24 Dec 2012

Last post for 2012

Aguanomics is on vacation until 2 Jan, but consider this...

'twas the night before Christmas
And all 'round the Earth
Fewer creatures were stirring
In habitats of degraded worth

Forests were disappearing
Turned into Ikea settees
Wetlands were drained
Developed behind levees

The people in big cheap houses
Sat in extra wide chairs
Their children were fat
From eating palm oil eclairs

Flora and fauna everywhere ran
As their homes turned in garbage cans
The businessmen were pleased to see profits grow
Due to royalties set far too low

Politicians rubbed their job making hands
Taking bribes to give away other people's lands
They only looked one election ahead
They will retire before we're all dead

But nature is neither free nor endless
Our burdens on it retard our progress
The profits of some increase burdens for all
That's what we mean by unsustainable

So remember this season to spare a thought
For losses from our environment too cheaply bought
Then write down an action for twenty thirteen
To stop politicians from selling our collective dream

We all share responsibility
To stop corruption and destruction that robs humanity
But we cannot look to our neighbors to act
We must take the lead to turn dream into fact

So do it for creatures great and small
So do it for me and you and those pushed to the wall
But do it mostly because this is the only earth we've got
There's nothing to enjoy if rainbows turn to rot.

21 Dec 2012

Friday party!

This Penan kid is having a good time with water ...near Gurung Mulu NP, Sarawak, Borneo

Happy Solstice!

Speed blogging

  1. Water transfers in the West[ern USA] summarizes issues. I'm waiting to see action.

  2. GRACE reorganized their website featuring information on water-energy-food. Nice design. Go take a look.

  3. Imagine H2O announced ten winners of its Consumer Innovations Program. The only original idea -- to me -- was the Joopy water boiler/purifier. Cool.

  4. A good technical discussion [pdf] of the the difference between water flows and water diversions.

  5. How the Feds let industry pollute water, a tale of exemptions and woe
H/Ts to IA and JS

20 Dec 2012

Lost and confused in Brussels

The Belgians deserve their heritage of surrealism
I went to a meeting in Brussels recently and it seems that this city is determined to make orientation as confusing as possible to visitors, i.e.,
  • Many streets lack signs (did the bilingual debates end with an agreement to put up no signs?)
  • Some names are in French, others in Flemish (Dutch) but your map may not be.
  • Many straight streets change names from block to block.
  • There are "canal streets" that lack canals.
  • They have "neighborhood maps" to help you see local streets, but the maps do not include a "you are here" dot.
  • Some posts give helpful arrows pointing to sights that are at North, North-North-West and North-West when there are only two streets in those directions.
  • When you get off the metro in Brussels-Midi (the main station in town), signs point to different bus lines and the train station but not other metro lines. I had to go up to the street to find where that sign was.
  • When you're standing on the metro platform, you can see lights for trains that are on their way AND already gone. Why do I need to know about the train I just missed?
  • Some maps illustrate important buildings, with the wrong orientation.
  • I asked the concierge where to go for dinner. He drew a detailed map to one place that was not there and another one that we never found (it was "around the corner" from the x he put on the map).
  • Check out a Belgian ATM. Apparently, some people write poems to get cash.

While I wandered around, wondering how it was possible to so completely fail at communicating locations and space to visitors, I tried to think of explanations:
  • The Belgians speak 3-4 languages, so they are too exhausted to make sense in any of them. (The British are very good at speaking English to each other and LOUD ENGLISH to foreigners, but they have amazing maps and directions).
  • The Belgians set the record for the number of days without a government, perhaps because newly elected parliamentarians could not manage to meet in one place.
  • The Belgians are surrealists because their streets and maps are surreal, and vice versa.
  • Belgians stop to have one of their lovely beers whenever they get lost or confused. After a few, they think they can tell you where they've been and where you need to go, but they're actually talking shit.
Bottom Line: Bring time, money and a sense of humor with you if you're ever trying to get anywhere in Brussels

19 Dec 2012

Water and corruption in Indonesia?

The organizers emailed this to me (I will be in Indonesia, but not in Jakarta):
17 January 2013 we will be conducting a one day workshop to discuss the major issues for Indonesian Water Utilities: corruption, financing and regulation, including Bulk Water supply. The workshop is part of the Indonesian Water and Wastewater Expo & Forum 2013, organised by the Indonesian Water Utilities Association. Further details

America to world: who cares?

I get The Daily Climate newsletter (via DL) and recommend it to you. A recent newsletter had a juxtaposition of headlines that's just too good to be true:

2012, The Hottest U.S. Year on Record, and Humans are causing climate change,


Three of four Americans say the Earth is warming, and one in three Americans see extreme weather as a sign of biblical end times.*


Bottom Line: One-quarter of Americans deny climate change and one-third say "bring Jesus back to us" -- so that means that 58 percent favor doing nothing to mitigate climate change. It also means that the Americans are not going to be taking any actions based on public opinion.
* There's no debate among academics.

18 Dec 2012

All-in-auctions is published!

I've been working on this idea for 5-6 years, and I think it has great potential for reallocating water while respecting the rights of existing users. It just came out in the Journal of Environmental Management.

Abstract: This paper proposes a novel mechanism for reallocating temporary water flows or permanent water rights. The All-in-Auction (AiA) increases efficiency and social welfare by reallocating water without harming water rights holders. AiAs can be used to allocate variable or diminished flows among traditional or new uses. AiAs are appropriate for use within larger organizations that distribute water among members, e.g., irrigation districts or wholesale water agencies. Members would decide when and how to use AiAs, i.e., when transaction costs are high, environmental constraints are binding, or allocation to outsiders is desired. Experimental sessions show that an AiA reallocates more units with no less efficiency that traditional two-sided auctions.

Those of you with an academic subscription can download it here. Those of you without can download my author's copy [pdf]

Addendum: I have made several different presentations of this idea for people who do not like reading academic papers. You can watch this video demonstrating the AiA, look at the the powerpoint version, listen to my lecture, or read a popular version in Solutions Journal.

You can also use these instructions [pdf] to run a demonstration of the AiA to allocate water in shortage or choose where to flood when there's too much water :)

Addendum 2: "Auctions to address issues in Oklahoma" (4 min YouTube) on OSU's SunUpTV and "All-in-Auctions demonstration" (45 min video; 72 min MP3) at the Natural Resource Ecology and Management Seminar, OSU

Question of the week

I talk all the time about failed water management (often referencing Las Vegas :)

Can you give names or examples of good water managers delivering economically and environmentally sustainable water services?

17 Dec 2012

Monday funnies

These guys know how to build consensus!

More unemployment for consultants?

While teaching, I try to deliver a little "real world" economics to students who may be lulled by the easy answers from professors who do not have to implement their ideas in the real world -- but the same can be said of the consultants who use models, estimations, simulations, and so on to give policy makers "concrete answers" that are precisely wrong.

Those are not possible in the real world of complexity, of course, but that doesn't keep the consultants from offering them, their clients from accepting them, and your taxes from paying for them.

It would be easier, cheaper and more accurate, in other words, to design policies that pushed behavior in a general direction and expect results to fall within a decent range.

That was what I was getting at when I asked my students the following homework question [pdf]:
Tell me what you'd say to the minister of the environment if he asked you to find the optimal amounts of pollution for two (or 40 or 4,000) Dutch firms.
They gave a variety of answers, but here's what my answer key says:
Something like "I don't know their TACs [Total Abatement Costs], so it's hard to find the right reductions for each. It would be better to set a tax on pollution or put a cap and allow trading." Answers along the lines of ``find TACs and set the efficient tax" get zero points
Bottom Line: "The scientist is not the person who gives the rights answers; he's one who asks the right questions." -- Claude Levi-Strauss

14 Dec 2012

Friday party

I wouldn't follow this guy's schedule, but I agree with many of his opinions about people and places (I've been to 80+ countries).

Anything but water

  1. "EPA Says Its Ethanol Rules Aren't Driving Up Food Prices." In other news, the EPA has its head up its ass (if the ethanol blending requirement doesn't matter, then let's get rid of it!) AAA, luckily, is paying attention, since E-15 blended gas can damage your engine.

  2. A veteran doctor attacks Big Pharma. Tyler disagrees, but I think he's missing the damage from misallocation due to the distortions of propaganda, misinformation and principal-agent failures.

  3. The surreal world of state control: "Abortion on request was first legalized in Romania in 1957... In 1966, the Government dramatically altered its policy. Concerned about the low rate of population growth, it introduced a number of measures to increase the fertility rate" ...and it gets worse [doc]

  4. The Straight Dope on cheap Mexican vanilla

  5. I, Pencil (the movie) talks about the invisible hand in glowing (and nicely illustrated) terms (a la Hayek) but them veers into CEI propaganda. Watch the first 4 minutes.
H/T to CD

13 Dec 2012

Global Water is looking for interns!

I keep track of GWF, which has good content. If you're a student -- or someone looking to spend more time learning more about water issues -- then check out this opportunity...
The Global Water Forum is a UNESCO and Australian National University initiative set up to present freely available knowledge and insight from leading water researchers and practitioners. The goals of the GWF are to:
  • Support capacity building through knowledge sharing;
  • Provide a means for informed, unbiased discussion of potentially contentious issues;
  • Provide a means for discussion of important issues that receive less attention than they deserve;
  • Create a high quality resource for water practitioners that is accessible and freely available across the world.
With 2013 set to be the UN year of international water cooperation, the GWF is getting busier and busier. In order to help expand the site and make more resources available to all parts of the world the GWF is looking for discussion topic editors to manage a particular water topic and be responsible for sourcing and editing articles to a very high standard related to that topic (although there are plenty of other opportunities to get involved with for those who are interested!).

All internships are currently voluntary but interns can expect to: (a) get editing and publishing experience with a UNESCO organisation; (b) build up a network of relationships with people working in the water sector; (c) keep up-to-date with all of the latest water projects and academic research; and (d) have an opportunity to give publish an article on the site.

Anybody who is interested in learning more please send an email and a copy of your CV to chris.white@globalwaterforum.org.

How sustainable is your country?

Spend some time here, looking at your country's scores on several dimensions of development.

I left here:

to go here:

12 Dec 2012

Dark days of December

My life, by nearly every measure, is good. And yet, I face a crisis of confidence every so often -- I wonder whether my work and effort have any value and whether we, humans, are making any progress. Yes, we have whizzier phones, arts and entertainment, but what of our politics, economies, environments and communities? On politics, I fume at the failure to face hard decisions and the power that special interests exert in driving policies away from what's good for all to what's good for a few. Economics and economies are often robust -- despite political interference and misdirection -- but waste in countering those attacks (and promoting false values) means that we are much poorer than we need be. The local environment is improving in some places and failing in others; the global environment is truly headed for disaster, as far as our human needs and wants are concerned.* Our communities are sometimes resilient and sometimes torn by evolving economic, technological and social forces; nasty political opportunists are happy to wreck them for cheap publicity.

I'm an economist by training and inclination. I speak truth to power because I am annoyed by silly ideas and angered by transparent failure. Economics is known as the "dismal science" for its brutal analysis of the facts and forces that make our lives better or worse. We earned that title for denouncing slavery -- not a Malthusian prediction of overpopulation -- but those are just two examples of where our unpopular views have turned out to be right. The trouble with being critical -- and right -- is that people tend to give you more blame for the pain caused by changing to the right course than they give you credit for seeing which path to take.

I sometimes get depressed at the lack of perception and progress towards the "right policies" that we discuss and explore here (this is not my first complaint), but I always seem to bounce back and fight on. I don't do that because I enjoy pain. I do it because I hear hints and murmurs of agreement and consent. I do it because I can answer people's questions, teach students to see, or notice that others are -- finally -- seeing that some emperors really lack the figleaf of a wardrobe.**

I've managed to build a small platform here and connect with people interested in these issues -- and solving them. I wonder constantly how I (or we) can improve our chances for being heard and "making a difference." I'm too old to think that "all things turn out for the best in all worlds," but I've never looked back with regret at the decisions I've made or the actions I've taken.

And so I sit here on an early morning train, trying to reconcile my frustration, excitement, pleasure and doubt. I'd love to follow a clear, certain and just path, but life is not that clear to me. I wander (and wonder) in the dark room of potentials, hoping to get to the other side (wherever that is) without breaking the china or bumping my knees.

The good news is that I am just now getting "out of the house" to spend 7 weeks in Asia with Cornelia [we left 7 Dec]. I enjoy traveling for the novelty and adventures, but I also benefit from "eating with the people" (see photo) -- when I am reminded of the resourceful, generous, joyous and curious energies exerted by everyday people in their pursuit of life.

Bottom Line: Life isn't easy, but it would be boring if it was. We may struggle to succeed, but the lessons learned -- and occasional successes -- are what result in progress, wisdom and satisfaction.

* But see yesterday's post. A new hope or false dawn?

**I was right about the corn ethanol disaster, Venezuela falling apart, disputes over oil money in Iraq, water management failure in Southern California, and many other issues. I'd be proud of those facts if it wasn't so depressing to consider the extent of gratuitous suffering that's resulted from a failure of others to see what I see and take action to end it.

11 Dec 2012

The Doha talks on climate change

Interesting results on the conversion of "aid" from developed countries into "compensation" to developing countries for losses and damage due to CC. Although cap and trade sounds good on paper, I think they need to remove offsets (seems that the Clean Development Mechanism is dead anyway) and just stick with straight emissions, while counting deforestation as a net emission. I am not sure if countries with caps cannot use a tax to reduce emissions but I don't see why not.

Oh, and THIS is funny as hell:
There was last-minute drama as the talks were thrown into turmoil by the insistence of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that they should be allowed extra credit for the emissions cuts they made when their industries collapsed.

After a long delay, the chairman lost patience, re-started the meeting and gavelled through the agenda so fast there was no chance for Russia to object.

A cheer exploded into prolonged applause. Russia bitterly objected at what it said was a clear breach of procedure, but the chairman said he would do no more than reflect the Russian view in the final report.
Bottom Line: Progress has restored some momentum. Now the US and China have to stop fucking around.
Written in Kuala Lumpur, where the rivers are dirty and people are way more interested in smart phones than in reducing their footprints. (There's a sign for a bike race in a few weeks, but that propaganda is overwhelmed by the car traffic. Saw some bikes in the parks, but NONE on any city roads.)

Question of the week

Many people have told me that the Chinese government if "serious" about improving environmental conditions.

Do you have any evidence for or against this idea?

10 Dec 2012

Monday funnies

This is true to my experience in these roles:

H/T to AW

Drinking Water (A History) -- the review

HH gave me James Salzman's book, which just came out.

is a Duke professor of law and environmental policy and this book represents 6-8 years of his readings on water policies. This depth of experience -- he quotes many cases and examples -- helps him explain the varied history of drinking water. His work on law and policy means that he puts more-than-typical attention onto the various perspectives, allowing him to present a balanced view on most issues.

My only, topline, gripe is the mixed quality of the material in this book (it was written over several years with the help of several research assistants).

But let's go to my marginalia:
  • After a slightly boring introduction to our spiritual and cultural attachments to water, Salzman spends eight chapters reviewing the history of drinking water from the Romans (or before) to the "technological future"

  • Here and there, I found myself disagreeing with his emphasis on one factor or another (was "taking the waters" about the minerals or the fact that the water wouldn't kill you?). On other occasions, I was READY to disagree before Salzman landed some sound and useful words regarding points on my mind. There were far more good points than bad ones, but I regret that Salzman appears to be citing Fishman as a "authority" when his work has got some issues.

  • I really enjoyed the historical chapters on the development of reliable water supplies in New York, London, Rome, etc., which he appeared to have covered in this 2006 paper.

  • I really enjoyed his discussion of water contamination and regulation in the US. I also need to double check my impression that drinking water and bottled water are equally inspected, as he raises the good point that bottled water quality regulations are the same on PAPER but not as implemented.

  • His chapter on water terrorism was interesting on the many ways to poison water but grounded in his skepticism that terrorists have "better" ways to work.*

  • I was also pleased to see that some US states have deposits on plastic water bottles. I wonder if they have less bottle litter. Anyone?

  • He has a good discussion of the challenges of DELIVERING water as a human right, and makes an excellent point about drinking water in LDCs: it may be cheaper and more effective to make dirty water safe just before drinking (Point of use) rather than trying to set up systems that carry safe water all over an area.
The good news for me is that this book, like many others I've reviewed here, gives readers a decent background on the scope of our water problems without spending too much time on the solutions -- or the barriers to solutions -- areas on which my book concentrates.**

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its excellent history of drinking water (I learned things!), a history that is occasionally uneven in quality or analysis.

* Reminds me of something the TSA claims: no terrorist attacks on planes since 2001. The same can be said about buses and trains, of course!

** I recently decided to make TEoA 2.0 much "cleaner" in discussing problem:cost:cause:solution. There are PLENTY of books that describe the problems without getting at the root causes or solutions.

7 Dec 2012

Friday party!

This is HYSTERICAL (Social media run amok :)

Speed blogging

  1. How Singapore turned its river from a sewer into an economic amenity.

  2. The Mississippi is running low and everyone wants the Army Corps to manage for them. Too bad the Corps is using command and control instead of markets to allocate scarce resources.

  3. Climate change evident across Europe, confirming urgent need for adaptation and a nice infographic on the politics of climate change.

  4. Megastorms with atmospheric rivers could drown California. Yep, not a good time to live in the valley.

  5. Sealevel rise may be much higher. Yep, not a good time to live at the coast.
H/Ts to MC and DL

6 Dec 2012

Cap and trade in practice

I ran a cap and trade experiment in my class,* to show students how they could benefit from a market that allowed them to trade their (capped permits) for pollution emissions.**

This experiment [65 minute mp3] clarified how "normal" people can listen to the idea but not understand how to implement it.

It also clarified the importance of setting a real cap, understanding whether manufacturers are pursuing profit or volume, and the efficiency with which market prices reveal social values (see the photo).

Blue and white from first round, pink and yellow on second

* Teachers -- or the merely curious -- can download the instructions here (pdf), while noting that one must adapt the rules to the local teaching situation.

** Cap and trade (also discussed in that lecture) is neither as efficient nor as easy to implement as carbon taxes, which appear to be back on the agenda for governments that are (1) looking to reduce carbon emissions and (2) broke. I wrote many posts on the virtues of carbon taxes. My class exercise would have produced better results (with less time and chaos) if we had used a carbon tax.

5 Dec 2012

Woo hoo!

I just sent in a few clarifications for the pre-press version, but you can read the draft version (with the same wording) here.

The rise of China's political opposition

Ooska news reports that some Chinese are upset at the poor quality of environmental conditions and demanding that the government act to improve those conditions.

I put "environmental water" in Part II of my book (Social water choices) due to its political nature. This classification -- and the increasing intensity of debate -- makes me wonder if "environmental awareness" among the Chinese middle class has sowed the seeds of a civil society that may challenge the power of the communist party -- or maybe they will be ignored or bought off.

What do you think?

4 Dec 2012

Economics is NOT a science

I love this book:
Borrowing the prestige of scientific language and methods from the biological sciences, many social scientists have envisioned and tried to effect an objective, precise, and strictly replicable set of techniques -- a set of techniques that gives impartial and quantitative answers.

Thus most forms of formal policy analysis and cost-benefit analysis manage, through heroic assumptions and an implausible metric for comparing incommensurate variables, to produce a quantitative answer to thorny questions. They achieve impartiality, precision, and replicability at the cost of accuracy. -- James C. Scott, Seeing like a State (1998)
Addendum: He was just profiled in the NYT, and I've bought his new "anarchist" book.

Accounting for water flows

I've talked about the "proper" way to account for water diversions and consumption before (here and here).

In recent conversations with various water wonks at various conferences, I've thought more about the "proper" way to account for water flows. (Chapter 10 of this describes the authoritative, scientific version of proper flows -- according to its author :)

The main problem to worry about is over-allocations of diversions that can lead to rivers running dry.*

So here's MY summary of how to handle diversions:
  1. Environmental flows are set aside before economic flows are allocated.
  2. Economic diversion rights are assumed to be 100 percent consumptive.
  3. The sum of economic rights cannot exceed economic flows (over time or on the spot).
  4. Owners of diversions may use 5 percent or 100 percent of those diversions. Excess or "lost" flows go down the river, to the environment, but NOT to others, since their diversions are already accounted for.**
  5. Some people may worry about the "inefficiency" of these losses, but they are not inefficient if they improve the quality of the environment, which is a public good.
  6. Diverters CAN sell the diversions that they do not use (i.e., tailwater), but those diversions need to be quantified and certified with the same methods used to certify and monitor the original diversions.
Bottom Line: It's better to be conservative when accounting for the right to divert water. Radical (or "optimal") accounting can result in a dry river and a lot of angry downstream neighbors.

* A river with 100 units of flow and 10 diverters with 50% consumption of their diversions may have the right to divert 20 units of flow (i.e., 20 units diverted of which 10 units are used). If they increase their efficiency to 62.5 percent of their rights, then the river will be dry after 100/12.5 = 8 diverters, leaving the last two high and dry.

** Beware and remember: A city may sell 100 units of water to customers while only consuming 10 units of water (via evaporation, runoff, etc.); the other 90 units may be cleaned and discharged at the wastewater treatment plant.

3 Dec 2012

Monday funnies

What a twit.

Speed blogging