Water: An Urgent Community Problem Requiring A Community-Driven Solution

Fulbright Scholars from Argentina, ending a three-week Young Leaders program at the University of New Mexico, said, “water is a community problem. Research continues to find problems and propose solutions that don’t reach the people. …The only way to generate sustainable solutions is to understand water as a collective action problem and empower the people to take action.” They were focusing on the Middle Rio Grande, but their findings are applicable to public water commons across our beloved New Mexico.

Water is Life

UNM’s three-week program for this year’s cohort of Argentine Young Leaders was titled Peace through Policymaking. They viewed Argentine and the Middle Rio Grande case studies problems through the Peace Engineering framework that uses science and data to define problems and to vet solutions. Peace in this context does not mean the opposite of war. It means the reduction of violence, broadly construed. Peace Engineering explicitly seeks 1) public health in all policy, 2) justice, equity, accessibility, diversity, and inclusion, and 3) climate change sustainability. 

I’ve instinctively applied Peace Engineering concepts since becoming a water policy engineer in 1990. This summer, I’ve learned about the Peace Engineering framework and researched collective action, the Argentine scholars’ overarching recommendation. I believe the Peace Engineering and Nobel Prize winning collective action frameworks will be helpful to organize our water problem-solving to implement 21st century solutions to our more arid climate change future.

As a student at NMSU in the late 1960s, Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons essay caught my attention. Recently, a Water Advocates board member used the Tragedy of the Commons phrase to describe water in the Middle Rio Grande. 

In researching the Argentine scholars’ collective action recommendation to generate community-driven solutions to the community problems of overuse of our shrinking water resources commons, I Iearned sustainability thinking focuses now on Ending the Tragedy of the Commons.  

Nobel Prize winning research and theory, by Dr. Elinor Ostrom and her spouse, shows polycentric collective action and polycentric governance works to find and implement community solutions to sustain natural resource commons. In simple terms, it means what the Argentine’s recommended slogan says, “Water is Life! Do your Part.” Various levels of government must all do their parts. Water users, including all of us, must do theirs.

Breaking down polycentric governance, 

Governance means all the processes which determine the range of acceptable individual or collective choices available to members of the associated group or community.

Since poly means many, the meaning of polycentric governance emerges naturally: a system in which many diverse centers of partial authority collectively cover the full range of governance tasks.  Quoted from this source.

We need polycentric collective action to define our problems; to understand the limits of our water. As Hannah Risely-White, the newly appointed ISC Director, told me after the new regional water planning law passed, “The state is going to need all the help it can get.”  

Only through multiple centers of collective action undertaken with scientific integrity, prioritizing public health, and seeking justice, equity, accessibility, diversity, and inclusion in our planning processes and solutions, can we define how we can best equitably adapt to a future with much less water while preserving water for future generations of New Mexicans. The state will never solve these problems top down. Our collective action can and must. 

We need not reinvent. The Peace Engineering and Dr. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons concepts provide compatible frameworks for New Mexico’s robust new statewide regional water planning program. 

We must adhere to the letter and spirit of the law.  The core of our community problem of overuse is state government’s inability to sustainably govern the public water commons required for our lives.  But we can through collective action, work within existing law, to materialize community solutions.      

Presentations at the International Peace Engineering Symposium at UNM in June 2023 explain Peace Engineering and related topics.  All of the presentations are available on YouTube. I particularly recommend Drexel University Dean of Engineering Dr. Joseph Hughes’ enlightening introduction and University of New Mexico Dean of Engineering Dr. Donna Riley’s place-based definition.

Knowing and applying these concepts will get us a long way. Please visit our website again for more information, coming soon.