24 Nov 2014

Some thoughts on my Reddit AMA

My "ask me anything about water" was roughly 4x more popular (based on votes) than the first one I did in July. (It was also more popular than Naomi Klein's, but she was only answering questions for an hour :)

I spent about 8 hours in total, writing 450 replies to over 1,000 questions and comments.

The most popular question was "What's your opinion of the bottled water industry?" to which I replied: "It's like the soft drink industry. Both need to worry about groundwater supplies and litter. Both promise quality and advertise well ahead of what they deliver."

My most popular answer was in response to this question:
Hello. I live in Manila, where the tap water is not as clean as in other countries, so we don't drink it. Do you know what it would take to make it drinking water, just in general? Also, any interesting water facts about the Philippines? We have loads of slums and corruption here, coupled with massive flooding and the biologically dead Pasig River flowing through town. As far as improving water quality is concerned, what would you say is the best way?
I wrote:
Yep. Tough problems. Leaking pipes are the start, as they lose water and allow contaminants to get clean water (from the treatment plant) dirty. Neighborhoods should look at small scale treatment-for-sale facilities (see photo with bottles here).

Corrupt people don't care about slums, so they need to take care of themselves. For drinking, you can use filters and chlorine, but it's MUCH better to have drinkable tap water for cooking, showering, etc.

Get your neighbors together. After you get 100, look into larger filters. After 1,000, you can build a larger system. They are affordable, even in slums, when shared among many...
It was interesting to see this response -- and several others -- covered in a nice summary by a Filipino blog.

Here are a few of my favorite questions and answers (in no particular order):
  • Them: "Water economist... Alright, in developing countries in Africa and Asia there are many people who earn a living by selling water. How can you build water infrastructure in developing countries without ruining their lives?"
    Me: "Well, people can switch jobs (like nightsoil collectors). Look at the benefit to water USERS, in terms of cheaper, cleaner water."
  • Them: "How does one get into studying the economy of water?"
    1. Read my book.
    2. If still interested, then find a water issue that interests you.
    3. Study that (or work in the area).
    4. ???
    5. AMA!
  • Them: "Where is the "Manhattan Project" to passively desalinate ocean water? [snip] It just seems that if population rates - regardless of location - allow for a doubling of humans within 30 years, the water has to come from somewhere. Business people and globalist control freaks love to make everything SCARCE in order to regulate it, control it, charge more for it, etc. There is a lot of talk about ABUNDANCE in this gee-whiz age of Google this and Apple that. It just seems that a program to passively separate salts and minerals from ocean water for use in human activities is a necessity"
    It's called "rain" :) Seriously, lots of people support supply side solutions. Those are no problem, as long as users pay for them.
  • Them: "Why is it so difficult to desalinate water?"
    Front page! Woo hoo!

    Me: "Salt and water like each other."
  • Them: "I live in Melbourne, Australia and in the first decade of the new millennium, we went through a drought that rendered our water storage levels dangerously low. As a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, our government hastily spent BILLIONS of dollars building a desalination plant, because I guess they saw the possibility of our water reserves running dry. Shortly after construction of the plant had gone past the point of no return, we had record breaking rainfalls which basically filled our water storages, and continue to have very good rainfalls year on year. We are still paying money for our desalination plant via a water levy (tax), and will continue to pay it until we have completely paid off, which will be in about a decade or so, and the plant is yet to deliver us with a single drop of water. My question is do you think that building the plant was a good idea back then, and do you think it is a good idea to have it for the future of Melbourne? Do you think in the foreseeable future we will ever turn it on?"
    "Good question. The plant is an insurance policy. You don't always need insurance... until you do."
  • Them: "What does California need to do to solve (both in the short-term and long-term) the drought/water shortages it is currently facing?"
    Me: "(1) Raise the price of water so people don't have lawns in the desert (2) Protect groundwater and use aquifers (3) Allow water markets, so ag can reposition/shrink (4) STOP subsidizing sprawl (via cheap water)"
  • Them: "Based on your knowledge of major trends, what will be the biggest changes we'll see over the next 20 years?"
    "Food chain disruption. Groundwater exhaustion. Dead ecosystems. These will be black and white WTF [were we thinking?] situations in many places."
  • Them: "How quickly will there be major impacts from ground water exhaustion in US south west?"
    "The impacts will be felt after 3-5 more years of drought for ag; cities can get along for 25+ years."
  • Them: "What is more likely to occur in severe cases all around the world in a few years: extreme drought or extreme rainfall/floods?"
    Me: "Both."
  • Them: "You mentioned competition on quality. Where does that apply - developing countries, developed countries or plain everywhere? I wouldn't know how to judge whether tap water or battled water were higher quality. These numbers (German pdf) released by the utilities company mean nothing to me and they aren't even available for bottled water."
    Me: "Yep. Everywhere. Consumer's Union could nail that one."
Bottom Line: People are very curious to know the risks, causes and potential solutions to water quality and quantity problems. Many put too much weight on technical hope (desalination) or moral outrage (bottled water is evil). Few understand the roles of government failure, monopolistic ineptitude and community engagement. I am working to move the discussion in that direction, and the fact that people downloaded 2,000 copies of my book during the AMA gives me hope.


Anonymous said...

The AMA was awesome. I work on the water sector and it's always useful to have an insight into the questions that people who are not thinking about water all day have.

Also, I don't know if you had time to look at the new Nature Conservancy report (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-11-18/watershed-conservation-a-positive-for-cities-report.html) but it seems like the movement towards putting a $$ value on conservation is going forward, although not necessarily due to assigning value to conserving nature but on avoiding treatment costs. I guess it's better than nothing... still, it's interesting to see an organization so focused on conservation for its own sake starting to make these arguments...

keep up the great work!

David Zetland said...

@Anon -- glad you liked. TNC's strategy makes sense, given the dual returns. Search "green infrastructure" on my blog for more :)

David Zetland said...

Update: I'm not that lazy

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