Jamie McEvoy, Margaret Wilder
A B S T R A C T
The specter of climate change threatens fresh water resources along the U.S.–Mexico border. Water managers and planners on both sides of the border are promoting desalination—the conversion of seawater or brackish groundwater to fresh water—as an adaptation response that can help meet growing water demands and buffer against the negative impacts of climate change on regional water supplies. However, the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of this expensive, energy-intensive technology is likely to exacerbate existing social inequalities in the border zone. In this paper, we examine the discourses employed in the construction of the climate problem and proposed solutions. We focus our analysis on a proposed Arizona–Sonora binational desalination project and use insights from risk and hazards literature to analyze how, why, and to what effect desalination is emerging as a preferred climate change adaptation response. Our risk analysis shows that while desalination technology can reduce some vulnerabilities (e.g., future water supply), it can also introduce new vulnerabilities by compounding the water-energy nexus, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, inducing urban growth, producing brine discharge and chemical pollutants, shifting geopolitical relations of water security, and increasing water prices. Additionally, a high-tech and path-dependent response will likely result in increased reliance on technical expertise, less opportunity for participatory decision-making and reduced flexibility. The paper concludes by proposing alternative adaptation responses that can offer greater flexibility, are less path dependent, incorporate social learning, and target the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community. These alternatives can build greater adaptive capacity and ensure equity.
Keywords: Climate change adaptation | Maladaptation | Risk analysis | Water policy | Desalination