Drought, Sustainability, and the Law

Vilnelė River in Vilnius LT - Original Image

[tweetmeme http://www.URL.com]  Robert W. Adler of the .J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, recently published an excellent article on „Drought, Sustainability, and the Law.“  This article is part of our Water Sustainability Month feature articles.  The introduction to this article reads:

Drought has plagued human societies for millennia, sometimes causing serious economic impacts and human suffering, and at its extreme leading to the collapse of entire civilizations. The frequency and severity of drought has already been exacerbated in recent years by the growing mismatch between a skyrocketing human population with higher per capita water use and relatively fixed supplies of usable water. Moreover, even under the most optimistic climate change scenarios, drought is likely to increase in frequency, impact, and geographic range drought and sustainability are linked in several critical ways. Adequate supplies of sufficiently clean water are essential to healthy societies and economies. At the same time, sustainable communities are likely to be more resilient—or less vulnerable—to the effects of reduced water supplies. Indeed, because most generic definitions of drought focus on the relative balance between meteorological factors and human or environmental needs, enhanced sustainability is one logical strategy to offset predicted increases in drought severity and frequency. Water pricing structures are likely to change, and to affect supply and demand factors in the face of climate change, but a full discussion of the economics of drought is beyond the scope of this analysis.

Considerable work has been done on the physical and environmental aspects of drought, and on the history of drought and lessons that can be learned from those experiences. Most of that analysis, although extremely productive, has focused on drought definitions and characterization; monitoring and warning systems; planning and response; relief efforts; and impacts analysis. More recently, the study of hazard analysis generally and drought management more specifically has turned to an assessment of the vulnerability of different regions and societies to drought and other risks.

Less attention has been paid to the relationship between drought and sustainability, and to the role of law in guiding those relationships. To the extent that there is any ―law governing society’s response to drought, it has been almost entirely ad hoc and reactive, and often occurs at the local or regional levels, which can reduce the effectiveness of both prevention and response. This parallels non-legal aspects of drought planning and management, which researchers and government reports have criticized widely on similar grounds. There has also been relatively little analysis of drought and the law, and little attention to the relationship between drought and sustainability.

This article begins by providing a sustainability perspective on the difficulty of defining drought. Although the problem of drought definition has been recognized as a technical problem, at a more fundamental level the level and nature of scarcity deemed appropriate to trigger relief efforts is related closely to sustainability policy. Next, by reference to some of the more notable droughts of the twentieth century, it identifies some of the key linkages between drought, vulnerability and sustainability. Finally, the article explores ways in which existing legal regimes address drought in a largely reactive way, fail to promote sustainable systems and practices that might help to mitigate or prevent drought impacts, and in some ways actually decrease sustainability and hence increase society’s vulnerability to drought. Revised laws and policies should focus on providing incentives to improve the efficiency of water use in drought-prone regions, or to shift water-intensive activities to regions that have adequate water supplies to support them. To be most effective, some of those laws and policies may have to shift from local or regional to national or even international design and implementation, although significant local or regional variability in physical and socio-economic conditions suggests that inter-regional flexibility is necessary as well.

Read the full article here in PDF format.

Citation:  Adler, Robert W. 2010. “Drought, Sustainability, and the Law.” Sustainability 2, no. 7: 2176-2196.

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