In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a giant aquatic monster with numerous heads. If one of the Hydra's heads was cut off, two more would grow back in its place. So essentially trying to fix one problem made that problem worse. The lesson to be learnt in this case is to properly understand the problem in order to find the most effective solution. Water governance is similar in that the framing and identification of the issues is a crucial step for effective policy-making, i.e. policies that change (unsustainable) business-as-usual practices. Defining the solutions before properly defining the problems will not only fail to solve the root issues of concern (Type II error), but will also lead to additional problems.
Alternative water sources, namely reclaimed and desalinated water, have emerged as technologically reliable sources of water to face drought and scarcity(ies) in many regions worldwide (De López et al., 2011; March et al., 2014; Bichai et al., 2018). Drought is mostly related to physical and meteorological variables (Van Loon & Laaha, 2015) while scarcity is basically related to situations where water consumption exceeds water availability (Postel, 2014).
In order to face scarcity, the EU has recently launched a Communication on minimum requirements for water reuse with “the objective of alleviating water scarcity across the EU (…)”.
According to this COM, the problem is essentially framed as the over-abstraction of natural water resources – scarcity – and the proposed solution is to increase water availability – reuse. In the European broad policy context, the proposal might seem logically coherent, but at smaller scales we could inadvertently gain many Hydra heads.
In Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands), the MAGIC Project team explored narratives surrounding the implementation of water reuse technologies with a wide range of social actors. Here, the main natural sources of water have been both surface and groundwater. Part of the rain water is collected in dams, ponds and other deposits, while the groundwater comes from aquifers historically extracted through privately owned artificial galleries and wells. In Tenerife, 87% of the total water consumption comes from aquifers. Hence, private water owners provide almost 90% of the total water consumption of an island with almost 1 million inhabitants and 2.5 million tourists per year. Water scarcity due to aquifer depletion is the official institutional discourse behind the development of industrial waters. But is water scarcity a narrative that supports vested interests? Is this a social construct? Are scientific models supporting this perspective? After undertaking our interviews we revealed different perspectives:
- In the Tenerife Hydrological Plan, no area of the island of Tenerife has been declared by the Tenerife Water Council (water governance body) as over-exploited, which seems contradictory to the clear hymn to the scarcity discourse which is: a) there is water scarcity in the island: aquifers and other resources are overexploited by human pressure; and b) the lack of water is due to climatic factors: droughts, climate change, etc.
- Other actors uphold that the status of aquifer overexploitation is surrounded by uncertainty sustaining that existing models are useless.
- Finally, other actors suggest that the lack of water is caused by inefficient management of the existing resources (water leaks and losses, poor water quality, etc.).
The unclear problem definition gets more complicated with the identification of other tensions: high energy costs of water consumption and production; health risks; eutrophication; soils degradation and pollution.
The interviews indicate that the main beneficiaries of water reuse for irrigation will be farmers. But the abandonment of agricultural lands in the island seems related to socio-economic factors rather than water scarcity: subsidies, external competence, or the lack of intergenerational succession and knowledge. So, what are alternative water sources resolving really? Specifically, are agricultural issues faced by farmers diminishing, and should we be placing our focus elsewhere to benefit other actors or the environment?
Too many “un-definitions” require a debate to collectively evaluate the plausibility of contrasting narratives, because in environmental governance, framing is the condition sine qua no, to avoid multiplication of Hydra heads.
Bichai, F., Grindle, A. K., & Murthy, S. L. (2018). Addressing barriers in the water-recycling innovation system to reach water security in arid countries. Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, S97-S109.
De Lopez, T. T., Elliott, M., Armstrong, A., & Lobuglio, J. (2011). Technologies for climate change adaptation-the water sector.
March, H., Saurí, D., & Rico-Amorós, A. M. (2014). The end of scarcity? Water desalination as the new cornucopia for Mediterranean Spain. Journal of Hydrology, 519, 2642-2651.
Postel, S. (2014). The last oasis: facing water scarcity. Routledge.
Van Loon, A. F., & Laaha, G. (2015). Hydrological drought severity explained by climate and catchment characteristics. Journal of Hydrology, 526, 3-14.
Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on minimum requirements for water reuse. COM/2018/337 final - 2018/0169 (COD). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52018PC0337
Plan Hidrológico de Tenerife, Sección IV Protección del dominio público hidráulico subterráneo, Art. 264º Zonas sobreexplotadas (NAD)