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Scarcity, Irrigation Efficiency And The Paracommons Of Saved Resources

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Bruce Lankford

University of East Anglia1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 9: Water allocation among competing uses and users,

In a resource-scarce world, society is increasingly interested in the efficiency of resource use; how to get more from less. The efficient use of natural resources is behind the idea of a green economy and of recent initiatives by the European Commission in their new Horizon 2020 programme (1).

The combination of burgeoning demand and increasing variability of supply (due to climate change) has caused freshwater to be a major focus for this new emphasis in environmental policy. Efficient resource use implies the current level of efficiency is increased to one that is more efficient. For example, a farmer who consumes less water this year than last year and produces the same yield as the previous harvest is improving both their productivity and 'water-use efficiency'. A necessary condition for an efficiency improvement is that consumption of the natural resource is reduced and this lower consumption allows more of the resource to be 'saved' for other purposes. Yet if we 'save' a resource, what does that mean and who gets the 'saved' resource? In other words who gets the material gain of an efficiency gain?

In a recently published book, this question of the competition over future resources newly 'freed up' by efficiency gains is considered by introducing the concept of the 'paracommons' (2). While the 'commons' is about competition over existing resources, the 'paracommons' covers competition over salvaged resources from yet-to-be conserved (more efficiently consumed) resources. The prefix 'para' indicates that the paracommons sits alongside 'the commons' (e.g. fish/fisheries in seas or trees in a forest). In this case, 'para' has a similar meaning to 'parallel'; that the paracommons stems from the commons. However, the concept of the paracommons also encompasses paradox. In the latter case, para means 'against' (para = against, doxa = belief). The reason that paradox is so central to the theme of efficiency is because without careful planning and forethought, the material gains of the efficiency gain do not end up where we would ideally want them to. In other words, the material savings do not return to nature and therefore do not reduce natural resource consumption.

The question over who gets the benefit from an efficiency gain was recently writ large by the US Supreme Court decision in 2011 regarding Montana vs Wyoming. The Court backed Wyoming's defence that their prior appropriation water law enabled them to use the water freed up by introducing more consumptive irrigation sprinkler systems. The previously 'inefficient' flood technology spilled drainage water that downstream neighbouring Montana had become accustomed to. In the case of Montana vs Wyoming, the simple expectation is that more efficient irrigation systems would provide more water to downstream Montana. Paradoxically, it resulted in less water flowing to Montana because Wyoming used the freed-up gain to expand the area under cultivation, resulting in more water evapotranspired and lost to the atmosphere.

Using this and other examples, the paracommons book conceives that there are four parties or destinations competing over efficiency gains: (i) the proprietor making the efficiency gain (e.g. an irrigation scheme); (ii) immediately connected neighbours (e.g. farmers or villagers using drainage water from the irrigation scheme); (iii) the common pool (the river system); and, (iv) the wider economy (other users such as industry). In the Montana/Wyoming case, these respectively correlate to; i) Wyoming irrigators; (ii) Montana irrigators; (iii) the Yellowstone river system; and, (iv) other economic sectors in both Montana and Wyoming or further downstream in the Missouri River system. The reason that material gains tend not to flow back to nature is because the proprietor and/or neighbour act to appropriate these 'new' resources.

Furthermore this happens because society's ability to trace and track resource quantities and gains is limited by the complexity of understanding and monitoring resource withdrawal and consumption at different locations, scales and times. The term 'paracommons' is also relevant to how changes are made to resource use efficiency and the complexity of this endeavour over time and space.

By using this term, plus the idea of 'resource efficiency complexity' and the word 'paragains' (meaning material but uncertain gains), resource efficiency science does not simply involve a binary distinction between either: a) resources are always freed up by efficiency gains, or b) no resources are freed up by efficiency gains. These two camps have their respective protagonists -- for example see the recent debate in the journal Water International (3).

The central message arising from the paracommons concept is that resources found by savings and efficiency gains exist, but their size, timing, character and destination are 'liminal'; this means the savings are part of a transitional process pending the resolution of many different context-specific factors, such as technology, terminology, water rights, and measurement. In summary, policies and technologies creating more efficient systems may result in unexpected outcomes. It argues that 'savings' of the inefficient part of resource use are complex and provisional and become a matter of common-pool competition between stakeholders found in four different types of destinations. 1 - Horizon 2020 (2014). Societal Challenge 5: Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials. 

Orientation Paper. 2 - Lankford, BA (2013). Resource Efficiency Complexity and the Commons: The Paracommons and Paradoxes of Natural Resource Losses, Wastes and Wastages 3 - Gleick, P. H., Christian-Smith, J. and Cooley, H. (2011) ‘Water-Use Efficiency and Productivity: Rethinking the Basin Approach,’ Water International, vol 36, no 7, pp784–798

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