The planet today is undergoing disruptive climate change. As one study found, after nearly a millennium of a slow but steady cooling trend, the twentieth century has seen a dramatic upsurge in average global temperatures. For some years, farmers have experienced measurably longer growing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. These changes–which now seem indisputably to result from human activity–will have vastly altered precipitation patterns around the world. In addition to simple changes in the total availability of water, climate disruption will bring more extreme events–droughts and floods–at more frequent intervals. Those changes in turn will have drastic effects on innumerable aspects of the lives of humans and other living things. Water, in short, is the most critical resource affected by climate disruption. Without water, we have no food, we have no health, and we have no life.
The challenge to water management institutions will also be a challenge to water law regimes that create and regulate these institutions. The stresses produced by these challenges are occurring in a world still dominated by the “Washington Consensus.” That phrase refers to a view that markets are a superior way of managing resources and the economy, and that markets should be used both to allocate resources and to distribute wealth within society. The pressure for reliance on markets as the primary tool for responding to the growing water crisis has produced intense controversy internationally and within the United States. This controversy at the least raises serious questions about the utility of the Washington Consensus as a tool for resolving the growing global water crisis.
In this Article, I address how national or local water law regimes should respond to the pressures. In Part II of this Article, I briefly survey the likely effects of the climate disruption on water availability. In Part III, I consider the Washington Consensus and whether that Consensus provides an appropriate response to the growing water crisis rooted in climate disruption as well as the other stresses on water resources. In Part IV, I consider the alternatives to the Washington Consensus. In Part V, I suggest certain overall conclusions.