31 Oct 2017

Review: The Sound of Thirst

David Lloyd Owen gave me a copy of his 2012 book on urban water supply. I read it quite some time ago (maybe a year ago) but did not have time to write up a review until now. This review is based on my notes more than my recent impressions :)

This 450pp book summarizes Owen's 20+ years of experience in the water/wastewater sector. The message of his book is in the subtitle ("why urban water for all is essential, achievable and affordable") and the means of delivering on that message is in his analysis of how basic water services are allowed to fail through a combination of political neglect, counterproductive ideology, and weak performance incentives.

The book has 10 chapters. It begins with the goal (Safe Water and Risk), defines the situation and explains supply technology (Water Cycle, Supply Management, Sewerage), introduces the user (Demand Management, Affordability and Choice), looks into the main challenges of spending money and aligning incentives (The Paradox of Bottled Water, Fear and Finance, Private Vice; Public Virtue) and then ends with a New Vision.

In all, these chapters provide plenty of detailed, documented information along with a clear analysis of the real (as opposed to imaginary or naive) issues. Owen has degrees in Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology, so his strong quantitive analysis complements his experience in analyzing and advising the sector. If there's one fault in this book, it's that it's too long and too thorough for most people.*

I will not go through the details, but there is plenty here to allow a beginner to grasp the goals, operations and challenges in the water/wastewater sectors as well as how policies and attitudes have kept that sector from delivering water to its many potential customers. In many cases, service failure results from water's paradoxical nature as an essential good that's ridiculously cheap to supply:
Power cuts invariably take place when you have been tapping away at something unusually compelling and lucid on your PC that has not been saved. This is a blip. In water, you don't get outages, you get outrages. This is one of the paradoxes with water, the more value-added the service, the more cheerfully lapses are accepted. But the political media angst when the water utility comes up short is not a pretty sight, and this is why the water and wastewater utilities can be so risk-averse [p 47].
That anxiety -- and pressure to minimize prices -- hampers the sector.**

I read this book while "on mission" in Kazahkstan last year. The problems of the water services sector there are identical to those Owen identifies: prices are too low and government transfers too stingy for the sector to maintain -- let alone improve --- services. Owen should get his book translated into Russian and air-dropped in the EX-USSR. They've gone from excellent water services to "developing country" in only 30 years through a combination of mismanagement, corruption and starving the utilities of adequate funding.

The book also discusses several issues that I have covered here but deserve repetition, i.e., why there are more mobile phones than toilets in the developing world (hint: monopolies), how the UN has underestimated (and underserved) the 800 million 3 billion people without clean drinking water, how recycled wastewater is cheaper (and just as safe) as desalinated seawater, and how Singaporeans have excellent water services that are both affordable to customers and sustainably financed at the utility.

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for providing abundant evidence on the importance of water services for all and clear, documented arguments on how that service can be achieved through "commitment (against corruption and a desire to deliver service extension), consistency (in policy development and implementation, free from conflict between competing regulators), and capacities (build capacity for regulation and implementation so that the benefits of capital spending justify the costs and that utilities have to justify their performance or face financial penalties)" [pp 428-29].

For all my reviews, go here.

* My Living with Water Scarcity boiled down the ideas in my 80,000-word End of Abundance to 30,000 words without much loss for most readers. (TEoA is still useful to those who want a better-documented, deeper exploration of the issues.)

** Owen read an early draft of my paper ("The struggle for residential water metering in England and Wales") and gave me very helpful comments on how the privatized utilities in England are less trusted than the "social enterprise" that runs Welsh Water in a way that directs "profits" to projects customers care about. That paper also explores how competition among Welsh Water, Scottish Water and 15-20 private English firms has led them to better service, without regard to their ownership structure.


  1. " message is in his analysis of how basic water services are allowed to fail through a combination of political neglect, counterproductive ideology, and weak performance incentives. "

    I wish more people realized this.

    There are too many who think that basin-level per-capita 'back of the envelope' calculations have more to do with access to drinking water.

    1. ARRRRG!! That's the WORST metric. Well, I guess there's still a lot of learning to do out there!


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