Interesting stuff

  1. Watch: Why Dutch bikes (omafietsen) are better
  2. Read: Trust among colleagues is decaying as we work from home, and it will take quite some time to restore.
  3. Listen: Only gringos visit Cuba to “see it before it changes” (guilty!)
  4. Read: Hong Kong property developers are building in the path of future flooding
  5. Read: Texas is facing power shortages as its “capitalist grid” collapses. Perhaps they should have thought more about the “borders” where the market would stop working? That’s why regulation exists.
  6. Read: The danger of collapse of aging dams is increasing
  7. Listen: A lovely podcast on why we need poetry to understand life
  8. Read: Yes, online sites do hide their fees to make more money
  9. Watch: This video on the origins of “Insomnia” (one of the top dance hits from 20 years ago) is really amazing.
  10. Daft Punk has retired. Watch my favourite “cover” of their Better Faster Stronger

The rise of social water scarcity

Laura writes*

In 2018 Capetonian dams dropped to 26% of their capacity, signalling a crisis. Now the dams are full, but water remains scarce and the city vulnerable to extreme weather events and physical water scarcity. Cape Town, as one of the most unequal cities in the world, is also facing social water scarcity. It is estimated that one million people, almost ¼ of the population, are using only 4.5% of available water.

The City of Cape Town introduced a “stepped tariff” (increased block rate) which provides the first 10,500 L (the first two blocks) of monthly water use for free to indigent households. However informal housing settlements are not connected to the municipal water distribution system. Without a water connection, those residents cannot redeem the free water.

Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest township with a population of more than 2 million [pdf] is facing severe water shortage and inadequate sanitation. Thirty percent of residents live in formal housing (government housing) with in-house water and sanitation facilities, while 70% depend on communal taps and inadequate sanitation. In section QQ (see below), eight standpipes serve 3000 people who, lacking sanitation services, must ask neighbors in formal housing if they can use their toilets. (At night, people have to defecate in buckets they empty into drains in the morning.) Khayelitsha residents face even greater scarcity due to COVID-19 regulations that also make it harder to share facilities. Inadequate sewage disposal also threatens local waterways.

Water, Sanitation and Electricity in Khayelitsha [pdf]
Why is nothing being done?
Townships are frequently expanding, often onto private land. The Water Service Developing Plan (WSDP) specifically distinguishes between private and municipality-owned land [pdf], which means that water and sanitation services are not provided on private land. Private landowners do not step in to fill this gap because they do not want to encourage further invasion of their property. The municipality could buy private land, but money is scarce due to subsidised water prices that can only be sustained with outside funding.

Corruption also diverts funds. Instead of providing informal dwellers with appropriate facilities, the local government has built 40,000-unit middle-income houses in a wetland area, thereby reducing aquifer recharge. This “economic growth” worsens water scarcity and social injustice.

Bottom Line: Cape Town’s corruption, bad financial management and negligence of the poor has left ¼ of the city’s population without adequate access to water and sanitation, exacerbating health threats to residents additionally burdened with COVID.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Naples faces a growing hydrological crisis

Enrica writes*

When one thinks of Naples, one of the most vibrant, cultural and touristic metropolis of Italy, water scarcity is not the first thing that pops to mind. Perhaps one thinks of its complicated, bureaucratic system, or structural corruption and the ever-problematic persistence of organized crime which is increasingly augmenting throughout most of Italy. However, the southern capital of the Campania region of Italy is facing environmental, technical and economic pressures when it comes to its water management.

Water management is an important topic in Naples, where a 2011 referendum led to a public take over of the system. This switch meant that the main water supplier for the one million residents in the metropolitan area of Naples and its surroundings, Acqua Bene Comune (ABC) became municipality-owned, with the establishment of a monitoring committee, a board of directors comprised of users, people working in the organization, as well as members of environmental organizations. The company manages water distribution, including that of potable water and most recently that of sewage systems.


The ABC faces challenges. Old pipelines and treatment systems suffer from leakages, but also service interruptions in the city and nearby regions. Short-term technical adjustments can address urgent issues, but a systematic solution will be required in order to tackle infrastructural problems that are common in Italy, where aqueducts  lose 40% of their water. In Naples, the average citizen uses around 155 liters a day in a system that loses 34% of its water.

The 2017 drought left marks of water scarcity. Climate projections suggest that water management will require substantial improvements in the coming decade, as precipitation decreases. Many economic activities in the region would have been hit by the ongoing climate pressures had these activities not been restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agricultural sector was most profoundly affected in 2017 when the region experienced a shortage in water supply due to decreased precipitation. According to the environmental organization Legambiente, the agricultural sector is inefficient in its water management. Legambiente argues that a potential solution to more efficiently redistribute water and conserve water in the agricultural sector is by shifting towards more efficient systems of micro-irrigation.

Bottom line: Despite its abundance in water, Naples’s water systems face structural problems with old infrastructure, leaks, and falling supply due to decreasing precipitation trends that will only worsen with climate change.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

H2Oh no! Ethiopia’s water crisis

Ruby writes*

Climate change is a growing threat to countries in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). More frequent droughts threaten food security, biodiversity and, inevitably, the water system. Every year, less rain is falling, acting as a push factor for migration, and, according to Murali Pai [pdf], many people own guns and will use them in order to settle water scores.

Addis Ababa is vulnerable to all these threats, and its growing population (increasing at 4.4% per year; also see figure) is worsening scarcity.


Addis Ababa has struggled to secure a regular supply of clean water for over 11 years. The locals mainly get their water from dams and reservoirs – the most common source being the Gefersa Dam, which can supply 30,000m3 of water per day. Total surface water supplies meet 87% of demand, with the other 13% comes from groundwater. The average citizen has access to 35 litres per day after accounting for 35% water losses. This is not a lot if we think about all the water an average European might use per day (drinking, cooking, washing, etc.) Overall, a growing population means more people will need access to potable water, most likely reducing the amount of water an average citizen currently receives per day. Lower water losses could reduce scarcity.

On that note, it might be useful to look at initiatives that address these issues in Addis Ababa. We can all agree that regulation is an important process that can ensure fair water distribution. However, Addis Ababa, being the capital of a poorer country, seems to lack a distinct water regulation system. A dissertation suggests that missing regulation explains why public tap users pay more than users with taps in their homes. It is also states that the water is regulated by a person assigned by the Kebele administration in the city (i.e. the lowest administrative unit in an urban centre). Overall, a lack of a clear water regulation contributes to the water scarcity issues, as not everyone has equal access to clean water.

There is however a distinct water service provider: the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA). This authority aims to provide potable water to the city and to regulate the sewerage system for a sanitary disposal of sewage. They also keep track of information such as the number of households that need water and tariffs of water. If there’s going to be a regulated standard for drinking water in Addis, then AAWSA would be a good place to start.

Bottom Line: Addis Ababa’s vulnerability to climate change and its growing population are not helping the search of solutions for solving the city’s water scarcity issues. Furthermore, the lack of a clear regulation system does not facilitate the problem either. New systems need to be researched and introduced to ensure correct water distribution and use and to reduce water losses as much as possible – the city cannot afford these in this day and age.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Who was responsible for the flood?

Judy writes*

The new year held an awful surprise for many Casablancans: overflowing sewage flooded the streets for several days after heavy rains in the first days of January.

Heavy rains are not a new phenomenon in this city, yet climate change is likely to increase their intensity and frequency and growing urbanization challenges current water systems. The water damage is high and the performance of sewage infrastructure low, citizens are rightfully upset – the question is who should they aim their anger at?

Casablanca’s water systems are managed by the private company Lydec on behalf of the City Council. This delegation and its oversight are formalized in a delegation contract. According to this contract, Lydec alone is in charge of sewage management, and most residents are happy to join in blaming Lydec for the failure.

Casablanca suffered from overflowing sewage after heavy rains during the first week of January

The City Council shared this opinion and hence summoned Lydec to an emergency meeting only a few days after Lydec’s specialized workers and engineers swarmed the city to help people and clean up the disaster.

However, Lydec’s CEO Darriet responded to the ubiquitous cross-fire by claiming that the utility company did not receive sufficient funding to improve the water infrastructure over the last decade, which is additionally strained by boosting population growth. He referred to a flooding disaster prevention plan to strengthen sewage infrastructure, which the company had previously conceived together with the City Council.

Concretely, they had agreed on a joint investment of 17bn Dirham (€1.5bn). Lydec has come up for its due share of 5bn (€0.46bn), but the City Council has fallen short of investing the other 12bn (€1.1bn) so far. Lydec also pointed out that since it became Casablanca’s utility provider in 1997, the company has made cumulative investments of 26bn Dirham (€2.4bn), almost half of which went into sewage infrastructure.

Further, the regulatory responsibility lies with the City Council, which thus needs to question its own role in the disaster, concerning sloppy oversight and especially chronic underfunding. Indeed, said delegation contract seems to be in dire need of an update, filling gaps and using clearer language when it comes to determining responsibilities. A contract revision has been in planning since 2016, yet without success so far.

After the emergency meeting with Lydec, the City Council set up a special committee tasked to follow up and evaluate the causes of the recent sewage system failure, and renewed its pledge to revise the delegation contract.

Lydec at its part, is trying to restore its damaged image and ease the concerned public by pointing at several current and new sewage restauration projects, partially aided with government money, to be completed before end of this year still.

What shall we make of this situation? It that neither of the actors are without fault. There appears to be a serious problem with transparency around this delegation contract (it is hardly accessible at full length for the public), which is not helpful to resolve the responsibility dilemma, let alone to delivering the residents of Casablanca their due functional, future-proof water and sewage system.

We cannot tell yet what the investigative commission will conclude, whether Lydec’s advertised infrastructure projects are really going to be finished by the end of the year, whether the contract will actually be reformed and if so, how, or how much the City Council will invest in infrastructure in the coming period.

What we do know is that effluent management is by far not the only problem Casablanca has to deal with: drinking water provision is high on the (financial) agenda, so high that the government started to construct a 10bn (€0.92bn) desalination plant just to provide for its ‘economic capital’.

The municipality’s priorities are visible in public money flows, and understandably, providing freshwater may be most important. However, instead of spending millions on desalination, the city might rather invest in wastewater recycling, killing two birds with one stone: improving sewage infrastructure and procuring drinking water at the same time.

Bottom Line: Watch what happens as Casablanca addresses scarcity. Citizens should demand a functional, efficient water system. Outsiders can learn from this case.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Marseille’s rainwater problem

Zayane writes*

The effects of climate change are already manifesting themselves in the dense and urbanized coastal city of Marseille. Due to its characteristic Mediterranean climate (hot and dry summers and cool and wet winters), Marseille is vulnerable to heatwaves, drought, fires, acute rains and storms [pdf]. Scientists forecast that with climate change, extreme weather events will increase in both frequency and intensity [pdf]. Marseille will have to grow into an adaptable and resilient city to preserve its water resources.

To most, water in the «Rhône-Méditerranée» appears abundant. The population of Marseille proudly claim they have the best water of France. The Durance and the Verdon rivers are the principal sources of the city’s water. The canals of Marseille and Provence transport water to Marseille.

Research reveals an absence of flood risk awareness in Marseille. This finding is surprising if we take into account the upsurge in flooding episodes due to increasing urban planning and soil impermeability (as pictured).

Marseille regularly experiences excess rainwater runoff after heavy rain due to its dense industrial and urban landscape. Concrete, tar and other impermeable surfaces prevent rainwater from infiltrating the soil. Fifty-five percent of rain collects as runoffs in urban areas, compared to 10% in natural areas.

Rainwater that cannot infiltrate to complete its natural cycle is captured and channeled through pipes. The consequences are worse air pollution and urban heat islands in the city.

Most rainwater is mixed into the wastewater system, which concentrates rainwater and overwhelms the system in heavy rains. The Géolide plant treats 60% of the city’s wastewater, but it rejects excess water into the environment when it is overwhelmed. A large retention basin was commissioned to collect excess water.

Excess runoffs threatens residents, increases maintenance costs and harms the environment. Municipalities regularly close beaches due to runoff.

Marseille’s drainage system is not suited for climate change. Urban planners and water managers are working to retain water in the city using floodable sports fields, permeable parking, and green roundabouts.

Bottom Line: Marseille’s drainage system is not suited for climate change and the extreme rains it brings. Instead of building expensive, inflexible retention basins, the city should work to increase infiltration everywhere.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

The inequality of water in Detroit, Michigan

Maud writes*

In 2014 UN experts declared that the water crisis in Detroit, Michigan violated human rights of citizens as one expert noted that the “[d]isconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Since the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit in 2013 around 100,000 houses have been shut-off from their water supply. Households were shut off if residents had bills two months overdue or were more than $150 in debt.

The municipal bankruptcy in 2013 led to ‘state-directed emergency management’ which translated in the attempt to collect debt from the poorest residents while ignoring to collect larger debts from commercial companies (Ponder & Omstedt, 2019). Additionally, a “special purpose government” was started to manage the water supply and aging infrastructure. According to a paper on the water crisis, the Detroit Water and Sewerage department was responsible for the water service in Detroit and surrounding areas before 2014 and still remains the owner of the infrastructure, however the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) leases, operates and decides on the water system for forty years. The establishment of the GLWA led to the privatization of the water service in Detroit. According to the same paper, this led to the isolation of one single problem, in this case the water supply, while ignoring the connectedness to other issues the community faces, such as poverty and racial injustice. Additionally, many members of the Authority were appointed by counties and the governor of Michigan, moving away from the interests of the city’s citizens. Many of the appointees that run the city of Detroit are state appointees, meaning they will be less concerned and connected with the issues in Detroit as they may have different concerns and interests. According to another report this also reduces the influence of Detroit’s citizens on long-term decisions that could improve the future of the system.

The underlying causes of the water crisis in Detroit arose due to the continuous population and economic decline (Gaber et al). As of 2016, Detroit has the highest rate of poverty in the USA out of any major city, with around 35.7% of its residents living in poverty. Accompanied by an increasing price of water service, this combination led to the water crisis Detroit was and is currently facing. The increasing water price can be attributed to ageing infrastructure (some of it 100 years old), which frequently fails and is expensive to repair. According to Sabourin (2016), the population decline also contributes to the high prices, as the cost of maintaining infrastructure built for 1 million+ citizens is now shared among 680,000 residents.

To address the crisis, Sabourin suggests involving citizens in decision-making and addressing inequalities. One solution is to elect “water-service” representatives to address issues and the sources of problems.

Bottom Line: The conditions that led to the water crisis in Detroit can be attributed to poor water management, poverty, high water prices, and the lack of representation of the people of Detroit in the decision-making process.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Can desalination quench Adelaide’s thirst?

Cerys writes*

Adelaide has always had problems with water security, ever since its establishment by British settlers in 1836. In the mid-19th century the growing population came to the realisation that the small Torrens River couldn’t fulfil Adelaide’s rapidly growing demand for water. Although reservoirs were built, Adelaide’s water supply still couldn’t cope with the increasing demand. So in 1955 Adelaide started to pipe in water from the Murray River (over 60 kilometres away), but this was a temporary solution.

The use of the Murray River has now become a source of contention and Adelaide is once again on the search for a new, sustainable source of water. In 2012 the South Australian government constructed a AU$1.83 billion-dollar (€1.18 billion) desalinisation plant in Lonsdale, just south of the city. It has the capacity to produce 100GL of clean water per year. In 2019 the South Australian government decided to increase water production at the desalination plant to 40GL of water per year in aid of drought relief. This figure may rise to 60GL in 2021.

Photo source.

Although this may seem like a solution to water scarcity, this plan has three large problems;

  1. The plant doesn’t have the capability to produce enough water to satisfy Adelaide’s water demand. At the moment Adelaide’s desalination plant supplies around 4% of Adelaide’s water demand, but even if the plant is running at maximum capacity (100GL per year), this would only satisfy half of Adelaide’s water demand. Therefore, Adelaide will be forced to continue using unsustainable, alternative water sources such as the Murray River.
  2. Desalination is expensive! According to SA Water’s 2016 report, water costs AU$0.95/m3 (€0.61) to produce in Adelaide’s desalination plant. This is more than 9 times the global average for ground water extraction. Because of this, the South Australian government is unwilling to make desalination the main source of water in Adelaide because it’s economically unsustainable.
  3. Desalination has negative environmental impacts. Desalination plants require the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and they produce brine as a by-product that may harm marine organisms and coastal water quality. Since the negative environmental impacts of water extraction from the Murray River is one of the reasons why Adelaide wants to reduce its reliance on the Murray, it doesn’t make any sense to switch to desalination instead, as that also damages the environment.

Adelaide will not be able to rely on desalination to quench its increasing thirst, so What’s the solution? Should they focus on recycling waste water or fixing leaks or lowering demand through price increases? In reality, this question is very difficult to answer and I’m sure that if there was one simple solution, Australia would already be doing it.

Bottom Line: Desalinisation is not a permanent solution to Adeaide’s water scarcity.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Rising groundwater levels in Milan, Italy

Maria writes*

The Metropolitan City of Milan lies in the middle of the Po Valley, enclosed by the Ticino and the Adda rivers on its western and eastern sides respectively, and by the southern Alps on the north. Its whole region is characterized by the presence of smaller rivers, streams, and canals, which used to dominate also in the city center’s landscape up until 100 years ago (cerchia of navigli). Today, the canals of the city center are mostly buried underground to give space to motorized mobility, but water abundance is still typical of the urban area. Indeed, Milan lies on top of on of the largest Italian aquifers, which expands throughout the Po Valley and which made large scale agriculture and intense industrial development possible in this region.

The citizens of Milan started to get their drinking water from the aquifer below the city during the 19th century, concurrently with the public interventions to seal up the old canals, which were a threat to public health, promoting the spread of pathogens and epidemics. Since the second half of the century, the aquifer has been the only source of water for the city and its management has been assigned to the public utility Milano Metropolitana (MM) Spa since 2003. MM is run as a private corporation, but it is legally public as it is wholly owned by the municipality of the City of Milan. Additionally, it is regulated by the public authority Ufficio d’Ambito (ATO), which decides which tariffs to impose and which utility to entrust.

MM does not have problems in the extraction and provision of high-quality drinking water, given the local abundance of the resource. However, rising groundwater is increasingly causing floods and water infiltration in the underground structures of the city. The ground water table (i.e., the distance between the ground level and the underground water body) in Milan’s region has been steadily rising since the early 90s, now creating severe threats to several underground structures as for example the four metro lines. The ground water rise has been attributed to the economic system change that characterized the city of Milan during the 80s. Indeed, the city went from being a predominantly industrial urban area, to having an economy based on third sector services, which drastically reduced the water demand from the aquifer, earlier dominated by industrial use.

The recent groundwater rise, combined with the increase in (extreme) precipitation events due to climate change, require innovative management solutions to avoid continuous flooding and infiltration events, which are damaging and costly. Additionally, the rise in groundwater also poses the threat of contaminating the aquifer, since it encounters chemical elements which are more present in the upper strata. Because of such contamination, drinking water extraction already takes place at deeper levels of the aquifer, which are more pristine. Milan has the luck of having a reliable water source, therefore its protection and sustainable management should be of primary concern for the local authorities.

Bottom Line: Water abundance does not necessarily mean absence of water conflicts


* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Land tenure

Book 6, Chapter 10

§1. Nobody really owns land 100%. There are “sleeping partners” such as the landlord and ruler/state/community that will restrict rights of use and/or collect taxes on land. The “managing partner” (who works the land) pays the sleeping partner, but this “money rent” is not the same “real rent” as defined by economists (see B5C10).

§2. Indeed, there is quite some confusion on defining money rents, which can deviate wildly from real rents.

§3. Landlords can (and do) find ways to extract more from tenants, perhaps by requiring work on the landlord’s estate or a share of crops. In most cases, the tenant loses out over time. In an extensive footnote, Marshall discusses how Indian tenants are subject to a range of changes from which they can often recover quickly, but he misses the fact that many Indians starved under British control (“recovery by death”?)

§4. A tenant paying cash rent will work harder to produce crops than a tenant paying a share of the crop yield, since sharecroppers give a percentage of all crops while a renting tenant keeps 100% of the yield (rental costs are “sunk). Sharecropping also requires more landlord oversight, if they landlord wants maximal yields.

§5. Land ownership brings pride and independence, but it can also trap those who work too hard to gain too little (compared to working elsewhere). Their children, likewise, may wait for an inheritance rather than go get work. Opportunity costs matter!

§6. The “English system” of renting for cash (not shares) means that landlords can focus on choosing good tenants and then staying out of the way. This system, Marshall claims (correctly, I think) leads to output “as good as in the Netherlands”.

§7. Innovation in agriculture is slower than in manufacturing, since (a) bright people tend to leave the land for towns, (b) it’s hard to adopt successful ideas from one farm to another (often, quite different) farm, and (c) bad manufacturers are driven out of business faster than bad farmers.

§8. Clever farmers cannot thrive with smaller farms because they lack the scale that will reward planning, management and capital (machine) investments. Smaller farms then just “blunder along”.

§9. Small-scale farms should pay higher rents per acre, to compensate landlords for their attention, but smaller farms should also be encouraged (required? subsidised?) to maintain a local “balance”. Co-operatives can help smaller farms with productivity and profitability, by sharing capital goods, marketing expenses, etc.

§10. Landlords should not pursue rents at all costs. Sometimes, it is better to leave a less productive tenant in place, for the good of the community, or to share the costs of disaster or risk, for the sake of future cooperation. In towns, likewise, it is good to set aside some open lands for all to enjoy, rather than building everywhere and leaving no open spaces (“parks”).

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.