Posts tagged with: water supply

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.