27 Oct 2008

International Water

My favorite economic reporter, Tom Keene, interviews Colin Chartres, director general the International Water Management Institute in this podcast [mp3]. Chartres discusses global water shortages, irrigation policies, and possible solutions to water-supply problems.

Unfortunately, he spends far more time on technical solutions to water problems (e.g., "more crop per drop") and less time on pricing problems.* Chartres has a PhD in soil sciences.

It's a good podcast, and I have two comments:
  1. The environment is suffering as shortages worsen. I was talking to someone the other day about the impact of drought on the Colorado River. One major impact is that flows into Mexico (1.5 MAF by treaty with the US) no longer rise above 1.5 MAF. They used to be higher, when there was less stress on the system. (This story discusses the $170 million "reservoir" that will trap "excess" water before it gets "lost" to Mexico.)

    Further, the quality of water crossing the border is falling -- more salt, agricultural pollution and urban toxins. The result is that the Colorado Delta is toxifying on top of drying out. That's terribly sad when it used to be one of the best wetlands in western North America [Prior posts].

  2. Around 14 minutes into the interview, Chartres says (paraphrasing) that physical water scarcity occurs in developed countries where most of the available water has been used up and there's no more, and economic water scarcity... occurs in developing countries, where there is water but inadequate investment in infrastructure means that it cannot be captured and used.

    While both of these definitions make sense in a way, I disagree with the characterization of "economic scarcity." To me, water that is too cheap wil be scarce because demand exceeds supply, and such "scarcity" exists in ALL countries. That's why I say there's no water shortage -- there's only mispriced water.
Bottom Line: Two of them: Water issues need to be addressed at watershed -- not political -- resolution. Proper water pricing is critical to proper water management.

* He does say that water is too cheap -- at $1/1,000 liters -- and that desalination -- at $1-2/1,000 liters -- is too expensive for agriculture.
Addendum: Mr. Chartres had this reply to the post above:
My view is that there are two clear issues to deal with in water: increasing efficiency and productivity and secondly, improving governance. The latter includes a raft of issues associated with pricing that start with availability, allocation policies etc.

The economic scarcity that I referred to relates to the lack of investment in water supply for all purposes predominantly but not exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa.

I do agree with you that water needs to be priced appropriately to minimise wasteful and inefficient uses and to reflect true costs of supply. Personally, I believe that in the west, water pricing and water markets and water trading may go a long way to ensure water goes to highest value uses. Experience in Australia means that such practices can also be beneficial to the environment. However in the developing world we do need to ensure provuision of basic allocations for domestic purposes to ensure that the poor are not disadvantaged further
Readers will of course know that I advocate that everyone should get some water for free but pay for additional water. (I don't bother to discriminate between rich or poor, since "some for free" can be seen as a human right.)


  1. It is well known that the Colorado River Delta (CRD) in Mexico has survived in the past few decades due to operational releases (spill overflows) from the United States. The construction of the 8-thousand acre-foot (TAF) Drop 2 reservoir near the All American Canal blurs the possibility of the aforesaid overflows from the U.S. It should be conceded water from these operational releases was never part of the 1944 Water Treaty. Pulse flows of 260 TAF every 4-5 have been prescribed for the CRD by storing water in Lake Mead. This could take place by means of extending the Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS) to Mexico. Water conservation activities in the Mexicali Valley could save water “banked” in Mead to be retrieved at a later time(once adjusted for storage charges and evaporation), resembling pulse flow regimes (see www.pacinst.org and other NGOs websites). This would require a great deal of coordination and will from the US Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau has given signals of interest in including Mexico in the plans some recognize. Unfortunately, the way the new reservoir news reads in the LA Times is an indicator that binational coordination is sometimes distant. Not to mention the threat of habitat deterioration due to Yuma Desalting Plant potential operation, or loss of seepage to the Mexicali aquifer from the All American Canal lining.

  2. "It is well known that the Colorado River Delta (CRD) in Mexico has survived in the past few decades due to operational releases (spill overflows) from the United States"

    I don't fully agree with your statement. You are making the assumption that any overflow made it to the delta. It doesn't. All water in the river is shunted off at Morelos Dam into the Alamo Canal system. Any water in the river below Morelos is due to leakage and flow returns down river from the dam. Drop 2 should take care of any excess flows (normally due to rain storms) that come into the system.

    Leakage from the All American Canal is being pumped and is used to fuel Mexicali's economy. Lining the canal to plug the leak is not popular in some circles. But, as you stated, this water was never part of the deal.



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