While the wet areas of our planet are getting wetter, the dry areas are getting drier, according to data recorded by a pair of NASA satellites and distributed to hydrologists earlier this year.
Climatic change aside, human mismanagement has caused serious water shortages, and desertification, in many countries, and the developed world is at the forefront of water scarcity concerns.
In Africa, 300 million people live in a water-stressed environment (with less than 1,000 cubic meters of usable water per person per year), and in China, over 500 million people live in water-stressed areas. And overall, the Middle East is the world’s most water-stressed region, with only an average of 1,200 cubic meters of usable water available per person per year.
Developing countries use a far greater percentage of water resources for agriculture than developed nations, and water scarcity translates to drought, crop failures, and food shortages. In Pakistan, 90 percent of water is used for irrigation and cultivation, but over 40 percent of the country’s population lacks access to safe drinking water.
All this is your fault
A major cause of water scarcity globally is overuse and wastage, and an important driver of this mismanagement is water pricing.
According to data from the 2011 Global Water Intelligence Water Tariff Survey, in Copenhagen, a cubic meter of water costs US$7.65 (in Aarhus, it costs $10.02!). In Chandigarh, India, a cubic meter of water costs $0.07. In Cairo, Egypt, $0.05. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, $0.03. In Beijing, China, $0.62.
In Dublin, Ireland, it’s free.
Price, price, baby
Can pricing affect water use? Few economists would disagree, but the question is how to price water fairly.
In many Latin American municipalities, water is priced in accordance with household income. In Toulouse and Nice, in France, water is priced according to postal code. And Istanbul adjusts its water pricing monthly according to inflation.
Recently, pricing changes have been significant in municipalities that have implemented volumetric metering. in Tbilisi, Georgia, water prices decreased by an average of 76 percent after a move to metered consumption.
In the United States, Californians have dealt with water shortages and rationing for decades. And while Governor Jerry Brown called in January for a 20 percent reduction in consumption, residents have managed to cut back only five percent. U.S. consumers’ responses to dramatically increased gasoline prices ($1.50 in 2000 and over $5.00 today, with a continuing increase – albeit a recent decline from the peak in 2007 – in consumption) suggests there may be no pricing pain point too high to significantly affect usage, and conservationists are looking at other ways to influence behavior (e.g. “water-shaming”, the practice of posting a photograph on social media of a neighbor watering his lawn).
Meanwhile, in the countryside, where they grow our food
In developing nations, despite rapid urbanization, 80-90 percent of water use is agricultural, and to permit farmers to feed the nation. India, overall a fairly arid nation, offers some of the world’s lowest water prices. And China, which has 20 percent of the world’s population and only seven percent of its fresh water resources, similarly subsidizes water use.
Asia, of course, is a voracious consumer of rice. The typical person living in Southeast Asia’s Mekong Delta consumes 160 kilograms of rice a year. The average American consumes 9 kilograms, and the average European, less than half that.
And rice is the thirstiest of food crops; the production of one kilogram of rice requires 3,000-5,000 liters of water (depending on climate). Despite its water woes, China estimates domestic rice production will increase from 380 million tons a year to 550 million tons.
Can farmers be persuaded to grow less thirsty crops? Yes, if consumers can be persuaded to buy and eat them. Wheat requires “only” 900 liters of water per kilogram of production, and potatoes require 500 liters.
Unquestionably, changing the habits of several millennia will prove difficult to do. Had Marie Antoinette been a contemporary agronomist, she might have said let them eat gnocchi.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.