a hundred billion dollars is an indication that the facts don’t follow the words.

GB:

I think if we are right in the discussion that we just had about the fact that ultimately adaptation is this kind of blend of different acts of sovereignty that have to do in part with accommodating movements, in part with exercising sovereignty in the landscape, that’s power that individual states are unlikely to want to give up very easily to international treaties.

GB:

And so the interesting question will be in and around the COP process, not necessarily just COP27, but around the sort of decadal process, what kind of deals will be struck bilaterally or multilaterally, regionally. For example, between now and the next decade, Europe will have to figure out a way of dealing with migration across the Mediterranean. And some of that is actually very tightly linked to water distribution, as I’m sure you both have said many times. So I’m optimistic that the topics come up, less convinced that the UNFCC COP process is the one where we’re going to find resolution.

JCG:

Okay. And, Parag, any last thoughts here from both you guys. We’re talking, again, profound, profound projections based on history, and based on maps into the future, based on scenarios. What should we be looking for?

PK:

We are moving in the right direction intellectually. We’re accepting that water is destiny, and mobility is destiny. Let’s put it that way.

GB:

Yeah. The one thing I will say, Carl, is that both Parag’s work and book I wrote reflect the fact that, at least in those of us who are sort of half practitioners and live in this world at the boundaries between policy and business, there’s the recognition that geography matters. That distribution in space and time of resources and people matter a great deal.

GB:

And I would observe that the sort of centers of intellectual production, academia and the likes, are behind here. Macroeconomic models reflect neither of our sort of thoughts around the geographical distribution of resources, for example. So I think that if we are right, the next 10 years will have to also see a significant evolution, at least, in some of the instruments that academia and sort of the policy analysts are using to understand the world. Because we’re still in a world where business thinks things can be sourced anywhere without necessarily having any knowledge about the context in which they’re sourced. Right? And that has to change if we’re right.

JCG:

Wow. Well, two books on the front lines of that, Giulio Boccaletti, author of Water: a Biography, and Parag Khanna, author of Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. So thanks to you both for joining us for this edition of Speaking of Water from Circle of Blue. It’s always great to see you.

GB:

Thank you.

PK:

Thank you both so much. It was great.



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