Editor’s Note: A Blue Mind Wonders What Betting on Water Scarcity Means

This week, I was running/walking/climbing the Great Wall of Europe in Ston, Croatia, from the comfort of my living room (Nordic Track is fantastic unless you need to get in touch with someone to fix the treadmill or troubleshoot a problem). The walls, at little more than three miles in length, don’t compare to the 13,171 miles of the Great Wall of China. Nevertheless, the Ston wall is the second largest in the world.

The defensive wall was constructed in the 14th and 15th century to protect the Ston salt pans: the oldest in Europe and the largest preserved in the history of the Mediterranean. Back then, sea salt was as precious as gold, and worth the same, ounce for ounce, according to my hyper-fit tour guide/trainer. The historical Croatian economy was apparently built upon that salt.

I’m not an economist, as I will quickly reveal. I know nothing about pork bellies, or even what a pork belly is. I don’t know why one rare raw material becomes a block of commerce while another does not – diamonds, as I understand, are a rare raw material and yet are not, technically, a commodity.

My economic ignorance causes me to be suspicious about what it means that as of this week, investors can now trade water futures. They’re tied to the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index – which was launched a couple years ago and measures the volume-weighted average price of water – and began trading under the ticker NQH2O on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Monday, according to CNN.

The U.S. is the second largest consumer of water in the world, with California accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s daily consumption – and California has long periods of dry conditions. Like the classic movie Chinatown, which I’d never seen until last week, if you can’t take the water to LA, take LA to the water. 

Water has never been traded this way before, and I don’t know whether the benefits outweigh the dystopian message it sends. Some articles talk about the buffer the new futures trading will provide for farmers and other large water users. Other articles say Wall Street vultures are ready to get rich from water scarcity.

I’ve covered water scarcity and its impact on the Great Lakes quite a lot in the past when environmental reporting was my primary beat. Then, as now, drought-stricken parts of the country eyed the Great Lakes. Prognostications have not changed that future wars will be fought over water, not oil. And it’s still the expectation that nearly two-thirds of the world’s population are expected to face water shortages by 2025.

Fresh water is so rare: Only 3 percent of the world’s water supply is fresh. And yet fresh water surrounds us. It laps and crashes all day and night against the shore that defines this peninsula and its inhabitants. We use it for commerce and recreation and to find that immeasurable sense of peace away from the overstimulated state of modern life – our “blue mind” state, as coined by marine biologist and author Wallace J. Nichols.

The destruction caused by high water levels notwithstanding, the water is the natural asset I missed most while I was gone from this beautiful county. Six months in, I’ve still not made the sound and sight and smell of it overfamiliar enough to forget to notice or appreciate it. This is a point of gratitude we have at the ready when we’re fishing about these days for something positive to hold on to.