“Seville: public water and private interests”

David Zetland is teaching a class and he is asking for commentary, Commentary to help his Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, in this post or maybe just saying something nice 🙂 to them. I am sure we can do better . . .

Seville: public water, private interests,” The one-handed economist

David writes*

The Mediterranean Basin is one of the regions that will suffer the most from climate change. From soil erosion to heatwaves and heavy precipitation, this territory has already started to endure the consequences of the changing weather. Within this context, Seville serves as a particularly interesting case to study the availability and management of one of humankind’s most precious (and yet vulnerable) natural resources: water.

While average individual consumption was 176 litres per capita per day (LCD) in 1991, it was down to 113 LCD in 2022. This 36% reduction results from the combination of a drought in the 1990s that almost forced an evacuation of the city and awareness campaigns carried out by EMASESA – the public company responsible for water in Seville’s municipality.

Since then, however, the region has not suffered from autocratic changes in its administration nor turned to market-based solutions. In fact, the price of water has been frozen for the past three years, which demonstrates the efforts to protect the current system, regardless of increasing worries about water availability and the activation of a drought status last October.

So far, it is possible to say that Seville’s administration has been successful in managing the existing resources and has benefited its consumers by creating a Water Observatory initiative where the population takes part in publicly supervising water – ecologically, politically and socioeconomically.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about future scenarios where scarcity becomes more pressing and, in so doing, how society will react to these changes. In other words, while leaving economics aside has helped Seville’s governments so far, can subsidies and government assistance help tackle Spain’s changing climate?

Another aspect to consider is the underlying taboo on raising prices. Last week I talked to an environmental activist who works in the water sector in Seville, and I asked his opinion on increasing prices. Unfortunately, and yet not surprisingly, he answered that higher prices would cause so much civil dissatisfaction that legislators would be punished at the polls.

This response raises a critical question of water governance, i.e., how much civic participation is beneficial and sustainable for citizens?

To be clear, I am not (yet) supporting a full market-led system wherever shortages are possible, but it is worth questioning which mechanisms can best protect water availability without being obscured by politics or individual interests.

Seville has a constructive system that has made water management more participatory and transparent, but this system could bring negative consequences in the future. Put differently, the combination of EMASESA’s monopoly over water and Spain’s political system can create challenges.

Prices that reflect scarcity, in contrast, might help “democratize” access to resources, while increasing infrastructure investment and public awareness.

Bottom Line: Seville’s functional and participatory public water management disguises water’s treatment as a political resource. The city’s droughts and successful awareness campaigns might be postponing governments from translating the true cost of water into prices. Civilian democratizing efforts mixed with a system dependent on populist policies that disregard the economic value of water may lead to catastrophe in a region that is slowly drying out.

* Please help David’s Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice. 🙂