Seville: public water, private interests

David writes*

The Mediterranean Basin is one of the regions that will suffer the most from climate change. From soil erosion to heatwaves and heavy precipitation, this territory has already started to endure the consequences of the changing weather. Within this context, Seville serves as a particularly interesting case to study the availability and management of one of humankind’s most precious (and yet vulnerable) natural resources: water.

While average individual consumption was 176 litres per capita per day (LCD) in 1991, it was down to 113 LCD in 2022. This 36% reduction results from the combination of a drought in the 1990s that almost forced an evacuation of the city and awareness campaigns carried out by EMASESA – the public company responsible for water in Seville’s municipality.

Since then, however, the region has not suffered from autocratic changes in its administration nor turned to market-based solutions. In fact, the price of water has been frozen for the past three years, which demonstrates the efforts to protect the current system, regardless of increasing worries about water availability and the activation of a drought status last October.

So far, it is possible to say that Seville’s administration has been successful in managing the existing resources and has benefited its consumers by creating a Water Observatory initiative where the population takes part in publicly supervising water – ecologically, politically and socioeconomically.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about future scenarios where scarcity becomes more pressing and, in so doing, how society will react to these changes. In other words, while leaving economics aside has helped Seville’s governments so far, can subsidies and government assistance help tackle Spain’s changing climate?

Another aspect to consider is the underlying taboo on raising prices. Last week I talked to an environmental activist who works in the water sector in Seville, and I asked his opinion on increasing prices. Unfortunately, and yet not surprisingly, he answered that higher prices would cause so much civil dissatisfaction that legislators would be punished at the polls.

This response raises a critical question of water governance, i.e., how much civic participation is beneficial and sustainable for citizens?

To be clear, I am not (yet) supporting a full market-led system wherever shortages are possible, but it is worth questioning which mechanisms can best protect water availability without being obscured by politics or individual interests.

Seville has a constructive system that has made water management more participatory and transparent, but this system could bring negative consequences in the future. Put differently, the combination of EMASESA’s monopoly over water and Spain’s political system can create challenges.

Prices that reflect scarcity, in contrast, might help “democratise” access to resources, while increasing infrastructure investment and public awareness.

Bottom Line: Seville’s functional and participatory public water management disguises water’s treatment as a political resource. The city’s droughts and successful awareness campaigns might be postponing governments from translating the true cost of water into prices. Civilian democratising efforts mixed with a system dependent on populist policies that disregard the economic value of water may lead to catastrophe in a region that is slowly drying out.

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

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

7 thoughts on “Seville: public water, private interests”

  1. Hi David and Students;

    I live south of Phoenix, AZ in the town hoping to become a city called Maricopa. Its growth is only starting to happen beyond that of single family homes. There is a scarcity of housing and the town council has been pushing for more apartment building consisting of 1, 2 and 3 bedrooms with a kitchen, 1-2 bathrooms or 1-1/2 bathrooms, kitchen and eating area and living room.

    In places where I stayed (for weeks at a time) in Rietheim-Weilheim Germany and Prachatice Czech Republic this would be a lot of space. In the US, it would be normal. We lack it for young families starting out.

    What I have found is the town is big on building these apartment complexes. However, what matters is the plumbing and construction of them. Builders have a habit of skimping on faucets, toilets, hot water heaters, etc. by buying the least expensive and less efficient rather than paying a little bit more for more efficient plumbing fixtures. This is where a Planning and Zoning Commission should step in and advocate through ordinances. The town does not push in this direction.

    If the hope is to conserve, builders should supply efficient water facilities in the beginning to minimum water usage. The incremental cost is usually not that much more. City and Town government can push on these mechanisms to direct builders to build more efficient homes (apartments). The conservation of water using more efficient faucets, etc. may delay any eed of a price increase.

    In Arizona we draw on the Colorado River, underground reservoirs, and ground water. As you must know there is water scarcity here too. Although this year our snow cover and the monsoons in the south part of the state have been above average. Pricing is also based on how much you use of it and there is tiered pricing.

    I am going to put this post up on Angry Bear and see f I can get some of the commenters to also comment. Nice topic. Ask away, I will try to answer. I have talked to 3rd and 4th year economics students ay Loyola University of Chicago as inve=ited by my former Econ Prof.

    1. Hey Bill — Thanks for your interesting comments on the water “management” situation in your area. You make a good point about the interaction of regulations and market incentives.The classic case of “inefficient” is the landlord who doesn’t want to pay for efficient appliances/fixtures because the tenant pays the utility bills, but your situation is a bit different. In this case, the builders are going as cheap as possible (frame and board, etc.) to sell for the largest profit. They assume (correctly, I bet) that more buyers are (a) interested in low prices more than efficiency [efficiency-seeking buyers go for the “whole package” with insulation, solar, etc.] and (b) that buyers may “toss and refit” on move in (maybe just to change the color of the faucets), so it doesn’t pay to install good gear.

      And I am betting that a change in building codes is popular to very few (people like yourself excluded), which is why they are that way. It’s the 20/80 rule :-\

      1. David:

        Arizona is a hot area for sales of the country. Builders can provide housing for lower-income people through a process called Planned Unit Developments. A percentage of housing must be allocated towards that goal to achieve variances from the municipality, or county, etc.. The city/county allows certain exceptions, gratuities, etc. in relation to promoting this goal of affordable. I used to sit on a Planning Commission in the richest county in Michigan. We were short affordable housing the same as Arizona.

        We were also very big on green space, wetlands, and setbacks. Greater efficiency is a one-time cost which can be offset by subsidies or allowances in building.

    1. Thanks Bill!

      @David (OP for this post) — here is a useful comment from AB…

      “Not a big point but Seville watershed (Guadalquivir) is Atlantic, not Mediterranean.”

  2. David:

    One other thing I wish to point out with regard to Builders, costs, and prices.

    First me: I am the son of a bricklayer/tuckpointer. I learned my dad’s trade. In high school besides learning how to draw floor plans (drafting), I learned how to frame houses and wire them. I worked one year with my dad in 67 before I left for the Marine Corps in 68 or get drafted. I made the choice. I pursued my college education BA and MA after the Corps and my wife.

    I know we talked about the costs of building. My wife of fifty years and I retired to a “new” home. Initially, we found 15 things wrong with it and 10 more while living in it. It all was covered by warranty. The costs on doing thing correctly the first time are certainly less than correcting things the second time. As I explained to the Construction Manager, one must build quality into a product as you certainly will lose money inspecting quality into a product. When I explained the Uniform Commercial Code and Reasonable Man to him, he finally got things done.

    That is two issues. The third issue I have is listening to the city council go “woes-me” when it comes to Builders. I walk their sites with my German Shepard “Minnie.” There is a lot of inventory waiting to be built into a house. One clear example is multiple homes with roofing tiles on the roofs uninstalled. Not just 2-3 but 10-20. That inventory is cost expended to soon and sitting around as inventory waiting for Direct Labor (the lowest cost). Dumpsters dropped on sidewalks cracking them. Nails scattered throughout the site. Sheet metal piping tossed around the sites. There is a lot of waste going on in building which could pay part if not all of the cost of more efficient water implements.

    I consulted for Ingersol Engineers in throughput analysis, production planning, and inventory. One thing they could use is Critical Path Methodology. There is a lot of waste in how they build. Rather than eliminating public meetings with residents and other requirements such as setbacks from wetlands, etc. how about doing some throughput analysis and determine the critical path to keep them efficient and on time in delivery?

    They really get uptight when I talk to them about this stuff.

    1. Hey Bill — that’s a totally off topic (for this post) but on topic (for sustainability) comment. Thanks for the details 🙂

      In general, I think you’re pointing at some combination of a loss in professionalism (sometimes linked to union jobs) as well as a more typical “not my money” attitude that any worker (as “agent”) may have towards the money of the client (“principal”), which is why reputation is so important in the trades and professions!

      Sadly, it’s not as important for politicians!!

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