29 Jan 2010

That's not a waterfall!

This is a waterfall!

(Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia)

Travelblog: Salty Showers

The showers on Nusa Lembongan (an island to the south of Bali, in Indonesia) are salty. So is the tap water. That's because the "fresh" water comes from wells, and the aquifers that they draw on are being polluted with salt water. This salt water-intrusion is a recent problem in areas of the island where tourism has increased the demand for fresh water. (In non-touristy areas this is not a problem, because the fresh water from rainfall percolates into the ground, keeping salt water at a distance. In fact, there are fresh water springs coming out into the seabed in some places.)

As tourism developed, and developed without concern for the water demand that came with it (tourists in resorts use up to 500 liters/capita/day; it's easy to see how they would use more since, for example, tourists take showers and locals use ladles to splash water on themselves from small basins called \emph{mandis}), supply stayed the same. In the resulting shortage, groundwater extraction outpaced groundwater replenishment, and salt water intrusion became a problem. That's why the shower water is salty, and it's going to get saltier because tourists do not pay for the quantity of water they use, existing hotel owners probably do not (except for the energy they use for pumping), and new hotels are unlikely to be limited (if at all) in accord to sustainable water supplies.

Bottom Line: A beautiful area will only stay that way if demand is limited to sustainable supply.

New comment policy

Hi folks,

There is just too much spam coming in. That's why I've removed anonymous posting. I hope that this is neither too inconvenient, and I DO want everyone to comment -- just create a fake OPENID if you want to stay anonymous.

I'll see how this works; tell me if I missed something.

28 Jan 2010

Speed blogging

  • How to discuss food and ag like an adult.

  • An Italian-American delivers clean water in Afghanistan, by avoiding the big budgets of aid agencies and working with locals on their scale.

  • "A project to boost water resources in southern Africa, first announced in 2003, held its first executive meeting last month." Guess they're in a hurry...

  • Hong Kong's water security is threatened by falling supplies from the mainland and excessive demand from prices that are too low. They need to read this blog.

  • Economics for Equity and the Environment Network (E3) is a national network of economists developing and applying new economic arguments for environmental protection with a social justice focus... E3 places economics graduate students in internships with environmental organizations during the summer months.

  • Russ Roberts talks to Clifford Winston about government failure vs market failure.

  • "David Uhlmann, professor at the University of Michigan School of Law, talks [MP3] with Bloomberg's Tom Keene about the economics of clean drinking water."

  • "Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán acquired a film of... blue-green algae... the nutrients feeding the bloom in Lake Atitlán come from sewage, agricultural run off, and increased run off as a result of deforestation around the lake basin."
Hattip to DL and JR

Poll Results -- Shoot the politicians!

Hey! There's a new poll (McFood?) to the right --->
Politicians are...

...part of the solution to water problems
...have nothing to do with water problems
...the reason for water problems
68 votes total
I agree that politicians are involved, and I think that they are part of the problem:
  1. They benefit from prolonging it, due to lobbying for them to intervene.
  2. They do not understand it, because it's too complicated for anyone to understand -- like any complex problem.
Bottom Line: Politicians should delegate more authority to more people, so that they can act in their own interest on water policy issues. The results will be better, and I won't blame the politicians!

27 Jan 2010

Fast Food Nation -- The Review

Although Eric Schlosser wrote this book in 2001, I just got 'round to reading it. I was familiar with its themes from The Jungle, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Super Size Me, and other works on food, business, and culture, but this book still taught me quite a few things and made me think about numerous other things. It reinforced my conviction that a vegetarian diet is a good idea in the United States, that regulators -- often "captured" by industry -- do not always serve customers, and that more and cheaper is not always better.

The book has 10 chapters. In the first two, we learn of how fast food and sprawling urban southern California grew hand in hand, as technology and assembly lines fed a population losing touch with the origin and social dimension of food. In chapters 3 and 4, we get a damning view of labor practices and government subsidies. I was displeased to see how (predictably) job training grants and sub-minimum wages were used to decrease costs instead of benefiting teen employees.

Chapters 5 through 9 go into the production of fast food, and beef in particular. Although these practices (high-speed slaughter by ill-trained workers of unhealthy cattle, producing meat of dubious quality) are revolting, and appalling (especially since we do not appear to have made much improvement since Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906!), what really bothered me was the lobbying and deception by industry -- and their support by politicians -- in their attempt to sell burgers mixed with shit to consumers in "McHappyMeal" boxes.

If anything, this book reinforces the conventional wisdom that regulations can provide a useful minimum standard of behavior, preventing a race to the bottom (in quality, safety -- and cost) among firms willing to cost costs or raise profits in places that do not, ultimately, serve consumers. Of particular note was the way in which the USDA was willing (is willing?) to buy the worst quality food from industrial slaughterhouses and feed it to children in schools. Ironically, those kids may be safer eating at fast food restaurants that care more about their reputation (and competition) than school bureaucrats.

The last chapter describes how the American idea of fast food fares in the rest of the world. Although foreigners may consume "McDos" because it's chic, others do not because their traditional food (and bureaucrats) are better.

One thing I didn't expect to read about was the cultural affinity between McDonald's and Disney (clean and orderly), or the ways in which industrial production is so dehumanizing (see Small is Beautiful) and socially-destabilizing (see my review from this morning). Even worse is Schlosser's killer point: all of these costs may come with little benefit: It's possible to eat good food, served by well-paid workers, at low prices. (In 'n' Out, a small-family chain, sells burgers at prices that are competitive with McDonalds.) If that's true, then we have to ask "where's the profit?" in selling that beef, if the production costs are so "cheap." I'd guess that some of it goes to shareholders, some goes to additional advertising, and some of it goes to executives, but I'd guess that a good chunk goes to powerful agribusinesses -- ConAgra, ADM, Switft, Tyson, et al. -- and paying for all the harm, lobbying and mistakes that accompany a system that's being pushed 110 percent. That's a pity, since it seems that we are paying a high cost for food that provides little benefit.

I give this book FIVE stars, despite an occasional lapse into populism.

Bottom Line: Cook for yourself and your family, from scratch. if you can't do that, eat at a restaurant that does that same thing. If you can't afford either, then reconsider how much you spend on food -- on keeping yourself healthy -- compared to big screen TVs, cars, dress shoes, etc. Anyone can eat healthy for less than $5 per day -- start with rice and beans, fruits and vegetables -- but few of us choose to. Take another look at your choices.

Weapons of the Weak -- The Review

I like reading James C. Scott in the same way that I like reading Bill Easterly, Nassim Taleb or Hernando de Soto. His books contain good ideas, carefully explained, that change the way I see the world; see this post on his masterful Seeing Like a State.

In Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance (1985), Scott documents and explains the impact of the Green Revolution on peasants in "Sedaka," a Malaysian village Scott lived in for 18 months.

The major components of the Green Revolution were a move to double-cropping paddy (wet) rice and the adoption of combine harvesters for the harvest and threshing of this rice. Scott pays attention to the impact of these changes on the poor of Sedaka (a pseudonym), their relations with the rich, and how their interactions represent a microcosm of the larger movement towards "dehumanized" capitalism and away from less-efficient, yet more "social" class relations in a small village.

26 Jan 2010

The Corporate State

JWT writes:
The U.S. Supreme Court removed all limitations and restrictions on campaign contributions. The U.S. Congress has now been turned over to any one with deep pockets, not just corporations. Individuals have no restrictions so people like Warren Buffet can buy any Congress person he wishes. The Arab Prince who owns most of Citibank can spend any amount he wishes to get the laws he likes, and he doesn't even have to be a citizen.

We no longer have the best government money can buy. We now just have a government that anyone can buy -- anyone with money.
I totally agree. And, even worse, the return of Leviathan -- big government -- means that the rich will be able to buy even more power. Woe is me.

Bottom Line: When politics and money mix, the resulting toxic cocktail doesn't serve the average citizen.

Distance learning about economics, politics and the environment

I was planning to "re-run" my EEP100 class between Jan and May this year, but I am too busy. I am thinking of doing it in the fall, but only if there are at least 50 people committed to participating. Commitment requires that you pay $100 each, with a $50 rebate for completing the course.

The course would require that you read 2-4 books and several academic papers, that you watch my archived lectures (also available on MP3), take 2 exams, and (usually) participate during twice-weekly online chats, to discuss the materials. There will also be a wiki/discussion forum for students to help each other.

Your thoughts?

25 Jan 2010

Water lawyer bleg

A loyal reader asks:
Do you know a lawyer in property rights and takings who might be inclined to write about how owning shares of water might become a more effective guard than regulation against pollution because of lawsuit threats to proptect value of water property?
If you have a name, email me or post it in the comments.

(I know that you can't throw a stone without hitting a water lawyer in California; I am interested to see if one will write a short brief for little or no money! :)

Monday Funnies

via JWT:
  1. When his 38 caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a hold-up in Provo , Utah would-be robber Jason Ellison did something that can only inspire wonder. He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked.
  2. The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat cutting machine and after a little shopping around, submitted a claim to his insurance company. The company expecting negligence sent out one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the machine and he also lost a finger. The chef's claim was approved.
  3. A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his vehicle to find a woman had taken the space. Understandably, he shot her
  4. 4. After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped... Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies. The deception wasn't discovered for 3 days.
  5. A teenager was in the hospital recovering from serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he was hit.
  6. A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer... $15. If someone points a gun at you and gives you money, is a crime committed?
  7. Seems an Arkansas guy wanted some beer pretty badly.. He decided that he'd just throw a cinder block through a liquor store window, grab some booze, and run. So he lifted the cinder block and heaved it over his head at the window. The cinder block bounced back and hit the would-be thief on the head, knocking him unconscious. The liquor store window was made of Plexiglas.The whole event was caught on videotape.
  8. As a female shopper exited a South Carolina convenience store, a man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the snatcher. They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a positive ID. To which he replied, "Yes, officer, that's her. That's the lady I stole the purse from."
  9. The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti , Michigan at 5 A.M., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn't open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren't available for breakfast. The man, frustrated, walked away.
  10. When a man attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home parked on an Atlanta street, he got much more than he bargained for. Police arrived at the scene to find a very sick man curled up next to a motor home near spilled sewage. A police spokesman said that the man admitted to trying to steal gasoline, but he plugged his siphon hose into the motor home's sewage tank by mistake. The owner of the vehicle declined to press charges saying that it was the best laugh he'd ever had.

Travelblog: Death and social insurance

In Toraja, Sulawesi, the local people are Christians, but they retain customs from earlier times. One of them is the "big funeral," which will last 4-5 days. This funeral takes place weeks or months after someone's death. (They are buried soon after death, but everyone knows that this, second funeral is the "official" one...) During these days, there are many ceremonies and feasts, and everyone is invited.

Rich people have bigger funerals, where there is food for all. The bigger your funeral, the higher your standing (meritocratic social standing). This is an obvious redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.

The gift you bring to the funeral is written down; when one of yours dies, a gift of equal value is brought.

Although death cannot be timed, the formal (second) funeral is timed, and it shares wealth among the community, over time, spacing out the feasts. The biggest feature of the feasts is the meat of water buffalo, and the more important/rich you are, the more buffalo die at your feasts. The one I attended (in this photo) was a "30 buffalo" affair. All of these buffalo were contributed by the six children of the deceased -- all men in their 50s -- and we were told that this was a rich family.

Because people must save for funerals, which can happen at any time, they are buffered against other problems (crop failures), which improves long-run survival.

Oh, and water makes an appearance in the Torajan death tradition: People use it as a general blessing (sprinkling it on buffalos to be sacrificed and on fires cooking food for attendees) and leave bottles of it next to graves. (They also leave bottles of tuak, a local liquor.)

Bottom Line: Communities without taxes and insurance find ways to pay taxes and provide insurance. That's a human thing, not a bureaucratic plan.

23 Jan 2010

Be careful what you ask for

California is being pummeled by heavy rains and snow fall that are flooding land and blocking roads.

This is ironic as a change of pace from three years of drought, but it's also consistent with higher variation in climatic patterns (due to global warming) and heavier impacts due to the intensity of human impact on the environment -- we have paved and settled in more places, reducing Nature's drainage area and increasing the probability that humans will feel adverse impacts.

Bottom Line: When things start to break, they break in many places.

22 Jan 2010

Speed blogging

  • "From the Florida Everglades to the bluffs overlooking the Deschutes River in Oregon, conservationists are snapping up prime property for preservation, often at a fraction of what the asking price was at the real estate market’s height." Supply and demand work!

  • 100 Best Blogs for Socially-Minded MBAs

  • The straight dope on compostable plastics. Surprise! More marketing than solution.

  • Dave and Janet Carle walked, boated and biked along California's 38th parallel from Mono Lake to Point Reyes, learning about water issues the whole way.

  • "The Lake Clarity Crediting Program [pdf] establishes the framework that connects on-the-ground actions to the goal of restoring Lake Tahoe clarity. It defines a comprehensive and consistent accounting system to track pollutant load reductions from urban stormwater using Lake Clarity Credits... It’s currently in a year-long beta-test period."

  • "Industry self-regulation, much like government regulation, acts before the harm is done. As compared to government regulators, however, the industry regulates with superior information. Furthermore, a pro-industry bias inherent to self-regulation also arises under alternative institutional arrangements when adjudicators are vulnerable to pressure by industry members. We show when industry self-regulation is socially desirable and feasible, and clarify when it could be an attractive institutional arrangement for developing and transition countries."
Hattips to CC and DL

21 Jan 2010

Net loss pork

No, it's not a new diet product, it's a reference to the costs and benefits from a pork infrastructure project.

A lot of communities are willing to support pork coming to their areas, and to a few people in their areas, because they think that they are overall, net gainers. The net losers are people in other areas. But how will they feel if "their" pork comes in a package that leaves them as net losers? Even worse, note the clever people, is the fact that the gainers in their area are the few porkers (porkees?), which implies that non-porkers are losing MUCH more than the average may show.

That's why I think that San Diego voters will reject the $11 billion bond. Although it promises to deliver $100 million in pork,* they are going to pay far more (through tax payments to the general fund), leaving them as net pork losers.**

Bottom Line: Pork is bad for society and it's often bad for its "beneficiaries." Just say no to pork!

* A project that's already funded!

** SD paid $3.6 of the State's $45 billion in 2006 income taxes and about $2.85 billion in sales tax in 2008 (this and this). Given the State's total tax take of $80 billion, SD paid $6.5 billion, or 8.125% of the total. How much pork should SD get out of the water bonds? $900 million. That means that SD's porkers will have to convince SD's citizens that they are getting an additional $800 million in "benefits." Can't wait to see the lies and pork-a-ganda they come out with!

Hattips to DW and RD

Water cops waste $75,000 each

I've ridiculed the "water cops" idea (see this, this and this) for a long time.
  1. They are a fascist mechanism -- telling you want to do, when and where.
  2. They are a visible form of "education" more than an effective way of increasing water conservation.
  3. They divert resources from more pressing matters. (Even though I bet they are considered "green collar jobs").
And now we get the cost of cops in San Diego [p 497 of this pdf]: $752,370 for 10 FTE positions.* (I doubt that includes their transport costs, since they probably drive fleet cars.)

Note the revenue associated with these cops: $0.

Now, I know that cops are supposed to be valuable because they promote water conservation, by their very existence and/or the threat of a fine, but I'd prefer a more-direct mechanism: Raising the price of water.

Higher water prices:
  1. Don't tell you what to do; you choose when and where to use water, and pay accordingly.
  2. Are something we've learned how to respond to LONG ago -- by using less.
  3. Cost nothing. In fact, they generate revenue.
So why does the City of San Diego (and others) have water cops?
  • They prefer to make noise and then impose rationing when it doesn't work.
  • They don't really want to sell less water (because revenue falls).
  • They are bureaucrats who prefer to tell people what to do.
I'd like to hear a better reason. Anyone? Buehler?

Bottom Line: Fire these cops and rehire them to read meters that are billing water at higher prices. They will actually be useful.

* Bureaucrats are amazing: "Adjustment reflects the addition of 10.00 FTE positions and associated non-personnel expenditures to support and implement the Drought Response Level 2 mandatory water use restriction."

20 Jan 2010

Speed blogging

  • Here are the top ten blogs (according to someone) on green innovations, and this blog gives video reviews of green products. Better yet, ten words you need to stop misspelling.

  • "The state is blocking four landowners on two Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta islands from taking water that officials say they don't have permission to use." Finally. (Will there be more?)

  • Milwaukee plans to use cheap water to attract businesses. Not a good idea (subsidies) and VERY bad idea if it creates demand that's too large for supply. (Ask Stockton, CA or most water managers in SoCal.)

  • Just because:

  • Iraqis say: "We want Turkey, Syria and Iran to give us our fair share of water."

  • An interesting post on carbon sequestration/reforestation (though I worry about a new subsidy for farmers...)

  • Desal in Australia is much more expensive than conservation, whether it's built by private or public interests.
Hattip to DL, TS and JWT

19 Jan 2010

Subsidies are NOT sustainainable

Tracy Mehan says [pdf] that a "subsidized water or wastewater system is not a sustainable one. He says it certainly is not sustainable for the federal taxpayers doing the subsidizing and argues that the wastewater grants program in the Clean Water Act is an obsolete model..."

Hear hear!

Climate Debt

BP asks what I think about "the idea that poor countries are owed a debt or reparations by rich countries due to the climate change that is adversely affecting poor countries, but has been caused primarily by rich countries."

I am broadly in favor of this idea. If someone destroys your property, then they should pay you. If the rich world destroyed the climate to get rich, then they used the "property" of others, and they should pay for it.

The only objections that I see to this logic (and conclusion) is that rich citizens can say "no fair, that's changing the rules -- adding property rights -- after the fact" or "we stole/exploited it fair and square."

I don't think that either holds, especially when you turn the tables (a la Rawls) and put the rich people in the place of victim. It's hardly likely that they would suffer silently.

(In fact, this makes me think of the damage that the poor -- via population growth -- are inflicting on the rich. Perhaps there's a quid-pro-quo, not of mutual payments, but of mutual cessation of behavior, possible here.)

Bottom Line: Everyone owns a bit of this planet, and those who harm it should pay for their damages.

18 Jan 2010

Monday Funnies

via JWT

Real Estate and the 4th World

During the Cold War, we had the First World (the West), the Second World (the USSR and allies) and the Third World (mostly poor countries). When the Soviet Union and Eastern Block disintegrated in 1989-1991, the standard of living for people in those areas went from "decent" (potable tap water, cheap flights, medical care, etc.) to abysmal. In fact, it went down to "Third World" levels. The trouble was that these people had been used to higher (and rising) levels, not a reverse or collapse.

Such a reduction in living standards is hard to take, a psychological blow.

Perhaps my only agreement with Putin -- the current dictator of Russia -- is his description of the fall of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century." While I see his point, he is clearly speaking from the perspective of an apparatchik, not a citizen -- and certainly not a citizen of a Soviet vassal state.

Anyway, I started calling the world that they lived in (I've traveled in most of these countries) the "Fourth World" because it combined Third World living standards with the knowledge that they had only recently enjoyed a better life.

It is with this idea in mind that I think of how the recently impoverished homeowners must feel. A few years ago, their property was worth much more. Now, with 30-40% drops in home values, they are poorer. Even if you tell them that they are merely back in 2003, they are not happy. They used to be "rich," and now they are "poor."

And people feeling this kind of poverty are going to be depressed for awhile. Although I am happy to see them spending less and saving more, I am also worried that they are going to have a bad attitude and/or follow whatever demagogue promises a return to "the good old days."

Those days were not "good" -- they were a bubble. Better to think of the top price on your house as a mistake, and be happy that you have a house at all. (And people who bought at the top just got ripped off. I feel sorry for you.)

Bottom Line: Our feeling of wealth (once basic needs are met) is relative. Instead of starting with "how rich I was" or "how rich s/he is," start with "how rich am I relative to zero?" You'll feel better :)

The Disaster in Haiti

I know very little about it, but I do know that years of incompetent and corrupt government contributed to deaths.

Feel free to add more information in the comments.

15 Jan 2010

8 Water Myths

GZ sent this, and it's worth reading.

Myth #1: Water is a public good.

Water is essential to life. Therefore, some argue, it should be considered public. Food is also essential to life, but one rarely hears an argument that food and farmland are, or should be, public property. In fact, if farmland and food production systems were owned by the state, one could expect food shortages, high prices, and limited variety. Food and the means of producing it are privately held. These interests sell their food in a moderately competitive market, which is what allows the system to work as it does.

To be sure, water is different from farmland in at least one respect. In its natural state, water moves. It flows from place to place, in surface lakes and streams, and underground below both private and Crown land. In this form, it is indeed “public.” However, if and when water is collected, the collector acquires private property rights over it. In some provinces, surface water is subject to the private interests of riparian land owners, who have certain rights to access, quality and quantity. Such characteristics do not support a conclusion that water is exclusively a public good.

Myth #2: Everybody uses too much water.

Water is never used up. It simply changes form and location. Water used for drinking, cleaning, irrigation or industrial purposes remains within the water cycle. As long as the amount in use at any particular moment does not impede natural ecosystem functions, no shortage exists. In some parts of Canada, there is plenty of water. Some locations in southern Ontario, for example, have access to more than enough water for everyone. In those places, what may be in short supply is clean water. Since Canadians are in the habit of polluting their water, that water must be treated before it is used for drinking and other domestic purposes. Since treating and transporting water requires energy, using an excessive amount of treated water is a “waste” of energy, not a waste of water. A better way to increase the supply of clean water is to avoid polluting it.

Myth #3: The best water treatment system is a public system, or a private system, or a public-private partnership.

Water treatment and supply systems are regarded as “natural monopolies” because constructing multiple sets of parallel pipes underneath cities to compete with each other is not feasible. Competing sources of clean, municipal drinking water are unlikely to emerge. However, monopolies do not work well, regardless of whether the monopoly is public or private. Monopolies are seldom efficient, effective or responsive to their customers’ desires. Private monopolies charge high prices for their goods because there is no competition to set a market price. Public monopolies are often influenced by political considerations. Public-private partnerships are vulnerable to having all the disadvantages of public and private monopolies—unrestrained profit-taking, inefficient management, use of public monies for private purposes, and little or no recourse for the citizen customer.

If competition is not possible, the alternative is to legislate citizens’ rights to the provision of drinking water of a certain quality, enforceable against the water monopoly. If there is no market to set price, rules can require price to reflect cost of provision and scarcity, thereby coming as close to possible to reproducing the dynamics of supply and demand. Regulation of drinking water should be arm’s-length and free from conflicts of interest. In an ideal system, the operation of water treatment plants and pipelines is separate from the supervision of the system, which in turn is separate from the setting of standards that the system is expected to meet. If those who set the standards also have the job of achieving the standards, then they will set standards that are within their capacity to meet even if that means water of questionable quality. If those who enforce standards also operate facilities, then enforcement will be lax or non-existent. These different functions should ideally be carried out by different levels of government; or, at the very least, by different government agencies willing to censure each other.

Myth #4: Drinking water should be free.

It is sometimes said that since drinking water is essential to life, it should be free. The converse can also be stated: since drinking water is so important, it should be expensive. Neither statement makes sense. The “proper” price of goods is established through the interaction of supply and demand. Supply and demand do not necessarily reflect utility, such as in the case of diamonds, which are relatively useless but very expensive, reflecting their scarcity. The proper price for water is the price that would be generated in a competitive marketplace—and if no such marketplace can be maintained because of water’s “natural monopoly,” a price that reflects the cost of production of clean water may be the next best thing. In simple economic terms, price is the incentive to reduce consumption. People limit their consumption when the price of the next litre exceeds the value they place on the good. Therefore, where water is scarce, it is a poor strategy to make it free.

Myth #5: The solution to water problems is better technology, or alternatively, better management practices.

The most important feature of water policy is governance. Technology is important, as is the quality of management. But without a properly constituted system of governance that lays out who has legal responsibility for what, and who has the right to ensure that those responsibilities are met, then nothing can be counted on to work. What are the rules? Who has control? Who is accountable for failure? Who sets the price? Who enforces the standards? Without clear answers to these questions, no amount of technology can produce ideal results, and no resort to management strategies can rescue the enterprise.

Myth #6: Private water companies should act in the public interest (corporate social responsibility).

Private companies are private. They are created for the purpose of pooling private capital and making profit. Corporate governance is based upon the central proposition that those who manage the corporation (the officers and directors) are distinct from those who own the corporation (the shareholders). Therefore the officers and directors owe a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the corporation, first and primarily, rather than in the public interest. The directors and officers are not at liberty to use the corporation’s assets to promote public welfare unless those actions also have the effect of promoting the corporation’s bottom line. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is really a marketing strategy. It serves to enhance the corporation’s image and increase market share. CSR policies that do not have these ultimate aims are probably illegitimate because they breach the fiduciary duty owed to the corporation. Private water companies have a mandate to make profits. They can achieve that mandate by providing safe, clean, dependable water to satisfy their customers.

Myth #7: Bans on bottled water promote safe, well-run municipal drinking water systems.

Bottled water is often the only source of competition for municipal systems. Sometimes its price is criticized as too high because it is vastly more expensive per litre than municipal drinking water. But the price is also attacked as too low because it does not include the environmental cost of the plastic containers. Ideally, bottled beverages and goods of all kinds should include the environmental costs of the products—the environmental cost should be “internalized” rather than thrown onto the public. It would be nonsensical to ban plastic bottles of water but not to ban plastic bottles of Pepsi. Bottled water is not subject to rigorous regulatory standards in Canada but the quality of municipal and rural drinking water is not consistent across the country either. The main effect of banning bottled water is to eliminate choice for consumers.

Myth #8: Canada should support international declarations that establish a human right to water.

In the recent past, the Canadian government has wisely resisted calls for an international agreement to recognize clean water as a human right. Clean water is essential to life and ideally all people should have access to a reliable supply. However, to declare it as an international human right has at least three flaws. First, like numerous other declarations of universal rights, it is unlikely to make much of an improvement to the situation on the ground. Second, the declaration could be interpreted as obligating governments to supply their populations with clean water for free—which in arid areas of the world is the best way to ensure that there is not enough to go around. Third, it could be seen to create or reflect an international obligation on the part of water-rich countries to supply others. Countries like Canada might thus face new threats to control over water resources within their territories. In Canada, those who advocate endorsing an international right to clean water often also promote a ban of bulk water exports. On environmental grounds alone, the case for such a ban is strong. However, advocating a ban on water exports is not consistent with endorsing universal rights to water in international declarations.

Bruce Pardy is a professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Lester Snow puts some lipstick on that pig

BP sent me this summary of Lester Snow's talk on the water bills:
  1. He touted that the mandatory conservation did apply to agriculture. He said that:
    • All irrigation districts will have to "measure their water" and develop a pricing system that at least in part considers how much water a farmer uses.
    • All irrigation districts must develop a plan for conservation that considers all cost effective best management practices.
  2. He defended "co-equal goals" for the delta.
  3. He said that a project like a dam is paid for by 50% by the public for the public benefit, and then 50% by the agencies that receive the water supply benefit. He did not mention anything about cost-benefit analysis of the projects.
  4. He said that there is a lot more $ in the bond for conservation than just the $250M specifically called out because agencies could elect to use other money (integrated water resources management plan funding for example) for conservation projects.
  5. Regarding ground water, sets up a process so that a basin or area can decide who will submit monitoring data. If that fails the DWR will step in an help out as best they can. the "hammer" is that an area that fails to monitor ground water will not be eligible for grant funds.
Excusing BP from any errors, I will reply to these comments as if they are the ones that Lester made. (I don't have time care to listen to it.)
  1. Farmers already use best practices based on cost-benefit; they already base pricing on measured consumption.
  2. "Co-equal" is like having two winners of the Super Bowl.
  3. If cost-benefit don't come in, the project should not be built. 50% "public" benefits is ridiculous -- he's just trying to shift costs from water users to taxpayers.
  4. And my salary will go up if the State government decides to send me some of its "other money" -- maybe Lester's salary? -- but that's not bloody likely.
  5. "As best they can?" Did DWR get a budget for that? personnel? Do ground water users NOW get grants? What bullshit.
I'm not sure if it's good news or bad news that Lester has moved up in the bureaucracy -- to head of California's Natural Resources Agency.

Bottom Line: The water bills were bad, and these excuses and rationalizations only show how bad they are. You can put lipstick on it, but it's still a pig. (And no, Sarah, I am NOT talking about you.)

14 Jan 2010

Speed blogging

"Both ENDS supports organisations in developing countries to fight poverty and to work towards sustainable environmental management."

Bolivia's glaciers are melting faster with global warming; the poor will suffer more.

[old news] Our tap water may be legally drinkable but not healthy. Bureaucrats understand measurement, not results.

Tata (of India) releases a cheap water purifier. There's a lot of demand because Indian municipal water service and quality is so poor.

Ethiopian farmers learn to harvest sustainable local water from Indian farmers.

"Water funds" pay to conserve watersheds to promote sustainable living and businesses.

Hattips to DL and TR

Was China wrong?

(via DL):
If only one child per female was born as of now, the world's population would drop from its current 6.5 billion to 5.5 billion by 2050, according to a study done for scientific academy Vienna Institute of Demography.

-By 2075, there would be 3.43 billion humans on the planet. This would have immediate positive effects on the world's forests, other species, the oceans, atmospheric quality and living standards.

-Doing nothing, by contrast, will result in an unsustainable population of nine billion by 2050.
Did you really think that bottled water and solar power was going to save the planet?

Bottom Line: There are too many of us, and the easiest way to have fewer of us is to not have kids. (And, no, there's no free pass for PhDs!)

13 Jan 2010

Holy Cow! Non-beneficial use?

California's State Water Resources Control Board is going to decide if a "water feature" at Hidden Valley Estates wastes water, i.e., CR says:
It sounds like some family in Northern California got into a pissing match with their homeowner's association and decided to file a complaint with the RWQCB. They allege that the lake in the gated community is an unreasonable use of water because of the seepage (the lake is unlined). They also say that the seepage has damaged their property.

The Regional Board seems to concur that the seepage "constituted misuse because it had 'damaged and thus likely devalued Complainants’ properties while serving no beneficial use.'”

My question is: could this possibly have repercussions on any unlined non-natural body of water? If seepage in an unlined pond is a non-beneficial use of water, could water be withheld from entities that have them?
My assumption (to now) was that anything that people wanted to do with water was a "beneficial use," and I would have thought a "water feature" would qualify for beneficial use because of its (presumed) positive impact on property values.

Of course, IID was forced into the QSA (and selling water to SDCWA) with the threat that their use would be called "non-beneficial," but this is the first time I have heard of it being applied to residential use. As for CR's other question (unlined ponds), I have no opinion. Use is use.

The hearing has been delayed to Jan 28 [PDF]. I'm interested to hear what happens.

Bottom Line: Although we want people to use water wisely, bureaucratic judgments of "wise" are unlikely to be right or justifiable. If water were priced in a market (like oil or gasoline), then we'd not have to ask these silly questions.

Travelblog: A few notes from Indonesia

Syngenta was either running trials or actively marketing GMO corn south of Toraja, on Sulawesi. I think the varieties were "33" and "99," but I may have the numbers wrong.

The food here is sometimes predictable (rice and fish) and sometimes not (grilled cheese with sweetened condensed milk or chocolate pancakes with cheese or avocado milkshake with chocolate). I didn't try the chocolate pancake, but the other things tasted pretty good!

I missed the photo of a man drawing water (for bathing, cooking or drinking) from a canal, about 2 meters from a toilet. People understand that the canal water is dirty, but their solution (drinking well-water) isn't really that great.

I saw a girl (about 13 years old) with a t-shirt that said "nerds [heart] me" -- a sign, I think, of the used clothes that make their way from the US and other countries where clothes are thrown out before they wear out.

12 Jan 2010

Speed blogging

  • San Diego apartment owners want water submeters on apartments; submeters will allow them to charge tenants for water consumption, lowering owners' water bills (shifting responsibility) AND lowering their cost of compliance with conservation regulations (because a drop in demand saves more water than conservation gear). Good.

  • Beijing has water shortages so they are raising prices. Good.

  • In 2004, Tom Birmingham said that permanent crops were a good idea, since "our water supply has become more stable and dependable in recent years. Planting vineyards and orchards requires confidence that the water these crops require will be available well into the future." Whoops. That was a mistake, and not just because of the drought, but also because of Westland's junior water contracts.

  • EROWI (energy return on water invested): ethanol makes a poor showing, per usual.

  • Water drops on leaves inspire wind turbine coatings that de-ice themselves.

  • Irrigating with saltwater.

I recommend all of these:
  • Applications are now being considered for 17 Enviropreneur Institute fellowships sponsored by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). This annual, two-week training for conservationists will be held in Bozeman, Montana, from June 27 - July 9, 2010. Includes $2,500 fellowship honorarium paid to all participants.

  • The 2010 FEEM Summer School on Climate Change Negotiations will take place from the 4th to the 10th of July in Venice. Apply.

  • "The next Ronald Coase Institute workshop on institutional analysis, May 2010 in Moscow, Russia." Application deadline 25 Jan; expensive for US students; cheap for students from LDCs.
Hattips to SB, JH, DR and DW

Poll Results -- Climate Variation

Hey! There's a new [fortnightly!] poll on the right!

For me, increases in weather variation due to climate change will be
Fun! I love variation! 21%15
Annoying! I will have to spend money/change some habits 21%15
A real problem! My life will fundamentally change. 29%21
Deadly. My community and I may not make it. 10%7
Whatever. I don't think that climate change is happening. 11%8
Not going there! I don't think variation will happen. We'll get warmer, but without greater extremes 8%6
72 votes total

Those are the answers, work with them. I think we're going to get fundamental change -- even if we live in the developed world -- because of the catastrophic impacts on ecosystems. The impacts in LDCs may also spill over to us ("climate refugees" and/or massive crop failures).

Bottom Line: Evolution is slow, steady and resilient, but it has a hard time coping with steady change -- except if you think that a 50 percent rate of extinction is a "reasonable" cost of change.

11 Jan 2010

Steven Solomon on water policies

via DL ("In Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, journalist Steven Solomon argues that water is surpassing oil as the world's scarcest critical resource...water's cost doesn't reflect its true economic value."). Here's a TV interview:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

He says end subsidies and require that water taken out of the environment be returned in the same quality ("the golden rule"), but he fails to answer reporters' questions ("what do I do?") because most of our water problems are not individual behavior problems but rational responses to bad policies -- some of which are bad on purpose. He does say "politics," so we're on the right track.

Monday Funnies

Cat and trade?

Farming politicians instead of crops

A lot of people are interested in the fish vs farms debate. Here's some more grist for your mills:

This 1996 report [pdf] on California salmon finds that California "Department of Fish and Game policies instead have the State presiding over a succession of extinctions over our wild salmon runs." Who wrote it? The Natural Resources Committee of California's Senate.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have read that report, and the people who are benefiting from the water diversions that are killing those salmon (in the rivers) and smelt (in the Delta) are good at maintaining that status quo.

This comment on Senator DiFi and her donor/constituent Resnick (recently famous for telling DiFi to tell the National Academies to study, again, the impact of water exports -- to Resnick's farms and others -- on the Delta Smelt) got my attention:
How might Resnick have earned such willing service from California's senior senator? Might have something to do with the thousands in campaign donations and parties in Beverly Hills and Aspen he's thrown for Feinstein and friends like Arianna Huffington.

[snip... to the sign-off, which I love]

Jackson West imagines Resnick and Feinstein are sleepless with concern for the plight of unemployed migrant laborers and Hollywood starlets who might wither away, malnourished, without anti-oxidant rich bottled juices.
Of course this is a delaying tactic, but we can't say that those don't work.

But what about the argument that Ag is important to California and/or more important than fisheries?

Well, DH has this interesting tidbit:
How big is Ag in the California economy? Although the man on the street may say 60%, informed people (like you) say 5%, but I think that even that number is high.

Look at the 2007 figures from the BEA website. My big gripe becomes clear when you look at the breakdown. Notice that “Forestry, fishing, and related activities” are included in the “Ag” total. Pretty offensive to a salmon fisherman. So, if you divide the state GDP of 1,801,762 (millions) by the AG figure of 22,388, the AG percent is approx. 1%.
So that's $22 billion, right? Not bad, even if it's only one percent of the State's economy.

But now LC has to come along and demolish even that number, using our favorite irrigation district, the largest in the State:
US gross farm income in 2008 was around $375 billion.

That's right, $375 billion.

Now Westlands claims $1 billion annually in gross farm income during a normal (whatever that means) year. That means Westlands' contribution to the nation's food supply (and exports) is about a quarter of a percent.

According to this USDA website, Net farm income is forecast to be $57 billion in 2009, down $30 billion (34.5 percent) from 2008. The 2009 forecast is $6.5 billion below the average of $63.6 billion in net farm income earned in the previous 10 years. Still, the $57 billion forecast for 2009 remains the eighth largest amount of income earned in U.S. farming.

Therefore the US gross in 2008 was $375 billion and the net was $57 billion. In other words, the net is about one-sixth of the gross. That means Westlands actually is netting about one-sixth of its claimed $1 billion in farm revenues, or about $150 million a year. Take away the water, power, crop subsidies and you drop that true net increase quite a bit further. EWG estimated Westlands' annual subsidies in 2002 at $110 million a year. That means the true net of the Westlands, when you take away all the government giveaways may be only $30-40 million. Now, if you subtract the anticipated costs of drainage and make Westlands pay for their own waste disposal, they may actually not be generating any true wealth out there at all, except what the government gives them.
Aggies appear to be spending a lot of money on maintaining their subsidies, but those subsidies may be all the money they have to spend. In my paper on "options" for the Delta, I thought that Ag would have no trouble coming up with money to pay for a Peripheral Canal, and I thought that enviros would have a hard time paying ag to not take water. Given Ag's low profits, I may have been wrong, twice.

Bottom Line: People who fight political battles often cannot win economic battles. Let's see the aggies (and the fishermen and the enviros) put their money where their mouths are. Any other method of "negotiating a settlement" is just an invitation for corruption and destruction of social welfare.

8 Jan 2010

Why isn't this a law?

"Congress shall make no law that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the Senators or Representatives, and Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators or Representatives that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States."

That (via JWT) would be the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution. Good idea?

Travelblog: Islam in Indonesia

I've been in 15-20 countries with heavy or dominant Muslim populations. As many have noted, the flavors of Islam are as diverse as the flavors of Christianity.

I was therefore curious to see what Islam was like in world's largest Muslim country (population 240 million, 90+ percent Muslim).

Indonesia is, of course, an archipelago in the southeast Asian tropics, so its culture and people will tend to reflect these characteristics. In addition, it has a colonial heritage (the Dutch ruled until 1949), a history as independent kingdoms, and past dominance by Hindu and Buddhist rulers.

All of these features affect people's way of practicing their religion.

From what I have seen so far (in 10 days and three cities) is a very relaxed type of Islam. People do not greet each other in Arabic ("ah salaam al'e qum" is common elsewhere; it means "peace [of the Prophet and Allah] be upon you"). The mosques tend to be small, neighborhood affairs. I do not hear the call to prayer very often, even though it's called five times per day. When I do hear it, I see plenty of people ignoring it, going about their business instead of praying.

Very few women (perhaps 10 percent) have their head covered; I've not seen any burquas ("the body bag").

In fact, it seems that most people here do not care about religion (or an outward show of religion). Unlike in other countries, nobody asks me my religion. (Many ask me where I am from.)

Addendum: I saw a lot of mosques and more religious people today on the bus, but they were still pretty chill...

All of these observations fit the profile that I had heard: Indonesian Islam is pretty relaxed.

Now some of you may recall the bombings in Bali a few years ago. Those bombings were directed at tourists, and tourists who were partying, so they seem to have been a strike against Western values (and hedonism), but I definitely think that they were the work of a tiny minority of Indonesians. Given the lax security in this country,* I am sure that there could be bombings everyday, but there probably are not because nobody wants to blow people up.

Bottom Line: Islam is not the problem; intolerance is.

Addendum (via DL): Paul Wolfowitz remembers Indonesia's ex-president as a man of tolerant Islam, but Google fears the radicals of Islam.

* When I checked in for my domestic flight, they didn't care about my water bottle (good), but there was no bag-passenger control. I could have checked in 20kg of explosives and never boarded the aircraft, and nobody would have noticed.

7 Jan 2010

Innovation on water quality

I've talked in the past about the need for a simple, cheap water quality tester for consumers. (The kits on the market now are neither user-friendly nor "cheap.")

It occurred to me that the consumer market often follows the business market, where early adopters are willing to pay more and their custom drives innovation.

It also occurred to me that businesses (water agencies) need to monitor water quality. Although they already do, their monitoring (as far as I know) takes place at the treatment plant, and at infrequent intervals.

It seems like they would want to have real-time water quality monitoring at important points in their distribution system. To make that goal a reality, they will need fairly cheap monitors that test for many things.

If such a market develops, it would benefit water customers in the short run. In the long run, it would promote the consumer technology that I'd like to see.

Bottom Line: We need better water quality information, and there's a market -- and development channel -- for it.

Corruption in Context

I took some time to read through Transparency International's 2008 Global Corruption Report because it had a focus on water and corruption, two topics dear to my heart.

To understand why water provision is especially vulnerable to corruption, consider this "equation":

Corruption = monopoly + discretion - accountability.

Thus, you see why I spend so much time on this blog discussing the troubles with monopolies, asymmetric information (water managers know more than us) and community oversight of water agencies.

And here are more details on water's vulnerability to corruption (quoting from the report):
  • Water governance spills across agencies. Water often defies legal and institutional classification, creating a regulatory lacuna and leaving governance dispersed across countries and different agencies with many loopholes to exploit.

  • Water management is viewed as a largely technical issue in most countries. Managing water is still predominantly approached as an engineering challenge. Consideration for the political and social dimensions of water, including corruption issues and their costs, is limited.

  • Water involves large flows of public money.Water is more than twice as capital-intensive as other utilities. Large water management, irrigation and dam projects are complex and difficult to standardise, making procurement lucrative and manipulation difficult to detect.

  • Private investment in water is growing in countries already known to have high risks of corruption. Nine of the ten major growth markets for private sector participation in water and sanitation are in countries with high risks of corruption, posing particular challenges for international investors.

  • Informal providers, often vulnerable to corruption, continue to play a key role in delivering water to the poor. Informal water providers provide important bridging functions in many developing countries to bring water to the poor. They often operate in a legal grey zone, however, making their operations vulnerable to extortion and bribery.

  • Corruption in water most affects those with the weakest voice. Corruption in water often affects marginalised communities, the poor or . in the case of its impact on the environment -- future generations. These are all stakeholders with a weak voice and limited ability to demand more accountability.

  • Water is scarce, and becoming more so. Climate change, population growth, changing dietary habits and economic development all exacerbate local water scarcities. The less water there is available, the higher the corruption risks that emerge in control over the water supply.
I thought that these examples were also useful as illustrations of how corruption affects water management:
  • In Mexico, the largest 20 per cent of farmers reap more than 70 per cent of irrigation subsidies. Moreover, corruption in irrigation exacerbates food insecurity and poverty.
  • In China, corruption is reported to thwart the enforcement of environmental regulations and has contributed to a situation in which aquifers in 90 per cent of Chinese cities are polluted and more than 75 per cent of river water flowing through urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing.
  • In developing countries, corruption is estimated to raise the price for connecting a household to a water network by 10-30 per cent.
Although these examples come from the developing world, I am sure that you can supply your own examples of similar problems in the developed world. In fact, I'd say that many of us live in "developing" countries when it comes to water management.

I leave you with this bottom line from Wangari Maathai (2004 Nobel Laureate for Peace):
Water is the driving force of all nature. It is essential for the workings of our ecological systems. It is essential for our health and the health of our communities. It features prominently in our spiritual life. It binds us together through shared waterways and shared water sources. It shapes our relationship with nature, politics and economies.
Managing water wisely is as paramount to our common future as it is difficult to achieve. Different visions, values and interests compete for shaping water governance. But one fact is clear: the global water crisis that destroys sources of water and waterways, and leaves a large portion of the world without access to safe drinking water, that destroys lives and livelihoods all over the world and that continues to create ecological disasters at an epic and escalating scale is a crisis of our own doing.
It is a crisis of governance: man-made, with ignorance, greed and corruption at its core. But the worst of them all is corruption.
Corruption means power unbound. It gives the powerful the means to work against and around rules that communities set themselves. This makes corruption in water particularly pernicious. It allows the powerful to break the rules that preserve habitats and ecosystems, plunder and pollute the water sources that entire world regions depend upon and to steal the money that is meant to get water to the poor. Corruption shuts smallholders out of irrigation systems, displaces communities with impunity during dam construction, disrespects carefully crafted arrangements for water-sharing across borders, and permits the poor and ignorant to carry out activities that undermine the environment and their livelihoods, all with grave consequences for environmental sustainability, social cohesion and political stability. Perhaps most destructive of all, the force of corruption threatens to create a situation in which the rules continue to be gamed in favour of the powerful and efforts for reform are thwarted.
Tackling corruption in water is therefore a prerequisite for tackling the global water crisis.

6 Jan 2010

A few things to read

...from The Economist's World in 2010:
  • The census of marine life -- just in time to know how much we've destroyed.
  • Summer Arctic ice will be gone sometime between 2013 and 2050. 2050 is optimistic! Damn.
  • Improving Nitrogen Use Efficiency with genetic manipulation. Really cool.
  • Straight talk on MBAs:
    There has been a bear market in management bullshit since the credit crunch began, but so far this has been on the demand side—managers have been too intent on staying in work to talk much jargon. In 2010 the decline of the MBA will cut off the supply of bullshit at source. Pretentious ideas about business will be in retreat.

Travelblog: Jakarta

Anne and I arrived in Jakarta, and it was raining. And it rained every day that we were there. It's clear that Jakarta (and most of Indonesia) does not have a water shortage problem.

What they do have is a water sanitation problem, as in open sewers everywhere and tap water that you cannot drink.

These problems are related, of course, since sewage will leak into groundwater (and perhaps piped treated water), making it unsafe to drink.

And then there's the smell. if you can imagine an entire city that smells like an overflowing, rancid toilet, then you can imagine what Jakarta smells like. Although I am sure that rats and other vermin like that situation, I am also sure that people do not.

Although it's probably not fair to criticize or draw conclusions on a few days' observation, I'd wager that local water and sanitation managers suffer from shortages of cash (unpaid bills or underbilling), effort (monopolistic bureaucracy) and/or ethics (corruption is BIG in Indonesia). These aspects, in some combination, probably explain why the water is not drinkable and the sewage is not treated properly.

Oh, and all those plastic water bottles floating around? Just charge a $0.02 tax and give $0.01 for each that is turned in. There are plenty of poor people to pick up all the bottles...

On a non-water related note, I'll also mention that Jakarta has terrible air quality. My eyes were watering and I had a headache after a few hours of walking around town. Of course, local residents do not walk that often, but their actions are more like the problem than the solution -- traffic in Jakarta is terribly congested. There are so many cars, motos and tri-wheelers struggling to get around that they move at an average speed that I could usually beat by walking.

As any economist will tell you, the solution to congestion is to raise prices -- via tolls on access to central Jakarta, for example -- but an easy first step would be to ban the use of tri-wheeler Bajaj scooters. These Indian machines have two-stroke engines and no sign of pollution control. Each one, I'd bet, puts out the pollution of 10 cars. If they were banned, people could still get around with taxis, buses, cycle-rickshaws, etc.

Bottom Line: Big cities in developing countries often have inadequate infrastructure, and Jakarta's is probably responsible for the premature deaths of many people.

5 Jan 2010

Privatization of water is GOOD

Robert Cruickshank (historian, activist, and teacher) writes that "Privatization of water resources - in any form - is a line that should never be crossed."

He's wrong.

In his anti-privatization, anti-business screed,* he draws a broad, unconditional conclusion based on two examples (privatization in Stockton and of the Kern County Water Bank). This is the worst form of argument ("Look! A privatization failure! All privatization is bad!"), a form that any 5th grader can demolish.

[steps into his 5th grader shoes, kinda tight, but comfy...]

Privatization saved the lives of poor children in Buenos Aires, and here's a book on why it may be better everywhere. Ok, so now we know that Cruickshank is wrong. I look forward to his retraction/clarification.

[back into my old shoes...]

Oh, and Cruickshank attacks CalAm for their water management in Monterey (where he lives). I did a consulting job for them (I agreed to keep my report confidential); let me tell you that CalAm's operations put the operations of most public agencies (EBMUC, MET, LADWP) to SHAME.

Bottom Line: Privatization doesn't work sometimes, and public agencies fail sometimes. They fail because of bad management (a human trait) and/or poor oversight (a community responsibility). Let's tone down the hysteria and try to improve things.

* Clipped and distributed by "DWR's California Water News (A daily compilation for DWR personnel of significant news articles and comment)." For some reason, they REFUSE to distribute ANY of my blog posts, but are happy to distribute this posts and others from C-WIN and alternet. I've asked Ted Thomas (Chief, Media and Public Information Branch) why they are excluding appropriate comments like my forbes piece, and he says "We are not an official news source. We simply compile news clips as a free service to DWR employees and to others who ask to receive them." I think that those weasel words hide a hidden agenda, to control the flow of information to DWR employees and maintain a pro-public agency bias. Given that DWR doesn't actually serve the people of California, I am starting to equate Thomas et al. with employees in the Ministry of Truth.

Priests and Programmers -- The Review

I bought J. Stephen Lansing's book (subtitle: "Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali") to learn how water temples manage water in Bali. Initially, I thought (see this post) that the priests in these temples told farmers how to share water across their rice fields, threatening divine retribution upon those who did not obey.

After reading this book, I have a better understanding. Although my first impression is more or less true (the water temples regulate water flows), it was also a little too superstitious. It turns out that the "priests" (or guardians) of the water temples are more like bureaucrats. Water temples on the lower level (of the subak, or irrigation district of 20-100 farmers) coordinate their labor for common infrastructure and rotation of water deliveries. (They use a "wheels within wheels" system of multiple calendars that cycle every 7, 15, 28, 45 days or on irregular but repeating patterns (7-7-3-1 day patterns); these calendars match various crop and logistical schedules, and they allow various activities to be scheduled independently without losing track of interdependencies.)

Above the subak level are one or more levels of temples, each of these receiving "tax" payments from subaks (offerings) in exchange for continuing water delivery (lest the goddess be angry). On a terrestrial level, the superior temples coordinate larger water flows, crop patterns, infrastructure and water rights. Each of these roles explains how the Balinese have been able to grow two crops of rice per year for around 1,000 years. Regulation of water flows is straightforward -- sometimes there is not enough water, sometimes infrastructure constraints require that water go to some subaks but not others, and so on. Crop patterns turn out to be VERY important. Farmers monocropping rice must worry about pests and diseases, and the water temples facilitate coordination of fallowing times and types (flood/rot or dry/burn) so that pests and diseases are "starved out" in an entire area. Infrastructure is also straight-forward in the sense that guardians of the temple provide technical advice (put a weir/diversion here or of this shape), amass funding for big projects, and ensure that infrastructure is maintained. Finally, the temples arbitrate between old and new claims to water, with the goal is maintaining sustainability while developing any and all resources for irrigation use. Elaborate and constant rituals coordinate these activities and the flow of information (up and down) among farmers of various subaks, with "coffee breaks" during rituals functioning as informal information exchanges and coordination.

Perhaps the most important part of water temples is their contribution to sustainability. Lansing gives an excellent description of how colonial Dutch bureaucrats had no idea of how the temples worked. (They assumed that the king had controlled water and taxes for infrastructure; that assumption allowed them to impose a "traditional" tax on farmers.) Even Indonesian bureaucrats had no idea of the temples' roles. Thus, they totally screwed up when they introduced "green revolution" rice that required fertilizers, pesticides and three crops/year. The "modern" system that they rolled out (with the assistance of the typical World Bank technicians) ignored the role of the water temples. Although yields rose in the first few years, water shortages quickly appeared and -- worse -- pests and diseases rose up to destroy up to 100 percent of the "modern seed" crops. In the end, the Bankers and others realized that the temples played a critical -- not superstitious -- role. They allowed the old system to be re-introduced, and the farmers rejoiced!

Besides these interesting facts are Lansing's very thorough description of how water temples evolved and worked (i.e., what Lin Ostrom would call the "institutions of water management") and the way that this "primitive" set of institutions was fully matched to modern challenges.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for its complete and clear description of sustainable water management in Bali.

4 Jan 2010

Monday Morning Smile

Communism in North Korea

North Korea had a terrible famine in the 1990s, and is still troubled by food scarcity. A recent New Yorker article described one woman's struggle to find food - perhaps the saddest, most tragic and shocking article I have ever read. A few excerpts:
North Koreans picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the roof to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.
It seems clear to me that North Korea's economic system caused the food shortage. Yes, they had floods, but so does everyone else. And they could not pay for more imports because their country could not produce anything of value (the people were exhausted/starving).

We get to the heart of the matter in the following paragraph:

The state confiscates the entire harvest and then gives a portion back to the farmers. As harvests withered in the early nineteen-nineties, the farmers, going hungry, began hoarding some of the crops. . .The farmers also neglected the collective fields for private "kitchen gardens," next to their houses, or small plots that they carved out of the side of uncultivated mountain slopes. Driving through the North Korean countryside, you could clearly see the contrast between the private gardens, bursting with vegetables-beanpoles soaring skyward, vines drooping with pumpkins-next to the collective fields with haphazard rows of stunted corn that had been planted by so-called "volunteers."
When a government confiscates all the fruits of labor, the incentive to produce more disappears. This seems like such a simple lesson but governments all over the world, not just in North Korea, forget or ignore this.

The rest of the article is incredibly sad but worth reading to be reminded of the virtues of our market system.

Bottom Line: Are there people that still think communism is a viable economic system?

Elephants on their desks

Jeff Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California asks for a Peripheral Canal:
Metropolitan has reduced by nearly 20 percent the imported supplies it provided to communities and farmers compared to a few years ago. The district has also drawn down about half of its reserves in the process. This pattern is not sustainable; it cannot last indefinitely.

A combination of actions - expanding conservation, increasing local supplies through recycling and desalination and addressing the Delta bottleneck - can put the state and region on a much more reliable path in the years ahead.
But he fails to mention that MET is doing very little to promote conservation. I will not put "sustainable" in the same sentence as Southern California until SoCal stops using 50 percent of its residential water on outdoor irrigation (lawns).

Pat Mulroy of Las Vegas/Southern Nevada Water Authority, as usual, goes even farther with her dreams demands:
As far as the pipeline to bring water from Northern Nevada to Southern Nevada, you tell me what the hydrology in the Snake Valley Basin looks like in 2020 and I’ll tell you if we’re going there. If Southern Nevada has to fend for itself, I think we’ll have no choice but to develop that water supply. We can’t desalt our way out of this problem; the solution has to be larger and more dramatic.


Regardless, water prices are going to go up gradually in the next 10 years. They have to. I don’t know how you avoid it. Whether it’s desalination or new water treatment technology or increased conservation, you’re going to see prices gradually nudge up.

I think we’ll continue to see more conservation. I think the community would resist stricter rules on turf, but there’s still a lot of unnecessary turf that can be removed and lots of improvements that can be made.
Despite her mention of "prices" and "conservation," she, like Kightlinger, is not REALLY talking about using price to destroy demand. They are talking price recovery. Most of their "conservation" plans consist of meaningless "turn off the water while you brush your teeth" rubbish. They are ignoring the elephant on their desks -- the demand side.

The average Las Vegas water bill is $21.

Bottom Line: Kighlinger and Mulroy are not interested in solutions, just more of the same BS that has put us in this unsustainable place.

1 Jan 2010

Looking forward to 2010

If 2009 was a disappointment, then 2010 can only get better, right?

I am hoping that disgust with the bullshit we saw in 2009 will lead to action in 2010. In many areas (economic, political, environmental, etc.), people are disappointed with their so-called leaders. (Some people are happy with their leaders, but these demagogues are more interested in promising bread and circuses than in delivering good policies that promote the general interest; I could elaborate, but I hope you get my meaning...)

This disappointment can and should lead to change, and the number one change that I would promote and hope for is a massive increase in transparency, civic debate, and voting action.

Transparency means that all political discussions and bureaucratic functions should be in public, posted online, in searchable form.

Civic debate will require that right-wing and left-wing nutjobs debate each other, instead of talking in an echo chamber. Politicians should be held accountable for their broken promises as well as their (often contradictory) pandering to interest groups.

Voting action requires that voters not only punish the corrupt, but the incompetent. Voters should find far more ways to weigh-in on specific legislation. We need to vote more than once every two years -- especially when our "representatives" affect our lives in so many ways.

Bottom Line: Complaining about the status quo will not change it; we can only affect it by intervention.