Guest post: Five things hippies get wrong about water

Dan here….I find David interesting and flexible in his approaches to the particular contexts of ownership and uses of water.  It is often an intensely local set of circumstances.


Guest post by  David Zetland   Blogging on the political economy of water at aguanomics
Author of Living with Water Scarcity (2014) and The End of Abundance (2011)

Five things hippies get wrong about water

Hi everyone. I’m a water economist, born and raised in San Francisco. I’m here to clarify a few misconceptions, help you understand how we get water issues wrong, and suggest how better policies serve social and private interests. Feel free to ask questions. — David*

“Bottled water is bad”

This statement is often followed by observations on lax regulations on the quality of water in bottles, the need to fund public water systems, the oil and energy consumption from making and moving bottles, and some hostile words towards Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsico — the three biggest sellers of bottled water.

All of these statements contain some truth, but they miss other dominant factors. A worry about quality is really a worry about the government’s failure to regulate safety. The second complaint can be solved by ensuring that charges for public water are adequate to cover costs — another responsibility of the government. The last two complaints ignore the fact that bottled water — like the iPhone and organic milk — is just another consumer product. There’s no point, therefore, in attacking its consumption or the companies selling it unless you’re also going to condemn consumption and capitalism in general. That’s fine, but bottled water may not be the best target.

It would be better to ensure that ALL drinking water is safe, tap water systems are funded, and plastic bottles are returnable for a deposit. Anti-consumption actions would be more productive if they were aimed at products with heavier footprints. How about closing a few downtown blocks to cars so public spaces are for people?

“Farmers waste water on low value crops”

We all eat food, but less than 3 percent of workers in developed countries grow food.

I’m no exception, but I’ve talked to farmers to get their side of this view. The first thing they mention is that it’s often profitable to “waste” water on some crop (alfalfa, for example) than grow another crop that needs more labor, chemicals or machinery. A more interesting problem may arise when farmers are “stuck in a rut” of growing crops that no longer make sense from an environmental or financial perspective, or who are forced to use water if they do not want to lose their rights to do so in the future.

For an alternative view, I’d suggest talking to the guys at farmer’s markets, but they are not the mega-producers of monocrops whose behavior is often encouraged (and sometimes driven) by government regulations on what crops can be grown where or how water must be used. Subsidies to corn production in the US, for example, result in heavy groundwater pumping and surface water contamination (google “Gulf of Mexico dead zone”), but farmers are reluctant switch to garden crops (fruit and vegetables) because they need the cash flow from corn sales to repay their debt on (corn-specific) machines and expensive land.

Activists who want vibrant farming communities and healthy food systems should lobby against subsidies that go to large farmers and monocrops in the US and EU. There’s serious doubt whether they lower the price of food, but there’s no doubt that they harm small and medium farms that must compete with vast agribusinesses.

“If they privatize the water system, then we’ll pay more for worse service”

This objection is over-simplified on two levels. First is the fact that ALL water systems are regulated because they are monopolies. “Public” systems run by municipalities are regulated by politicians or bureaucrats. Investor-owned utilities (“private” systems) are regulated by state-appointed utility commissioners who usually oversee water, electricity, natural gas, and so on. Second, most water systems are already “private” in some way due to outsourcing of anything from payroll processing and pipe manufacture to customer service and treatment plant construction. Competition for these goods and services often lower costs and improve service for water users.

So it’s probably a good idea to spend a lot more time on the quality of regulation, as regulators are the ones in charge of monitoring performance, punishing (or glossing over) failure, and helping municipal AND investor-owned utilities serve the Public.

“People need a human right to water”

At the base of our needs are water, food and shelter, but many people lack access to these goods (in either quality or quantity). The General Assembly of the United Nations declared a right to safe drinking water. The Millennium Development Agenda targeted “access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities.” Neither of these declarations made a big difference in people’s lives. In the former case of a “right,” progress was impeded by the larger issues of corruption and missing finances. In the latter case of a target, “victory” was declared when pipes were within 200m (600feet) of someone’s house, even if those pipes were dry or flowing with polluted water. The upshot is that 3 billion — not 800 million — people lack access to clean drinking water. (The case for sewerage is worse, on several levels.)

So what’s to be done? In richer countries, it makes sense to supplement the income of poor people, so they can buy food and water at the same prices as everyone else. (Low prices for everyone encourage waste; low prices for the “poor” cost more in bureaucracy than they deliver in water.) Low prices are an even bigger problem in poor countries, as they tend to benefit rich people with piped water service instead of the un-served poor in slums. Their best hope, in my opinion, is an encouragement of kiosk vendors who compete to deliver quality and greater pressure to replace lazy bureaucrats [pdf].

“Don’t flush — there’s a drought”

Although it’s true that a lot of drinking water goes down the toilet, it’s also true that flushing accounts for only a small share of total household water use. (Agriculture “uses” 80 percent of water in most countries, but irrigation and drinking water systems are managed in totally separate silos.) Where does most of the water go in drought-ravaged places? Lawns. Austin, Texas, is in the middle of a record drought, yet people can water their lawns as much as they want (once per week). Southern California is in record drought, and yet 60 percent of residential water goes onto lawns.

Demand for water increases with population and consumption patterns. We can’t shoot every other person to cut water use by half, but we can surely afford to see some brown lawns. Brown lawns explain how Brisbane, Australia reduced water consumption to 160 liters per person per day (43 gallons). Green lawns explain how Las Vegans live “on the edge of disaster” — here’s their “out of water” countdown — while aiming to REDUCE water consumption to only 199 gallons (750 liters) per person per day. Seventy percent of Vegas water goes onto lawns.

We can live through droughts by storing runoff in reservoirs or — better — underground and lowering our daily consumption. Landscape with local (rainfed) vegetation to save money, save the planet and save your community.

* David Zetland recently publishing Living with Water Scarcity, which separately addresses private and social water issues. He now lives in Amsterdam.