“You can’t call it a drought anymore, because [the US Southwest is] going over to a drier climate.  No one says the Sahara is in a drought.”   — Richard Seager, Scientist, Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory as quoted in “The Future is Drying Up”, New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2007 

As first published in its July 14, 2007 posting, Marketing Green believes that persistent drought in the US can be an effective catalyst that sparks a broader, national dialogue on climate change.  With drought conditions worsening in areas of the US, the time is now for such a conversation. 

Drought can be a catalyst for a broader dialogue for many reasons. First, drought will directly impact the human condition, causing inconvenience and suffering.  Second, drought will likely cause economic hardship by limiting growth, reducing output, and significantly increasing costs (eg, building infrastructure to move water long distances or desalinate water).  Finally, droughts force political leaders to make unpopular trade-offs that require voter sacrifice. 

Indeed, as tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine reports, drought conditions are worsening in the historically dry Southwest while expected population growth will put more demands on limited resources in the years to come.  Shortages are on the horizon across the region, but are especially apparent in cities like Las Vegas which is dependent on water from Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the US, that is currently at less than half of its capacity.   Moreover, continued shortages will likely pit one entity against another in price wars and legal battles as individuals, businesses and governments compete for scarcer resources. 

Drought conditions in the typically temperate US Southeast may demonstrate a more alarming trend because they are so unexpected.  With scorching heat this past summer and a hurricane season that failed to materialize, the city of Atlanta confronts the drier winter season with record low water levels in its reservoirs.   Most experts agree, it is the driest period every recorded in the Southeast; few signs are on the horizon that suggest the situation is likely to improve any time soon. 

Interestingly, extreme drought in the Southeast is fueling water disputes between regional states over scheduled water releases from Lake Lanier, the primary water source for three million Georgian residents, that are mandated by the Endangered Species Act and enforced by the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

Currently, as Georgia enters what is typically its driest month, Lake Lanier holds a mere 81 days of stored water left.  Georgians have responded by imposing severe restrictions on water use, but unbridled growth over the past decade and limited water use planning up until now have put a strain on existing resources.   

But, it is the actions by the Georgia legislature that, perhaps, are generating the most controversy.  Pending legislation would temporarily wave compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and allow Georgia (via the Corps) to suspend water releases from the Lanier that currently protect endangered mussels and sturgeon downstream.  So far, the Corps refuses to budge which means that a legal showdown is likely ahead. 

The state of Florida has leveled a complaint already, asking Georgia to release more, not less, water to protect Floridian biodiversity.  Moreover, Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama has asked the Corps to release additional water from other Georgian water sources in order to alleviate shortages in that state.    

It is likely that cross-border disputes will only intensify if sufficient rains do not come soon.  In fact, facing severe water shortages, Atlanta may soon become the first metropolitan region to reduce water available for commercial and industrial activities, a threat to the local economy.   These threats will only be compounded if reservoirs do not refill before next summer when water use is traditionally the highest.  

As water become more scarce and entities compete for dwindling resources, marketers have an opening to leverage drought a conversation starter for a national dialogue on climate change.  In many ways, expanding drought conditions will force the conversation as we will have to deal with consequences of a drier climate whether we are prepared to do so or not.  

Because the populous in the US is geographically dispersed, however, marketers risk that such discussions will be isolated to those regions most affected.  As such, it is an imperative for marketers to broaden the discussion regarding worsening drought conditions and their causes to create a truly national debate.


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