It was a litigation nightmare and Missoulians paid too much, but that’s what happens when a small city tangles with a multinational private equity firm. Still, the Mountain Water purchase was one of the best and smartest things Missoula has done.
“Get me 100 megaliters of August Poland Springs at the thousand handle”—a trader near you may be squawking this into his box soon. The launch of a new futures exchange in Australia is the latest sign that water is becoming a speculative commodity, just like crude oil.
It’s the “ultimate commodity” — next to air, I guess. According to Fortune, it is “transforming water from a free and common property … to a dollar-denominated commodity like the stuff we dig out of the ground.”
If water levels keep falling, Cape Town will declare Day Zero in less than three months. Taps in homes and businesses will be turned off until the rains come. The city’s four million residents will have to line up for water rations at 200 collection points. The city is bracing for the impact on public health and social order.
Cape Town’s problems embody one of the big dangers of climate change: the growing risk of powerful, recurrent droughts. In Africa, a continent particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, those problems serve as a potent warning to other governments, which typically don’t have this city’s resources and have done little to adapt.
Cities elsewhere have faced serious water shortages. Millions of Brazilians have endured rationing because of prolonged droughts. Brasília, the capital, declared a state of emergency a year ago. Experts say the water shortages in Brazil, which have affected more than 800 municipalities across the country, stem from climate change, the rapid expansion of agriculture, bad infrastructure and poor planning.
Think it can’t happen in Montana? Including climate change, we have all the ingredients: wasteful agricultural practices, bad infrastructure (Missoula’s water system still has a 50 percent leakage rate) and often, poor planning.
Between water becoming a commodity and the effects of climate change, Missoula did the right thing. Now, it’s incumbent on the city to advance a sustainable, climate-aware agenda, and Missoula Water must adopt the best water practices available.
But thanks, Missoula, for supporting the Mountain Water purchase. If managed correctly, it should support us for generations.