What can economic history tell us about the future of water policy?

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“The invading Templars were warriors, not farmers,” Espín-Sánchez said. “They created a company that [had] property rights over water …[which sold] water to farmers every year. The water, necessary for the irrigation of farms and ranches in the region as well as for domestic life, has been secured in a collection of aljibes, or cisterns. The old corporation and its water distribution market system have remained intact to this day. At the start of the 20th century, a reservoir was built for the city, and agriculture shifted from viticulture and olive growing to growing citrus fruits and apricots, which required much more water.

In 1966, the water market in Mula – a small municipality in Murcia – was replaced by a quota system. Espín-Sánchez and his co-author, Javier Donna of the University of Florida, empirically investigate how this institutional change has affected the efficiency and well-being of farmers. Most of the farmers in Mula grow similar crops – apricots and citrus, both of which require significant amounts of water. It is also a particularly dry region that experiences high cumulative annual volatility in rainfall: in years when there has been little rainfall, the demand for water can often exceed the supply. Due to the lack of adequate historical data, Espín-Sánchez and Donna constructed a structural econometric model using detailed input data (units of water purchased, amount of rainfall, number of apricot trees, etc.) to calculate the agricultural production in both systems. To ensure consistency, they also focused only on apricot growers. Using an estimate of water demand and liquidity constraints, they found that farmers would get 8% more income under the quota system.

An old auction house in Mula, Spain. Photo courtesy of José Antonio Espín-Sánchez.

Water theft as social insurance

In a separate article, Espín-Sánchez and Donna study Murcia’s unique legal system – in particular its treatment of the misuse of irrigation and water theft – in order to understand the social and legal dimensions of the scarcity of water. water in this drought-prone region. Just as water quotas protect poor farmers by allowing them access to water in years when they experience financial hardship, the researchers found that Murcia’s legal system also offers “social insurance” to poor farmers. through flexible penalties for water theft during drought years.

As an old, socially stable and economically efficient autonomous territory, Murcia has used the same system to resolve water-related conflicts for centuries. Specifically, the judges of Murcia (referred to as the ‘Council of Good Men’) use a flexible sentence scale that takes into consideration a range of factors, including whether the misuse of irrigation or theft of water has been. committed during a drought and if the perpetrator is wealthy. and a repeat offender.

“This treatment is very fair,” said Espín-Sánchez. “He will punish greedy farmers or rich farmers, and he will be lenient with poor farmers. This is good because it creates a kind of [social] insurance for farmers… proof that it is a success is that they have been doing it for almost 1000 years, and still do. This social insurance helps to show leniency to poor farmers during drought years, when they are more likely to struggle, while deterring criminal activities by rich farmers.

To further examine this form of flexible justice, Espín-Sánchez and Donna developed a dynamic model that describes how judges assess the benefits of criminal deterrence and social insurance for farmers in the distribution of penalties for violations. related to water. Using court records from 1851 to 1948, they found that wealthy offenders (identified by the honorary “gift” next to their name in historical records) were punished more severely than those who were poor, and that repeat offenders were punished more severely than the first repeat offenders. delinquents. In addition, rich farmers were punished particularly severely when the victim was a poor farmer.

This progressive system (put in place by judges who are themselves farmers) thus offers social insurance to poor farmers while preventing rich, opportunistic farmers from preying on the poorest. Given the effectiveness of the system in utilizing the social aspects of the closely related region to maintain a low crime rate and protect poor farmers, the Council of Long-lived Good Men has been recognized as part of the intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO.

Water supply nowadays

Water scarcity is accelerating in many parts of the world, including India, Latin America and the United States – and as these issues become an increasingly global concern, water theft and inequitable access to water will also be. As such, the research by Espin-Sánchez and Donna is timely and raises important questions for the future of water supply. What combination of regulations will effectively allocate the world’s increasingly scarce water supply, and which conflict resolution methods are most effective for the sustainable management of water resources?

Research by Espin-Sánchez and Donna suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that local factors are very important. Their article comparing water markets and quota systems, in particular, suggests that in regions like India, a quota system can be beneficial for poor farmers who often face cash constraints. Quota systems would be particularly effective when operating in small sub-regions with relatively homogeneous crops and high overall rainfall volatility, they are likely to be effective. However, it can be difficult to assess whether quotas or water markets would be more effective in regions where public and private ownership of water overlaps, where distorted prices can make it difficult to estimate the water supply. demand for water.

Likewise, just as quota systems can help farmers in times of financial hardship, Mula’s proven legal system underscores the importance of protecting poor farmers from the misuse of irrigation and water theft. As resources become increasingly scarce, legal systems and progressive water delivery methods may come under increased pressure and control. Ancient Mula traditions, which prioritize protecting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, offer a lesson in how flexible and socially conscious economic and justice systems can support communities in times of drought. and difficulties.


Clare Kemmerer is a sophomore MAR student at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, focusing on the study of visual arts and material culture, and an EGC communication intern.


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