The Coronavirus Pandemic Should Focus Our Attention on the Water Crisis

As the world is currently gripped in its worst-ever viral pandemic, it is difficult to return our attention to one of the greatest environmental risks facing humankind - the global water crisis. Yet, the coronavirus threat should be reminder of how vital water is to our lives.

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One the elementary measures employed to stopping the spread of the coronavirus is to wash our hands frequently, sanitize surfaces, and clean infected articles.  Water is essential to these tasks, but most people have no idea where their water comes from, how it is supplied, nor pay for the full costs of procuring it.  Worse still, in the world today, billions of people lack adequate and safe freshwater supplies or sanitation services.  Rising freshwater scarcity is a present-day danger for the 1.6 to 2.4 billion people currently living within watersheds with inadequate supplies and exposed to climate change. But even in these water-scarce and vulnerable areas, all our uses of water continue to be wasteful and inefficient.

If combating COVID-19 is reminding us of how valuable water is, then this World Water Day we should be asking ourselves a crucial question:  If water is valuable and scarce, why is it so poorly managed?

This question is the central theme of my book that Yale University Press published last year, The Water Paradox: Overcoming the Crisis in Global Water Management

The key culprit is that our policies, governance structures and institutions for managing water were developed when the resource was abundant, not scarce.  The result is that we continue to exploit freshwater as if it were abundant, even as we recognize its growing scarcity.

The solution, then, is to end policies, markets and governance that under-price water and allow it to be used as if it were plentiful.  Here are two approaches that could make a difference.

First, we must allow markets for trading water to flourish.  Throughout the world, the predominant use of water is for irrigated agriculture, around 80% of all water withdrawals.  Yet, the fastest growing demands for water are for urban residential, commercial and industrial use. Because people in cities have less water, they are willing to pay much more for it than what it costs farmers to water their crops or pastures.

Through water markets, farmers could sell any excess water to other users, and both parties will gain.  For example, urban users are able to pay lower prices and increase consumption. Farmers would have another revenue source, and because their water is now more valuable, they will squander less and conserve more.

Already, many regions and localities are experimenting with various water trading schemes.  In some places, farmers sell all or part of their water rights; in others, they lease their water over one or multiple years.  One promising development are water “banks”.  Like regular banks, farmers deposit their excess water, including “savings” from conservation, and then can draw down these deposits during future droughts.  Alternatively, farmers can sell or lease some or all of their water deposits to other users. Environmental and recreational groups also pay to keep the deposits in rivers, lakes and streams, thus preserving valuable habitats.

Second, we must stop subsidizing water and sanitation services for residential, commercial and industrial users.  Current prices charged rarely cover the full costs of these services.  Governments typically pay for most if not all of the investment costs, and often subsidize the operating costs.  Any environmental damages are usually settled through costly litigation.

Ending the under-pricing of water and sanitation services could improve cost recovery, lead to greater conservation by users, and expand services to those households that lack them.  A fixed service charge could pay for the costs of operating and maintaining the water system.  A two-tier block rate charge for households would increase water conservation while protecting low-households from the burden of water pricing.  Since poorer households use less water, typically less than 20 cubic meters of water per month, the price for this first “block” of water could be kept very low.  However, for monthly water use that exceeds 20 cubic meters, the price would be set much higher.

Finally, some of the revenues earned by local utilities and governments could finance the adoption of water-saving technologies and domestic appliances by households through discounts and rebates.  Additional programs could be targeted to low-income families, who would otherwise find it difficult to pay for new appliances or repair faulty plumbing. It would also mean more funding for adequate water and sanitation for poor households in countries that lack these services in many areas.

Creating water markets and ending the under-pricing of services are just two of many ways in which we can manage the rising scarcity of water to meet new and growing demands.  When the current coronavirus pandemic ends, we need to focus our attention on this problem as the next collective test facing humankind.

Go to the profile of Edward Barbier

Edward Barbier

University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University

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