Hard Rain, Clean Water: Singing to Stave off Want and War

Bob Dylan has stepped out to lead promotional efforts for the International Exposition on Water and Sustainable Development in Zaragoza, Spain next summer. Dylan has recorded a new version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" – 45 years after laying down the original track – exclusively for the Expo, and will be appearing in European ads touting "the mission to make water safe and clean for every human being living in this world," as Dylan puts it in the ad. The Expo website features a video of the new "Hard Rain," including footage of Dylan and his band recording the song in a Nashville studio this year. (The video should load and play when you go to the website.)

Much of southern North America is now languishing in a new Dust Bowl – drought on a scale unseen for at least 500 years. Around the world, global warming is triggering similar imbalances – baking droughts, raging floods – that constantly drain or poison water supplies. The relentless, unchecked development fueled by globalization is further stripping more and more people of renewable, sustainable sources of clean water. Population growth and runaway urbanization – the "Planet of Slums" charted by Mike Davis (see here and here) – are also destroying clean water resources. In this world of growing scarcity, water has already become a flashpoint for conflict and oppression, playing an important but largely unnoticed role in Iraq and in Israel's choking of Palestine, just to name two examples.

And the increasing diminishment of sustainable water resources will play an ever-more sinister role in American politics. Here's Davis again:

....markets and politicians will continue to vote for the kind of rampant, high-impact suburbanization that now paves and malls thousands of square miles of the fragile Mojave, Sonora and Chihuahua deserts. States and cities, of course, will compete more aggressively than ever over water allocations, "but collectively the growth machines have the power to wrest water from other users."

As water becomes more expensive, the burden of adjustment to the new climatic and hydrological regime will fall on subaltern groups like farmworkers (jobs threatened by water transfers), the urban poor (who could easily see water charges soar by $100 to $200 per month), hardscrabble ranchers (including many Native Americans) and, especially, the imperiled rural populations of Northern Mexico.

Indeed, the ending of the age of cheap water in the Southwest -- especially as it may coincide with the end of cheap energy -- will accentuate the region's already high levels of class and racial inequality as well as drive more emigrants to gamble with death in dangerous crossings of the border deserts. (It takes little imagination, moreover, to guess the Minutemen's future slogan: "They are coming to steal our water!")

Conservative politics in Arizona and Texas will become even more envenomed and ethnically charged, if that is possible. The Southwest is already sown everywhere with violent nativism and what can only be described as proto-fascism: In the droughts to come, they may be the only seeds to germinate.

As Jared Diamond points out in his recent bestseller Collapse, the ancient Anasazi did not succumb simply to drought but rather to the impact of unexpected aridity upon an over-exploited landscape inhabited by people little prepared to make sacrifices in their "expensive lifestyle." In the last instance, they preferred to eat one another.

The very real potential for seeing this grim fate replicated around the world in the coming decades is the driving concern of the Expo Zaragoza. It's good to see Dylan – much reviled for his supposed "apolitcal" stance, and for being a musician instead of a politician – lending his ravaged but prominent voice to this vital cause.