28 May 2014

Remember the big picture

A colleague here read Living with Water Scarcity over the weekend. He was exactly the kind of reader I'm looking for: a thoughtful expert in his own work who wants to know how water policies should work but don't.

He asked several questions that reminded me of why I wrote the book. They all touched on the difference between the piece of the water puzzle we see (or are told to see) and how that piece fits into the larger picture. Some examples might be:*
  1. Shouldn't we subsidize irrigation if we want food security?
  2. Shouldn't we minimize the price of water so the poor can afford it?
  3. Why pay attention to water issues when climate change is going to have a huge impact?
Each of these questions carry implied weights in terms of the distribution of costs and benefits and differences between present and future impacts from various policies. Most people are capable of listing those tradeoffs, and many have opinions about their relative weights, but it takes a lot of thinking, I believe, before you can separate, relate and structure all those ideas into a decent concept of how various water flows interact and affect us, individually and socially. In any case, that's what I claim to put forward in my book -- a decent concept of how the pieces fit together.

Bottom Line: Remember to look for other impacts from your favorite (change in) policy.

* Larger picture:
  1. Subsidies that increase water use don't usually deliver the food you want to your table when you need it. Trade for food now. Store water and food for use later.
  2. Minimal prices may reduce network reliability or size, which tends to hurt the poor even more. The rich tend to use the most water, so they gain disproportionately from subsidies.
  3. Climate change impacts will arrive through variations in the water cycle, making efficient water management even more important.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

Not only do I agree with David Zetland, with regard to his "Larger Picture" responses, but I believe that anyone who visits India today will see vivid specific examples which clearly demonstrate the problems he addresses. India has consistently subsidized water (and the power to extract it from the ground) in the name of promoting food security and helping the poor. Unfortunately, in all most every case these policies have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse.

Water subsidies have reduced the incentive for conservation (and in many cases encouraged farmers to plant water intensive crops in water starved areas). In addition, power subsidies provided to farmers for the purpose of irrigation have led directly to a disastrous lowering of the water table which is particularly critical for poor farmers who can neither afford the pumps to take advantage of cheap power nor the deep wells to reach the lower water table.

Furthermore, when water tariffs no longer keep pace with the real cost of delivering water and maintaining the pipe network, it is inevitably the poor who suffer the most. Obviously, the rich can always find ways to obtain drinking water but it is the poor who suffer when the municipal systems run dry. Unfortunately, even when the water is provided "free" via public wells and standpipes, it is the poor women and young girls (who should be in school) who end up spending several hours each day carrying their "free" water. Free Water is no bargain, particularly for the poor.

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