Posts tagged with: water

Detroit WaterAs I was poring over the morning news the other day, it seemed to me that every few days there is another water crisis somewhere; whether it’s California’s drought, or more recently the controversial decision in which the Detroit water companies shut off the water supply to over 15,000 customers. But are we really looking at water regulation, appropriation, and the morality of shutting water off in the correct light?

Let’s start with some of the basics: Water is essential for survival. Water needs to be purified. But, how is this done? In most cities water companies or public utilities offer the service of collecting the water, filtering the water, and pumping it to our homes. How should a service like this be supported in a market? It should be supported by rewarding the provider of that service with a profit, so that they have an incentive to efficiently use their resources, and make it available to the widest range of people possible. To not pay, would be stealing from the water companies. (more…)

Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post.  He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support.  It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.

McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post.  And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources.  My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water.  The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one.  No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.

I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost.  Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level.  This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved.  My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective.  It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.

Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights.  The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West.  This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society.  Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic.  As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights.  This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such.  Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:

[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable.  There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens.  By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth.  No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.”  (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”)  All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life.  And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity.  My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper.  The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.

The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial.  As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism.  It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.”  Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied.  We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.

Water is becoming scarcer and even more of a necessity than it was before. And while stories of water scarcity typically occur in underdeveloped, arid countries, the United States and other developed countries must realize they are no longer exceptions and must take into consideration the importance of water and the allocation of its use.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores the severe lack of water in Palm Beach, Florida. Residents are restricted to once-a-week watering schedules for lawns and plants, however, not all residents are abiding by restrictions whereas many owners of large estates are continuing an excessive use of water. The disparity in water usage has created a disgruntled community in West Palm Beach.

While residents in the U.S. are disagreeing over water usage for landscape purposes, many throughout the world are dying of thirst, thus, putting forth the question, do communities need to reevaluate their water use? Grass, and green luscious landscapes that are found in more moderate climates are not natural to southern Florida, so is it moral for residents to obtain a landscape, requiring a large use of water, that isn’t even native to an area?

Water scarcity has become a cause for concern in the United Kingdom, and Egypt and Ethiopia have been battling over the share of the Nile’s water reserves. Many countries and local communities are now forced to take into consideration their long term use of water.

In past blog posts (here, here, and here) I’ve taken a look at the water crisis and with Italians recently deciding to repeal a law that required water to be treated as a commodity, an explanation of my previous argument in support for treating water as a commodity is needed. My last post was missing an important moral case for the privatization of water that needs to be addressed.

In his essay, “Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water” James Salzman analyzes how different civilizations throughout history provided drinking water. Jewish law, according to Salzman, treated water as a common property resource, not an open access resource. Priority was given according to use, giving drinking water the highest priority. While water, which came from a well made possible by human labor, was for community use only, nobody was turned away who was in need of drinking water.

Rome is a great example of how water resources were allocated when a water supply and sanitation system existed. There was a public water source, known as the lacus, where Romans could collect water for free. When using the lacus, Romans had to use their own manual labor to transport the water from the lacus to their homes. However, there was also a private water supply where Romans could pay to have water brought into their homes through a pipe system.

The “right to thirst,” as explained by Salzman, is recognized by both the Romans and the Jewish law. Salzman explains every human has a right to water, and both civilizations understand that right by providing free drinking water to those in need. Such compassion shows one’s love for his or her neighbor.

However, as we see through the example of the Romans, the convenience of having a clean and sanitary water supply delivered into a home comes with a price. While we have a right to water we have to pay for the resources and the costs that come with such modern conveniences. Furthermore, as I’ve explained in my past blog post, “Water is not a human right” if we have free water for all, we will bear witness to tragedy of the commons with our water resources.

At a recent symposium on economics and finance, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of the State, explained the importance of the private sector in water supply. Cardinal Bertone underscores the contribution that the private sector can make to providing access to water. However, he also recognizes the importance that businesses that do provide water are being called to provide an important service to people and morals need to have a higher priority than profit:

The second challenge has to do with the administration of “common goods” such as water, energy sources, communities, the social and civic capital of peoples and cities.  Business today has to become more and more involved with these common goods, since in a complex global economy it can no longer be left to the state or the public sector to administer them: the talent of the business sector is also needed if they are to be properly managed.  Where common goods are concerned, we urgently need business leaders for whom profit is not the exclusive goal.  More and more, we need business leaders with a social conscience, leaders whose innovation, creativity and efficiency are driven by more than profit, leaders who see their work as part of a new social contract with the public and with civil society.

There is opposition to how water should be supplied. The Catholic left has a different view, supporting government’s role in providing water instead of a private entity:

On June 9, a group of more than 100 missionary priests and nuns fasted and prayed in St. Peter’s Square to underline their support for the referendum and their opposition to the privatization of water. Beneath Pope Benedict XVI’s windows, they unfurled a giant banner reading: “Lord, help us save the water!”

[…]

Some 25 Italian dioceses signed an appeal asking for a “yes” vote to preserve water as a universally shared resource. Franciscans in Assisi asked prayers and action in defense of “sister water.”

Bishop Mariano Crociata, secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference, said recently that access to clean water supplies was a “fundamental human right, connected to the very right to life.” He warned that privatization efforts have seen multinational companies “turn water into business” to the detriment of the wider population.

And while the U.S. has been criticized for consuming 233 billion gallons of water, it must also be kept in context. The U.S. is still one of the largest and most productive economies, producing goods that are exported to countless countries. Such productivity requires a greater consumption of water than less productive countries, however, every country that does import U.S. goods benefits.

As water is becoming scarcer we will need to reevaluate how we use and treat this precious resource. Yes, we have a obligation to take care of those in need, we must  recognize, however the difference between the “right to thirst,” to have water in order to sustain life, and the luxury of commoditized water provided through extensive resources to be delivered into homes for domestic use. The Catholic Church teaches that the universal destination of material goods (water is one such good) and the principle of common use of the earth’s resources (such as mater) is primarily (though not exclusively) realized the institution of private property—an institution that comes with rights and responsibilities. Applying this reasoning to the dilemmas facing us with regard to water would certainly lead to clearer thinking about this complex question.

Blog author: lglinzak
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
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It sounds draconian and contrary to the beliefs of many humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations which declared water as a basic human right in 2010. However, if we expect to take the correct steps forward to solve the global water crisis, then water must be treated as a commodity not a basic human right.

In his book, The Mystery of Capital, and also in an essay published in the International Monetary Fund, Hernando de Soto explains why capitalism has failed in many third world and developing countries and continues to succeed in many Western countries.

According to De Soto, by assigning property rights, people are held accountable when any sort of damage of property is committed. Such accountability is accomplished through the legal system:

The integration of all property systems under one formal property law shifted the legitimacy of the rights of owners from the political context of local communities to the impersonal context of law. Releasing owners from restrictive local arrangements and bringing them into a more integrated legal system facilitated their accountability.

By transforming people with real property interests into accountable individuals, formal property created individuals from masses. People no longer needed to rely on neighborhood relationships or make local arrangements to protect their rights to assets. They were thus freed to explore how to generate surplus value from their own assets. But there was a price to pay: once inside a formal property system, owners lost their anonymity while their individual accountability was reinforced. People who do not pay for goods or services they have consumed can be identified, charged interest penalties, fined, and embargoed, and can have their credit ratings downgraded. Authorities are able to learn about legal infractions and dishonored contracts; they can suspend services, place liens against property, and withdraw some or all of the privileges of legal property.

While De Soto’s arguments look at property mostly as land and buildings, his principles can also be applied to water. Treating water as a commodity and granting it property rights will reduce pollution and help create more sanitary sources of water. Once water becomes a commodity, the legal system will have the justification to prosecute any industry or individual that damages the water supply because it will be destruction to property. When water is a human right, and nobody owns the rights to the water, then there is nobody to prosecute because everybody owns the water and can freely do with it as he or she pleases.

Many are familiar with the economics behind the tragedy of the commons. Just as the commons were over-used, water will be depleted if we continue down the path of treating water as a basic human right.

People will over-use water until they are faced with an enormous crisis. The UN’s call for making water a basic human right does not provide any deterrent from over-use, but instead gives people the entitlement to use as much water as they desire. By charging people for the amount of water they use, people will be more conscious of their use of water and take measures to not waste it. There is no incentive to provide free water, and without assigning property rights to it, as De Soto’s argument articulates, there is no way to legally prosecute anyone or any industry that damages or pollutes water.

Samuel Gregg also articulates the problems that come from central planning and communal ownership:

Why then do people tend to favor private over communal ownership? One reason is that they are aware, as Aristotle and Aquinas witnessed long ago, that when things are owned in common, the responsibility and accountability for their use disappears, precisely because few are willing to assume responsibility for things that they do not own. Our everyday experience reminds us of the tragedy of the commons. The early advocates of socialism were well aware of these objections. Their response was to hold that all that was needed was a change of mind and heart on the part of people as well as profound structural change: a change that would not only produce a new system of ownership, but also a “new man” — the socialist man much trumpeted by the former Soviet Union.

Furthermore, in his essay, Our Stewardship Mandate, Rev. Robert Sirico explains how integrating the market supports stewardship:

Long experience has shown that the state is a bad steward. One reason this is so is because of what has been termed the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Simply put, if everyone owns something, no one person has any incentive to protect or take care of it. This has been graphically demonstrated by the appalling reports of environmental disaster in the former communist countries. Furthermore, the state has many incentives to be a poor steward. For example, the federal government owns a great deal of forestland. These forests are supervised by the U.S. Forest service, the mission of which is to cut down trees. Because it is federally funded, the Forest Service has no market incentives to keep its enterprises cost-efficient. As a result, the forest service is logging old-growth forests with a return of pennies on the dollar. Had these forests been supervised by a private company, they would never had been touched.

Likewise, experience has shown that the market is a better steward of the environment than the state. Not only does it allow for private ownership and offer better incentives, but it allows for the expression of minority opinions in regard to land and resource use. Take, for example, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania. Located along the Appalachian migration route, it provided an ideal location for hunters to shoot thousands of hawks. Conservationist Rosalie Edge decided that those birds ought to be protected, a minority opinion at the time. In 1934 she purchased the property and prevented the hunting of the birds. It is now considered one of the best bird-watching locations in the world. Had Ms. Edge lived in a regime where property was owned by the state, she would have to convince a majority of the lawmakers, bureaucrats, and competing special-interest groups that Hawk Mountain should be a preserve, so daunting a task it is unlikely it would have happened. As it was, she only had to purchase the land.

The same principles Rev. Sirico articulates in his essay can also be applied to support stewardship in the global water crisis.

 

To provide water for people, communities have usually turned to  two different options: public or private utilities. However, if Bolivian President Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism Party, gets his way, the United Nations will pass a resolution blocking the sale of public water utilities to private companies. If adopted, this resolution will cause problems for many nations, especially the undeveloped countries receiving support from the U.N. that will be forced to abide by one option—public supply of water—instead of being permitted to consider privatization which may be more efficient and cost effective.  The makes the global water crisis much worse.

It will not help any country to limit its options when searching for the most efficient and cost effective solutions for providing a clean, sanitary, and abundant source of water.

Theories and examples in support and against both private and public water utility systems are numerous. A study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that water prices, in general, are too low. The study explains that direct and indirect subsidies, in both developed and undeveloped countries, have caused low prices, resulting in water waste. Furthermore, the study argues that if the subsidies are removed, the price of water will increase and provide an incentive for those utilizing water to not waste it. This, in turn,  will result in the investments that are needed to develop more efficient technologies. If subsidies are removed, then a lighter burden is placed on public funds.

Lending support to the findings of the University of Michigan study, a survey conducted in 2004 by Global Water Intelligence found that the under-pricing of water is widespread. The study analyzed the prices charged by water utilities in 132 major cities worldwide and found that 39 percent of water utilities had average tariffs that are set too low to cover basic operation and maintenance costs. Some 30 percent had tariffs that are set below the level required to make any contribution toward the recovery of capital costs.

Changing the price system may be a solution. Some argue for a metering that charges water users based on consumption. However, while subsidies are proving to be largely inefficient the question must be asked: Can those in undeveloped countries, who are already living in a state of grave poverty, afford increased prices on water?

The International Development Association and the World Bank are quick to point out the success of private water utilities. Examples can be found in Rwanda and Mozambique where the private sector helped provide, improve, and/or expand the water supply. The U.N. has acknowledged five reasons to pursue private sector partnerships.

A private sector supply of water can be more efficient and cost effective. According to the World Bank, it is estimated that in the United States each dollar of public funds raised for utilities has an opportunity cost of $1.30 of private consumption, and the average opportunity cost for each dollar of tax revenue raised is $1.17 for 38 African countries.

Critics of the privatization of water argue that while it is more efficient and cheaper, the private systems fall short of social equity in supplying water and charge higher prices. While there have been unsuccessful stories of privatization, the aforementioned examples in Rwanda and Mozambique are a just a few of the many success stories, and, as The Economist notes, when private utilities charge higher prices, that often corresponds to higher rehabilitation investments, better water quality, and better service.

Privatization will also promote the decentralization of  government, and in the case of many developing nations, remove the control of water out of the hands of corrupt bureaucrats. A large overarching centralized government is not needed. Instead, the principle of subsidiarity should be applied.

Private entities are able to supply an efficient and cost effective supply of water. Privatization is an effective solution, and its ability to meet the needs of consumers has improved. As a result, water supply can follow the principle of subsidiarity by utilizing other alternatives to supply water instead of through a system brought forth by a centralized government.

It is important to note that just as public utilities are open to corruption, inefficiencies, and poor management, so is privatization. Privatization can fall subject to a corrupt government. The example of Detroit is instructive here. For example, when a government decides to contract a private utility to supply water, instead of having an open bidding process, the government accepts no outside bids and picks a company that is owed a political favor. If privatization is to succeed government must take the appropriate actions to allow it to succeed and also nurture an environment that is open to decentralization, promoting business without unnecessary government interference.

We have all heard the phrase, “water is essential for life,” and we all understand its importance. Many of us are blessed to have instant access to clean, sanitary water. However, World Water Day, which recently took place on March 22, sought to raise awareness of the current water crisis.

According to the World Health Organization and Water for Life, in 2005 more than 1 billion people were faced with little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. About 3,900 children die each day due to harmful water.

Furthermore, the water crisis isn’t going to be solved overnight especially when one takes into account the lack of fresh water for a growing population. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, 97.5 percent of all water is salt water and only 2.5 percent is fresh water. Of that 2.5 percent, nearly 70 percent is frozen in icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland, and less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human use—this includes water found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and underground services shallow enough to be tapped.

In addition, the demand to feed an ever increasing population can be seen in the use of water by the agriculture industry. According to the same study by the University of Michigan, agriculture is responsible for 87 percent of the total amount of water used globally. Farming in Asia utilizes 86 percent of its total water use, in North and Central America the number is much lower at 49 percent, and Europe’s agriculture industry consumes 38 percent of its total water use. However, before the agriculture industry is criticized for its high intake of water, it must be remembered that water is a necessity for growing food and raising livestock which are essential—just like water—to sustaining life.

Besides the daunting numbers of those suffering from lack of water, recent events have caused many to demand action in solving the global water crisis. Bolivian President Evo Morales, Movement Towards Socialism Party, emerged as the leader in a movement demanding a resolution from the United Nations to block the sale of public services to private companies, and in 2008, Ecuador’s constitution gave rights to nature. These actions have raised cause for concern and debate from many who are apprehensive of an ever expanding government and U.N.

It is without question that action must be taken to alleviate the problems. The University of Michigan study also predicts that by 2025 we may be consuming 70 percent of the world’s total accessible renewable water supply (we currently utilize 30 percent). A big picture approach is needed to solving the global water crisis as well as an understanding of the role government must play without creating an inefficient unproductive solution.

Over the next few weeks I will be presenting a faith-based analysis to the global water crisis while also bringing to light different economic and social related issues.

Blog author: berndbergmann
Thursday, March 27, 2008
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In a front-page article of the March 20-21 edition of the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, entitled “L’aqua bene comune per tutti” (“Water: Common Good for All”), an Italian political scientist laments that a basic necessity of life is bought and sold.

Riccardo Petrella of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium is rightly concerned that a billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. While he criticizes world leaders for not making this problem a top priority, his main target is actually the economics of treating water as a commodity.

He blames economics for creating a shortage of water: “This approach does not recognize any human and social rights, there are no public goods or services just private economic goods and services based on economic interest. The commodification of water is accompanied by a privatization of the water supply. In this context, shortages are accepted as ‘natural’, inevitable….”

This is a prime example of combining good intentions with bad economics. Petrella mistakenly assumes that economic goods and common goods are mutually exclusive, when in fact prices help regulate the production and distribution of a natural resource.

Only a small part of the global water supply has actually been privatized. Over the last twenty years or so, the process of privatization has been accelerated, and the availability and the quality of water has generally improved. This is not only true for Western countries but also in less developed countries.

Take Chile as an example. It aggressively privatized its water industry and has vastly enhanced access to water for the poor. Usage of potable water went up from 63 percent to 99 percent for the urban and from 27 percent to 94 percent for the rural population after the introduction of markets for trading water rights.

In contrast to what Petrella asserts, privatization, rather than being a cause of water shortage, is increasingly seen as a remedy to this problem. In Saudi Arabia, for example, privatization was introduced after a shortage of water caused riots in November 2006. The government had exacerbated the problem by subsidizing water to keep prices low. This led to an inefficient and careless usage of water. Riyadh had to change course and is now planning for half the population to be covered by private water companies by 2010.

It is misleading to suggest a contrast between private enterprise and the common good since the market tends to channel resources to where human demand is strongest and can fill gaps in investment and expertise where the public sector fails. It’s certainly no violation of human rights to promote a competitive market for something as essential as water.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 3, 2006
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Might these be the new “Cuisinarts of the sea”? This story, “Energy from the Restless Sea,” in today’s NYT examines the efforts of experimental inventors to find machines that excel in “harnessing the perpetual motion of the ocean and turning it into a commodity in high demand: energy.” There are a variety of designs and types of machines, so of course not all of them are a danger to chop up hapless fish.

Watermill of Braine-le-Château, Belgium (12th century). Photograph taken by Pierre 79.

These innovators are facing huge bureaucratic and regulatory burdens. Verdant Power, for example, “embarked on a new East River turbine project in 2003, but it has taken two and a half years to get regulatory approval for the project from environmental agencies and the United States Army Corp of Engineers.”

To comply with the concerns of regulators and environmental groups, Verdant “is installing $1.5 million in underwater sonar to watch for fish around the turbines ’24 hours a day, 7 days a week,’ and the data will be shown online.”

In some sense, these are just twenty-first century versions of innovations that are, shall we say, somewhat older. Watermills have been found at Cistercian abbeys dating from the twelfth century. See, for example, the Fountains Abbey Mill, opened in June 2001 at the Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.