The Price of Water Part 1

For World Water Week, our regular guest blogger Alanna Shaikh has provided us a two-part series on the cost of water. Take a look:

By: Alanna Shaikh

It’s hard to think about paying for water, but it’s also hard to provide it for free. What’s the middle ground?

As this week makes extremely clear, we can’t rely on water as a free resource any more. Clean water is scarce in many places, and it is going to get scarcer. Growing human populations combined with climate change radically increase the demand for water as it becomes more polluted. We need more safe water even as it becomes increasingly harder to get.

Is increasing water costs the answer? I’d argue yes, and I have personal experience to back it up. I’ve lived in Central Asia for the last ten years. This region is extremely water scarce. In fact, many people think that the first major war over water is going to break out here. There are competing demands of water for irrigation, hydroelectric power, household and industrial use, in a region that is essentially a desert full of mountains. Most of the water comes from snow melt.

And yet people treat water like it’s nothing at all. They leave the taps running in their homes and yards at all times. They water the streets outside their houses to keep the dust down. They wash their cars daily, grow water-intense plants for fun, and pretty much never bother to fix leaky taps or faucets. Some faucets don’t even have taps, so you actually cannot turn them off. Oh, and every big house has a fountain, and not the kind that recirculates. In fact, my very first published piece of writing was an article decrying wasteful water use in this region.

What gives?

It’s hard to know for sure, but I can hazard a guess. Water is free here. And when water is free, it’s hard to believe that it is also rare and hard to get. It’s hard to believe that it is finite or important. If you talk to people on the street, they will tell you exactly that. How can water be rare? It comes from every tap. It doesn’t even cost anything.

That’s human nature. If you don’t make us work for something, we don’t value it. And money is the way that we represent work. If you want people to take water seriously, you’re going to have to make them earn it. I don’t want that to be true, but watching people grow cotton and rice in the middle of the desert is hard on optimism.

Here in Central Asia, water is free and it’s going to be free basically forever. The water supply is Soviet-designed, and while the Soviets had their (disproportionate) share of human rights violations, they would never have stooped so low as to charge for water. As a result, the current system is incompatible with household metering. It would cost about a hundred million dollars[i]

However, other countries have more choices.

[i] This figure is something a guy told me once. A civil engineer guy, but it was a back of napkin calculation. I can’t find a solid source. I think people look at the water system and just give up weeping before they can identify and price a solution.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second installment of Alannas special series.

Alanna Shaikh is an expert in health consulting, writing about global health for UN Dispatch and about international relief and development at Blood & Milk. She also serves as a frequently contributing blogger to ‘End the Neglect.’ The views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers are not necessarily the views and opinions of the Global Network. All opinions expressed here are Alanna’s own and not those of any employer or the US government.

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