NewYorkTimes BookChat: ‘The Big Thirst’: The Future of Water

New York Times Economix, May 3, 2011 by David Leonhardht

Charles Fishman, a longtime writer for Fast Company magazine, is the author of “The Big Thirst,” a new book on water. He previously wrote “The Wal-Mart Effect,” which won The Financial Times’s award for best business book of 2006. Our conversation follows.

Q. You call the last 100 years “the golden age of water,” at least in the developed world. But you also say the golden age is over. As you told Terry Gross, on “Fresh Air,” “We will not, going forward, have water that has all three of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive and safe.” Why not?

Mr. Fishman: We’re spoiled. Well-designed, well-engineered water systems were built across the United States and the developed world 100 years ago. They worked so well that they literally helped make creative economically vibrant cities possible, and healthy. And those water systems were so successful they became invisible — and they remain invisible.

We just assume when we turn on the tap, the water will be there, and that the water system buried in the ground is doing fine.

Both assumptions are out of date. Population growth, economic development (which changes dramatically how much water people want and use), and climate change are all putting pressure on water supplies — not just in places like Las Vegas or California, but in Atlanta, in Florida, in Spain, across China.

We are going to have to move from an era of unconscious water abundance to an era of smart water — using water smartly (why do we water the azaleas, or flush our toilets, with purified drinking water?), and also modernizing and updating our creaky water systems. They were advanced technology 100 years ago. Now those systems struggle to keep up with our needs, and struggle for resources.

Free water — water so cheap you never think about cost when making water use decisions — is a silent disaster. When something is free, the message is: It’s unlimited.

Free water leads to constant waste and misallocation. Farmers and factory managers, hotels and gardeners never consider how much water they are using, and whether they are using it smartly — because the water bill itself sends no signal to be careful. (Half the water used by farmers worldwide is wasted.) There’s no incentive for efficiency.

Cheap water also means that the organizations we rely on to supply water — utilities, irrigation districts — never have the money to modernize, to replace crumbling systems, to find the “next gallon” of water supply.

Meanwhile, the poor pay the highest cost of all — hundreds of millions of people spend half of every day walking to fetch water that usually isn’t even clean. That water is “free” in that they don’t pay for it — except in terms of their health, their children’s health and their economic opportunities.

If you could change one thing that would fix almost everything about water — from better environmental stewardship to getting water to people who don’t have it now — it would be price. We can afford a bit more for our remarkable water system. We’ll be in trouble if we let it slide into obsolescence.

Q. I assume charging more for water would not solve the developing world’s problems. Doesn’t the increasing access to clean water require some other policy change? Or am I missing something?

Mr. Fishman: The key point about the pricing of water is this: People will pay for water that is safe, reliable, convenient, and liberates them from being slaves to walking or standing in line.

I visited a very poor neighborhood in Delhi named Rangpuri Pahadi. The 3,500 residents there live on $100 a month.

They got so frustrated standing in line hours a day at neighborhood pumps for water that didn’t even come at a regular time, they created their own miniature water system. They collected money — “capital” from people whose income is $3 a day — drilled wells, used their own labor to lay pipes from a storage tank to each each family’s shack.

Those who want water pay about one day’s wages a month, and the residents are thrilled. Their “upstart utility” gets them better water than the public standpipe, it comes on schedule, it liberates them to have jobs, liberates their kids to go to school. They pay the equivalent, for a U.S. family, of $150 a month for water. And they did it themselves.

Money isn’t the only solution to water — the cost of the Iraq war, alone, is enough to provide water systems for every village, every person, on Earth. The real problem is human — helping people get a water system they understand, can run and sustain themselves, and have confidence in. That’s harder than it sounds. But the problem isn’t technology, or resources, it’s political will and cultural understanding.

Read the rest of the interview


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