11 May 2010

Some straight talk on human rights and water

Ching Leong has got some good stuff to say. In this piece [pdf], she tells the tale of two cities:
In Singapore, water is priced from the first drop. There is no free water.

In Mexico City, the people have no idea how much water costs. There are few meters in the city – most pay a flat rate, if they pay at all. Only about one-fifth of the residents in Mexico City actually pay their bills.

Singapore loses only about 4 per cent of its water supply – one of the lowest volume of unaccounted for water in the world. Mexico loses about 30 per cent, and some cities in the developed world lose as much as 15 per cent.
In this one [pdf], she gets at the "red herring" of human rights:
In Singapore, water is not declared as human right. Everyone who uses water is charged from the first drop. While the water is not free, the Government has targeted subsidies under a scheme called RUAS (Rent and Utilities Assistance Scheme) where the poor receive subsidies for their utilities. Even for the very poor, the water connection is 24/7, and at the service level the same as that experienced by all other Singaporeans.

In other words, despite the lack of the declaration in Singapore that water is a human right, there is universal access to water in Singapore. So we see such a declaration is not a necessary condition for universal access. But another way to view the question is - is the declaration of water as a human right a sufficient condition for universal access? Let us now consider South Africa...

[snip]

On the demand side, designating “water as a human right” creates a sense of entitlement. When they are told they have a right to something, people will not want to pay for it. On the supply side, designating “water as a human right” does nothing. It is not sufficient to ensure its place in policy-making. It does not ensure universal access, and offers little advice to policy makers who are simultaneously battling other equally urgent problems.
Awesome.

Bottom Line: You can have a free water supply or a sustainable water supply, but not both.

8 comments:

  1. Is the Singapore model usable anywhere else?
    The politics and dynamics of Singapore seem to be unique?
    Does Singapore have guest workers who can be sent home when water supplies get low?
    Where does Singapore's water come from?
    Does Singapore control this supply?

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  2. @Eric
    yes
    irrelevant
    not really
    malaysia and domestic
    not really

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  3. Hmmmm, based on the author's devoutly patriotic argument, it looks like the only thing Mexico City, Sydney, Los Angeles and other urban megalopoli lack is the good, firm, government hand of a wise authoritarian dictatorship.
    The lessons are simple: set the price of water high enough for the state to to recover costs, ensure the state guards each drop jealously, employ the state to recycle and reuse to multiply the supply and build state institutions that make the best use of state money to invest in the state's water infrstructure... and methodically cane anyone who disagrees with the state that "these lessons can and must be learnt."
    Not easy to see my fiercely red-blooded libertarian friend endorse this autocratic, top-down, non-market approach as 'awesome.'
    David, would you honestly trade our lopsided, unsustainable, perversely-incentived California mess for Singapore's sterile natural, political and human environment?

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  4. Jamie,
    Thanks.

    In The Economist's Democracy Index (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index), eighty one countries rank ahead of Singapore as being more democratic.

    For David, there are no jury trials in Singapore. The state determines your harsh penalty. Then you are penalized.

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  5. @Eric and Jamie -- Democracy is one thing, a water system is another. Everywhere in the world, the water system is a monopoly. Those monopolies take what $ they want, provide what water they want, and cane you if you don't like it.

    Yes, I'd take Singapore over CA. They are less corrupt, more sustainable, and more equitable.

    But I'd still chew gum here...

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  6. What does 'equitable' mean in a place that seems to be a dictatorship in terms of human rights?

    How would you get the Singaporean water scheme implemented in CA?

    Do you need an authoritarian regime to do it?

    Do you, David, need to be the leader for it to happen?

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  7. Dr. Zetland:

    “But another way to view the question is - is the declaration of water as a human right a sufficient condition for universal access? Let us now consider South Africa...

    [snip]

    On the demand side, designating “water as a human right” creates a sense of entitlement. When they are told they have a right to something, people will not want to pay for it. On the supply side, designating “water as a human right” does nothing. It is not sufficient to ensure its place in policy-making. It does not ensure universal access, and offers little advice to policy makers who are simultaneously battling other equally urgent problems.”

    You make an good point. In ObamaCare’s universal insurance design, they completely missed the point that by no means does universal coverage ensure universal access. Matter-of-fact, the plan will fail the “notion” of universal access creates universal access as the ever decreasing amount (they are decreasing at an increasing rate) of doctors that will accept Medicaid will be inundated by the massive numbers of the currently uninsured that will be assigned to Medicaid. Hence the entitlement (ObamaCare) creates a group that pays nothing for coverage (Medicaid) which creates demand pressures. Supply by no means reacts positively.

    Hence you may well have coverage (demand), but your access will be limited by the decreasing size of providers (supply). The rationing agent price is at work as Medicaid is a price control situation paying lower fees than the market price fee and the reimbursement to the supplier is notoriously slow. The phenomena of universal coverage does not guarantee universal access has been a well documented phenomena and highly studied in the field of insurance for years.

    By-the-way, the comments above tickle me. You are exercising positive economics to point about the demand and supply side of the equation regarding the subject matter but the comments immediately slip into political economy i.e. normative economics.

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  8. So, bureaucracies can be effective. Instead of dismissing Singapore because it's regressive, couldn't we at least try to sort out why their water bureaucracy appears to be effective and efficient, and everyone else's is corrupt and wasteful?

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