05 July 2016

Wasted EFfort

tl;dr: I'm totally annoyed that people who should know better have missed an opportunity to improve water governance.

I wrote two weeks ago about the importance of good governance to sustainable water management. MS was kind enough to send a sad example of totally missing that point.

What makes this example particularly appalling (to me) is that it comes from the World Economic Forum, i.e., the Swiss facilitators of the annual Davos meeting among Illuminati high and mighty decision makers.

Back in 2011-12, I had several email conversations going with WEF staffers, hoping that they could use WEF's status as a leading non-profit to advocate for better governance (=less corruption) in the water sector. Such a campaign, I argued, would serve its business members and average citizens while undoing unsustainable practices that waste money and benefit cronies. I have not seen much sign of such a campaign (their Global Water Initiative project doesn't even mention "governance" or "corruption"), but I had my hopes.

But then MS sent me this campaign for World Water Day:

OK, so Mina is going to run 1,680 km to "raise awareness." Mina likes to run, and she's representing who?
Thirst is an initiative of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders, a unique, multi­stakeholder community of more than 700 exceptional young leaders who share a commitment to shaping the future.

Thirst aspires to be the world's leading water community, affecting change in society by making consumers aware of the value of water.

Our vision is a future where supply of water is greater than demand, where there is enough water for all, forever.
Ok, and how are they going to do that?

Ok, pledges... to contribute money or use less water. Well, they only got $2,700, or 4% of the funding target. That result makes their water conservation (via totally non-binding pledges) look rather good:

135 million liters. Well, that's only 13.5% of their goal but it sure sounds like a lot. Let's see. That's 135,000 m^3 of water (about 35 million gallons), which is a lot to drink but not too much when you put the volumes into bulk units, i.e., 0.135 MCM (also called gigaliters, or 109 acre feet). If that was Perrier, it would be worth $471 million ($3.450/m^3, bubbles not included). If it came out of my Amsterdam tap, then it would cost $187,000 ($1.38 or €1.24/m^3). If I wanted to buy this water on the Australian market (using a recent quote of AU$170/ML for temporary water, not the water right), it would cost about US$17,400. Using Imperial Irrigation District's price of $20/acre foot, that's about $2,200 of water saved. My point with these numbers is that the value, price and cost of water vary by alot.

So that's the benefit of this campaign, but what about the costs? That's awfully hard to find in terms of cash. Thirst claims to be "a model of transparency, integrity and honesty," but their 2015 Annual report [pdf] is a case study in financial obfuscation (try to find any aggregate figure on spending). Their staff of 16 must be paid something, and I am guessing that it's more than $43,000 ($0.63/"person reached" times 68,458 students reached -- "152% of target!" that can be backed out of the non-financial report). I'm not going to debate this cost/benefit, as Thirst does a lot of outreach to students, but let's get back to the main point:

Bottom Line If WEF's Young Ambassador's are trying to have an impact, then "conserving" 135 million liters is pretty weak compared to spending all those hours of volunteer, staff and supporter time on discovering, explaining and improving water governance. Isn't that what we'd expect the world's next generation of leaders to do if they were going to really address water scarcity? Three minute showers are not the enemy, bad policies are (here are 500+ more).


  1. David, the narrative of the "Global Water Crisis" is often mischaracterized at the level of most advocacy messaging. Implicit in this scarcity message is a Malthusian notion of not enough water for too many people, when the reality is more like mismanagement and misallocation. You know a whole lot more than I do about sectoral allocation economics, but we both know that the scale of agricultural water use dwarfs that of household and drinking water.

    The crisis of access to water - where hundreds of millions of people in poor countries do not have reliable access to water has more to do with effective and accountable government management / provision and affordability in public and private supply regimes.

    Access to water in household and drinking water developed countries is clearly not the problem it is in Africa. If anything, it is like California, where better sectoral allocation and more efficient use is likely the solution.

    I'm not sure at which scale of the water sector this particular initiative was aimed, but if it results in some water conservation, it's certainly not a bad thing.

    To your larger point of waste of money, I would simply say that this confused Malthusian messaging and perception provides cover for this sort of wasted effort to occur.

    I mean, who wants to talk of nuanced global, national, regional, and local water issues, when you can just scream "shortage!, shortage! shortage!" ??

    1. ...and run across deserts?

    2. haha. that's true. localized shortages like deserts are no mirages!

    3. ..but with enough money and effort, you could always make the desert bloom and make another Las Vegas! :-)

  2. Awareness campaigns are meant to (re)introduce an issue into the public rhetoric. It's not a game of “how many litres of water can be conserved” but a game of inception. The aim is to plant a seed in the mind which leads to an altering of behaviour. When you begin to conserve/better manage resources (energy, water) in your domestic life, you are learning a behaviour that has an immediate reward (be it a ‘feel good factor’ or ‘saving money’). This reinforces that behaviour and makes it easier for further incentives to allow you to transfer the behaviour from your domestic life into your professional life and your consumer behaviour. So before we go poo-pooing an awareness campaign because it isn’t “doing enough,” you need to factor in the indirect results as well as the direct results. These are much harder to measure and attribute back to one particular campaign – but we can see trends in awareness and mitigation of risk in many forms (think of condom awareness campaigns for instance). So I ran a marathon for WaterAid and I’m proud I did. It's certainly got my friends and family to be aware of the issues. And to your point on needing to stop corruption - corruption is a human behaviour (and most humans are corruptible). To change it, you have to be looking for it, you need many eyes and you need zero tolerance for this specific corruption in the public rhetoric. Belief in a all-knowing deity and fear of punishment in the after-life was mankind's principal weapon against corruption and this is being eroded - fine. We have also used public shaming (think of the twitter storms). To do that you need masses to come together in social pressure and for that, you need awareness. Are we at peak awareness? Probably not. So I think these campaign still serve a purpose and are worth pursuing.

    1. @Beth -- while I agree that "everything helps" my point in this post is that the return on investment towards awareness is not only small (the literature on water conservation points out that most changes are short term) but smaller than we'd get with (a) higher prices (well known) and/or management changes (the cause of a LACK of water supply in most countries, as I've discussed before).

      Although you talk about the difficulty of working together to tackle corruption (or recognize good work), I do not agree that such an effort is either doomed to fail or less beneficial. Indeed , it is necessary (and sometimes sufficient) to causing change. Marathons may get people excited for a bit but it doesn't educate them of the causes of, say, water scarcity or give them a road to "tackling" it.


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