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American Economic Review: Vol. 101 No. 1 (February 2011)

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Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation"

Article Citation

Libecap, Gary D. 2011. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation"." American Economic Review, 101(1): 64-80.

DOI: 10.1257/aer.101.1.64

Abstract

Katharine Coman's "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation," published in March 1911 in the first issue of the American Economic Review, addressed issues of water supply, rights, and organization. These same issues have relevance today, in the face of growing concern about the availability of fresh water worldwide. The central point of this article is that appropriative water rights and irrigation districts that emerged in the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to aridity to facilitate agricultural water delivery, use, and trade raise the transaction costs today of water markets. These markets are vital for smooth reallocation of water to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy and for flexible response to greater hydrological uncertainty. This institutional path dependence illustrates how past arrangements to meet conditions of the time constrain contemporary economic opportunities. They cannot be easily significantly modified or replaced ex post. (JEL N51, Q15, Q25, Q54)

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Authors

Libecap, Gary D. (U CA, Santa Barbara and U Cambridge)

JEL Classifications

N51: Economic History: Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment, and Extractive Industries: U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
Q15: Land Ownership and Tenure; Land Reform; Land Use; Irrigation; Agriculture and Environment
Q25: Renewable Resources and Conservation: Water
Q54: Climate; Natural Disasters; Global Warming


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