2 Jun 2011

Water service and mobile phones

Chandran Nair (Global Institute for Tomorrow) gave an interesting talk at GWI's water summit in Berlin.

He made the interesting point that fewer people lack access to mobile phones (~1.9 billion) than access to clean water and sanitation (884 million and 2.5 billion, respectively)*

He used that point (as I recall) to lament the failure to deliver water to the world's poorest, but I saw it in a different way -- as a challenge to a monopolistic, decrepit industry that's less interested in customer service than leaving the office at 3pm.

It's easy to see why mobile phone use is far outpacing access to water and sanitation, even though both technologies reply on high fixed cost/low variable cost technology to deliver a "utility" that customers say they want.
  1. Mobile services compete for customers.
  2. Customers pay for good service.
  3. Government regulation of this "inessential" service is light.
  4. International aid for such a "luxury" is non-existent.
I'll let you fill in the counter-points prevalent in the water industry.

Bottom Line: Incentives matter, and the water "business" needs more business-like incentives if it's going to serve its putative customers (instead of donors, politicians, regulators, unions, etc.)

* It's also interesting the UNICEF gives suspiciously-accurate numbers on water, but mobile phone numbers are not only approximate but listed on Wikipedia. That 884 million number also WAY under-estimates the number who have DRINKABLE water [crap. Freakonomics lost my post on this..]