Poor regulation causes scarcity

Hannah writes*

In 2014, Flint was plunged into a water crisis. However, this was not the result of over abstraction or drought. Instead, the city’s water scarcity which continues today was caused by poor regulation. The tragedy in Flint demonstrates the critical role that regulators play in ensuring both the quantity and quality of the water delivered to communities.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that senior officials were aware of the water quality issues in Flint but continued to claim that the water was safe to drink. This inaction had serious consequences including multiple lawsuits and the trial of Michigan’s health director accused of involuntary manslaughter. From the start, much of the blame for the disaster was directed at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report [pdf] from March 2016 said that the MDEQ “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”

The failures were not limited to responding to residents’ concerns about the water quality either; the chain of blunders date back to the original switch of city’s water source to the Flint River which triggered the crisis. The report said the shift was rushed, a concern which had been raised at the time by former utility’s administrator for Flint, Michael Glasgow. Furthermore, the report blamed the MDEQ for not treating the river water with corrosion control as is mandated by federal law. A 2017 review [pdf] of the MDEQ by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heavily criticised the state, reporting multiple errors including failing to properly implement key provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule.

While the EPA may be prepared to dish out criticism, they must reflect on their own failures as well. The EPA are supposed to enforce federal safe drinking water laws, but they did not do enough to protect the residents of Flint. When the alarms were first raised, federal officials believed the city was exaggerating in order to get more financial help. Additionally, a report by the Inspector General of the EPA [pdf] found issues in the relationship between the MDEQ and the EPA. For example, a clear oversight role was not implemented, communication between the two organisations was weak and the EPA failed to use all tools at its disposal to ensure the compliance of the MDEQ. Criticism can also be levied at the EPA for the weakness of the thirty-year-old Lead and Copper Rule which has since been revised to strengthen requirements for lead testing.

It is understandable that the trail of lies has resulted in serious damage to the trust of residents in the water and those who are supposed to protect its quality. Some believe trust will never be restored, and it certainly does not help that there are continuing issues with regulatory transparency, communication with the public, and the pace of replacing service lines [pdf].

Bottom Line: The failures of the regulators in Flint demonstrate the critical role that regulators play in ensuring that utilities provide water of sufficient quantity and quality. Both the MDEQ and the EPA failed in their duty to enforce laws on safe drinking water. In theory, a city like Flint should not be short of drinking water since it is located so close to the Great Lakes but the events of the last decade show that poor management can create water scarcity where it never need to be.

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

Moscow’s fresh water shortage

Khabiba writes*

Russia possesses a fifth of the world’s fresh water reserves, but these are  unevenly distributed [pdf]. The majority (90%) of its freshwater flows in the Arctic and Pacific watersheds where less than 15% of the population resides. Thus, only only 8% of Russian freshwater is available to the 80% of the population living and working in the central and southern regions of European Russia, which lies in the watershed of the Black and Caspian seas [pdf].

Russia’s capital (Moscow) faces water contamination concerns. Both surface and groundwater supplies are highly polluted. 56% of water supplies do not meet the safety standards. A 2013’s analysis of Moskva River water found high levels of sulfur, oil, aluminum, and heavy metals. The water is toxic, and proof of it is the sample outcomes from the investigations conducted by Greenpeace: in one sample, mercury levels were 20 times greater than safety standards; in another, manganese levels were 120 times greater.

Moskva River

Water pollution began in the Soviet era, when rampant industrialization led to enormous discharges of chemicals and waste into rivers. Upsettingly, such extensive industrial dumping continues to this day. Mosvodokanal registers some of the recent dumping activities. Factories either intentionally dump chemicals into rivers, or the chemicals arrive unintentionally via melted snows. A handful of local companies are taking action to prevent such dumping activities and improve water quality, but the incentives are mediocre. Environmental activists complain that only when “the ecological needs coincide with economic imperatives that the enterprises do anything.”

To minimize health hazards from contaminated waters, most of Moscow’s drinking water comes from upstream waters, which can still be foul. Downstream irrigators using Volga River water might be putting hazardous residuals on food crops.

Bottom Line: Moscow faces serious water pollution issues but lacks a strong political response.

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

Book 2, Chapter 2 — Wealth

This chapter begins with the definition of wealth as part of the set of desirable things, which Marshall labels as goods, which are divided into material (wealth) and non-material, which include internal goods such as professional skills, and external goods such a relations with others. (Today, these are called human capital and social capital, respectively.)

Goods can be transferable, and most non-material goods (Marshall mentioned advantages of climate or rights of citizenship here) are not. Marshall then discusses how some goods are free but not always, e.g., some Brazilian trees but not all. Here, Marshall is working with the idea of excludable (private goods) versus non-excludable (common pool goods) without using those distinctions. Importantly, he distinguishes between the fish that are free to catch from the commons, and how those fish are converted into private goods as the application of labor displaces them from the commons into one’s private boat.

§2. Marshall defines wealth as consisting of material and non-material goods (e.g., business connection) that have money value or can be used to acquire money. Moving along, he describes economic goods as those that are held by one person (a private good) and valued in terms of money. These criteria exclude not only club goods (jointly held) but non-excludable public and common-pooled goods — goods that I consider “economic” in the sense of their value as well as the need to manage their scarcity. Marshall’s definition might explain some economists’ myopia with respect to those other important goods.

On a related note, Marshall requires the goods have money values. This criterion perhaps explains economists’ ignorance of valuable “goods” such as the environment. The entire study of “ecosystem services” and attempts to quantify their value is, at its root, an attempt to integrate those goods into the narrow “economic sciences” that Marshall espoused.

§3. Marshall notes how internal goods such as skills that are part of personal wealth can confuse discussions (or measurement) of wealth.

§4. Marshall then defines and declares the value of collective goods:

…the benefits which he derives from living in a certain place at a certain time, and being a member of a certain state or community; they include civil and military security, and the right and opportunity to make use of public property and institutions of all kinds, such as roads, gaslight, etc., and rights to justice or to a free education… one person has more real wealth in its broadest sense than another, if the place in which the former lives has a better climate, better roads, better water, more wholesome drainage; and again better newspapers, books, and places of amusement and instruction.

§5. Aware of those non-private goods, Marshall then notes how a nation’s wealth consists of more than the sum of individual wealth. He then adds that some national wealth must be counted as global wealth, as ideas (for example) cannot be kept within boundaries.

[In Footnote 1 on page 50, Marshall notes that monopolies resulting from legal protections or missing information are not a source of wealth as much as a transfer from others; national wealth probably increases when monopolies fail.]

§6. Marshall quotes Adam Smith declaring that an object’s value can derive from its utility but also its price in monetary exchange. Marshall prefers to focus on exchange values, which are quantified in monetary prices that are equivalent to purchasing power.

Marshall ends with “if inventions have increased man’s power over nature very much, then the real value of money is better measured for some purposes in labour than in commodities.” This parting thought seems to echo Marx’s Labor Theory of Value, but only with the assumption that inventions have lowered the cost of commodities (effectively) to zero, leaving labor as the scarce input that must be purchased with scarce money. Interesting.

Profiting from increasing scarcity?

Allison writes*

In the wake of country-wide civil unrest in response to increased costs of living, inequality and privatization, the Chilean business model of water and sanitation provision is more relevant than ever.

Shortly after the fall of the Pinochet military regime during which significant neoliberal reforms were installed in the country, the urban water sector reform was enacted, which shifted the Chilean WSS sector into the hands of private (mostly foreign multinational) companies. Under this reform, the regulator, Superintendencia de Servicios Sanitarios (SISS), sets the tariffs with the service provider in order to establish “efficient tariffs” for the consumer that still provide full cost recovery and generate profit (by law, a 7% minimum return). A seldom accomplished feat, this pricing system aimed to recuperate the costs of operations and maintenance, including that of future restoration of infrastructure, in the tariff consumers pay. In order to guarantee affordability and protect the country’s poor, a subsidy was put into place, targeting the most vulnerable. In it, the government pays a portion of the price of those that qualify (according to the annual survey, Encuesta Casen), while the full costs are still shared on the consumer’s monthly bill. A key success of this model is its ability to ease the financial burden, while not distorting the price signals that promote sustainable water consumption.

This model has expanded access drastically, reaching 99.9% of the urban population in 2013. However, the increase in costs that accompanied privatization and its projected increase in coming years has the Chileans questioning the legitimacy of the system that many international scholars consider a “notable success”.

Chile’s greatest water demand in concentrated in the Santiago Metropolitan Region (RM), the nation’s capital and home to 40% of its population. The largest service provider, serving most of the RM is Aguas Andinas, majority owned by Spanish multinational Sociedad General de Aguas de Barcelona (AGBAR) and in part by the French Suez Lyonnaise Deaux. A fault of the system, as acknowledged by Chilean citizens, is the lack of transparency in the tariff negotiations between the SISS and Aguas Andinas every 5 years. The lack of overall citizen participation and the confidentiality of the process leads to secretism that raises questions surrounding the fairness of the relatively high prices consumers are being charged (pdf). This has led to perceived feelings of ‘being scammed’ and sentiments of victimization by big business in a context already characterized by resentment toward foreign companies that now dominate many Chilean industries.

Exacerbating the situation are further projected cost increases, due to increasing water scarcity. The country is experiencing what is being called a “mega-drought” due to the effects of climate change, jeopardizing the water supply to urban and rural populations. This necessitates additional investment in infrastructure to extend and secure water provision for Aguas Andina’s most demanding consumer base, RM, through projects such as the expansion of dams and piping to ensure adequate connections as sources dry up and become unusable.

Bottom Line: Whatever your opinion, the Chilean system will need to adapt to compensate for worsening water scarcity and the increase in prices that will come with securing the water supply for the Metropolitan Region’s 7 million inhabitants.

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

L.A.’s mix of water and hubris

Maie writes*

In his 1974 classic ‘Chinatown,’ Roman Polanski portrayed a spectacular conflict over water in early-twentieth century Southern California – a story of intrigue, corruption, and greed. In fact, Polanski’s movie builds on some real events during the era of William Mulholland as the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), which are hardly less scandalous. Mulholland began a tradition of meeting the rapidly growing city’s thirst with technological fixes. Some of them had dire consequences such as the deadly collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928 and the draining of the Owens Lake – a natural calamity that today compels the LADWP to continuously flood the dry lake bed to prevent toxic dust from blowing into inhabited areas. A more recent technological venture was the covering of the Los Angeles Reservoir with 96 million shade balls to prevent the sun transforming chemical residuals into dangerous byproducts.

The technocratic belief that any human demand can be met by just engineering nature has arguably been taken too far in Los Angeles. Yet, from the consumer side, the city’s water supply has mostly been a story of success and enabled a sixfold population increase within twenty years at the beginning of the twentieth century. From the construction of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct to the diversion of the Colorado River in the south-east and, more recently, increased groundwater pumping – shortages were quickly countered with solutions and the spirit of progress and unlimited possibilities was never diminished.

The scenic and beautiful Los Angeles River.

Today, the average Angelenos consumes 113 gallons of water per day, which is only possible because Los Angeles is able to import great amounts of water from far away sources. However, due to weather uncertainties such as low precipitation and the premature seasonal melting of snowpacks, the reliability of these sources is falling. A change of thinking is needed, but unfortunately, Los Angeles’ water supply system has grown extremely complex. About one hundred contractors, wholesalers, and retailers operate in the metropolitan region, which makes communication and cooperation extremely complicated. On top of that, shadows of the past keep haunting the city as the conflict between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley has not been reconciled yet. Even though the metropolis erected a $4.6-million monument at the dry lake bed, the valley’s residents can hardly forgive that a faraway metropolis once covertly purchased most of its land and water rights and drained its lake, leaving it exposed to toxic dust, vulnerable to drought, and hampering the valley’s economy to the present day.

Bottom Line: The history of Los Angeles’ water supply is a history of hubris. Only recently has the city started to understand that engineering cannot resolve emerging problems. Other measures like reducing consumption and integrating water flows into a sustainable cycle are needed. However, the city finds itself in a deadlock, with a fragmented infrastructure that makes changing the status quo extremely difficult, and residents that have grown accustomed to cheap and abundant water.

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

Atlanta and downstream friends

Johanna writes*

This post offers some insight into the problems of water management in Atlanta (the capital of Georgia) and the effects of those problems on its downstream neighbors Florida and Alabama. These problems are part of a 30-year water allocation drama in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (AFC) basin.

(Map source)

In Atlanta, population growth, legal disputes, and droughts result in water scarcity. Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing urban cities in the US, relying only on surface water supplies drawn from the Chattahoochee River, the source of the Tri-state water dispute with Alabama and Florida. The litigation began in 1990 when Alabama sued the Corps to stop allocating water to Atlanta. In 2014 Florida filed a complaint in the supreme court stating that Georgia has harmed the environment downstream and a bid for equitable apportionment (background on the litigation).

All three states have different concerns about water allocation. Atlanta is  located in a water-scarce area and relies on the Chattahoochee River for 70% of its water. Georgia wants drinking water to help booming Atlanta grow but also to help farmers in the southwest of the state. Florida needs freshwater in the Apalachicola bay to sustain its multi-million-dollar oyster and shrimp industry.  Alabama is concerned about water supply for power generators, municipality supply, and other needs.

Atlanta’s excessive water withdrawal and management issues affect downstream neighbors. When Atlanta experiences drought, then it uses more Chattahoochee water, which reduces flows to the  Apalachicola bay, which kills shrimp and oysters. With less water to dilute Atlanta’s sewage and stormwater discharges, water quality falls, and salinity levels rise. Atlanta does not have the money  to fix problems, so river-water quality is deteriorating. These issues make things more difficult for downstream industrial water users, and the region is struggling to attract new businesses. (You can read more about the history of the Tri-state dispute and Atlanta’s water crisis in this book.)

How do we manage the water of the AFC basin equitably and sustainably for all three member states?

Bottom Line: Unreliable and degrading water supplies are harming downstream users. Atlanta must improve its water infrastructure and management for the sake of its water supply and the future of all three states.

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

Lagos: lacking water security

Olivia writes*

Lagos, Nigeria, is a city surrounded by water, yet for most people, obtaining it is a daily struggle. With around 65% of residents living in urban slums and an increasing population of approximately 21 million, providing water and public services is a complex obstacle that the city has yet to overcome. This post will discuss some of the logistical issues that limit water accessibility, as well as population growth as one of the causes of water shortage.

It can be argued that the growing population has been the driver of water related issues in Lagos. During the early 20th century, infrastructure was developed to supply the rapidly growing population. However, these facilities cannot support current demand, and were not maintained to a high enough standard to ensure cleanliness. One reporter found that the majority of factories in Lagos were providing water that contained contaminants and did not meet the standards of the World Health Organization. In 1980, the state created the Lagos Water Corporation to operate the existing water systems and improve public health. They are government owned and the largest water supplier in Lagos. Despite this, the LWC still only serves around 10% of the city’s residents. The remainder of the population, if lucky, purchase their water from vendors or from private boreholes. This water access is also metrocentric. This is mainly due to the poor socioeconomic conditions in Lagos as well as the antique piping that only exists in certain areas.

Men filling up jugs at borehole in Lagos

As mentioned previously, lacking infrastructure and poor facilities are also a major hindrance to water accessibility. Less than 30% of the population have access to piped water in any form, and even then, their supply is random. Power blackouts combined with the poor quality of production facilities result in very unreliable water supply. In addition to this, equipment and pipes are outdated and poorly maintained, leading to expensive leakages and breakdowns. Cracked pipes provide opportunity for contamination, leading to waterborne diseases such as cholera and chronic diarrhea. Around 80% of Lagos residents depend on informal water to fulfil their domestic needs, including for consumption. Allegedly, there have been many deaths in Lagos due to ingesting contaminated water and it is no secret that informal water is more likely to be a health risk. In 2014, an Al Jazeera reporter interviewed a member of the Lagos Water Corporation to gain a better understanding of water accessibility in the city. He stated that their main obstacle is the lack of electricity and infrastructure. In addition to this, he was concerned about the adverse environmental impacts of over abstraction of ground water. Despite this, there does not seem to be a choice for most residents.

Until supply can be increased and made accessible, the use of informal water is likely to increase and for many will be the norm.

Bottom Line: Lagos has to change, quickly. Rising population means the government needs to address its water challenge if it wants to preserve public health.

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

Interesting stuff

  1. India moves from multi-culturalism to Hindu nationalism — a process that was exacerbated by the colonial period and that will not end well.
  2. A fascinating review of the 1980s in America, which has led to the current “OK-boomer” social schism and many other issues: “Failing to win a consensus for the revolutions of the 1960s, Washington instead bought off through tax cuts those who stood to lose from them. Americans would delude themselves for decades that there was something natural about this arrangement. It was an age of entitlement.”
  3. The nuclear family was a mistake… in terms of social safety, cohesion and development
  4. Is capitalism the solution or the driver of climate chaos?
  5. Here’s a really great paper on “the consequences [=shortage that harms the poor] of treating electricity as a right.” It’s nearly identical to the case of treating water as a right.
  6. A beautiful essay on the silly way Silicon Valley types speak.
  7. The decadence before the fall: Coffee obsession
  8. The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake
  9. Where will political correctness + national pride take our language?
  10. Bill McKibben’s latest update on our fucked-up climate chaotic future

Cape Town: complex water pricing

Miqui writes*

Clean water is vital to human beings and is fundamental to a functioning society. It is therefore often seen as an obligation of the government to ensure that all of its citizens have sufficient access to a clean water source. Numerous people, such as activists, argue that pricing the very poor for water is unethical and assume that increasing the price of water will always harm the poor. The City of Cape Town (CoCT), South Africa, is a useful and interesting case to reflect on this assumption. This city has one of the most unequal income distributions of the world. Providing water to the poor has always been a complex issue. Especially now, because recently this city has experienced a severe water shortage. Factors that come into play are equity, water conservation, and raising enough revenue to pay for the enormous costs of water infrastructure.

Pricing the water is almost inevitable in order to prevent shortages. There are numerous different tariff options. The CoCT has chosen an increased block rate (IBR), which they label a ‘step-tariff’. This means that if the consumed volume of water increases the price of the water also increases. This price increase is done in blocks/steps (Figure 2 source). The main reason for choosing such a tariff is because the wealthy in general have a higher consumption and therefore also have a higher tariff; they pay a larger part of the total supply cost of water and vice versa in the case of the poor. Another important reason is that an increasing volumetric price makes consumers pay attention to their use. In theory, this seems like a rational option. However, the case of Cape Town exemplifies that increased block rate pricing can have some serious ramifications, which you will read about below.

The CoCT also introduced a tool called “water management devices” (WMD’s). This meter was promoted to low-income households. If such a meter was installed, the CoCT would relieve them of their historic debt. At the same time, it would reduce demand because if this device detects leaks or excessive water consumption, the water supply will be cut off. The intent was to assist low-income households. The actual result was, however, the opposite. Most low-income households are found in the townships around Cape Town. Proper water infrastructure is often lacking, and leaks are common. As a result, the actual water use could be considerably higher than the effective water use. On top of this, people with a low income generally live with more people in one household than the official standard. This also adds up to the total water consumption of a household. The above will make the water bill soar or deprive people of sufficient water in the case of a cut-off.

Another ramification with IBR was that during the recent water crisis revenue sharply decreased because households which initially had a high-volume use shifted their consumptions. Hence, they became users in a lower block rate. The loss in revenue is especially detrimental in a time where water shortages demand for expensive investments in the water infrastructure. Coping with the decreases in revenue and to further incentivize the conservation of water, block rates increased tremendously (1st block +200%)(see fig.1). Low-income/volume users were particularly affected because they have less room to reduce consumption.

Bottom Line: The IBR is, arguably, not a proper price mechanism for the city of Cape Town. There are many different options, but pricing will always stand in the shadow of the huge historic inequality.

For more about the pricing of water: The Paradox of Water Pricing.

For more about Cape Town’s history of inequality and its water management: Water governance and justice in Cape Town: An overview

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

Rome’s ration running out

Irene writes*

Ancient Rome’s water engineered infrastructures were based on the assumption that water was abundant and accessible. Those infrastructures, built in third century BC, still carry large volumes of water into the city. Growing water scarcity will be the biggest threat to the planet in the next decade. Despite Rome being the only city, out of all European capitals, with a sustainable water supply system, namely the water table recharging faster than the city can use, Italy is still projected to be under high water stress (40-80%) by 2040.

While Italy is hit by a drought in July 2017, Rome undergoes an unprecedented event: shutting down its public drinking fountains. More than a problem of water quantity, that action symbolized the transition from an era of abundance to an era of scarcity. On top of the drought itself, major issues are threatening Rome’s prosperous waters: pollution, poor quality streams and aquifers, natural levels of dissolved elements and compounds, subsidence and salinization, and groundwater flooding. Neglect of water management has been the main alert of approaching scarcity. The real problem will not be drinking water per se but the waste of water caused by leakages in the pipeline system. These supply problems are triggering losses up to 47.9% of the withdrawn water volumes.

The city of Rome depends on Aqueduct Peschiera for 70% of its total supply of 1,4 million m³ per day (9,000 liters a second) in normal conditions. The water is withdrawn in the Acea infrastructure of Cittaducale, on the lower slope of the mountain where the aqueduct is born. This is one of the biggest hydrological systems in the world dedicated exclusively to spring water. The impact of water rationing is causing millions in agricultural damages that, as a domino effect, are driving farmers out of business. Moreover, according to charities like the Red Cross, rationing water poses a major threat to homeless people and a growing number of migrants.

Politicians ordered the utility Acea to stop withdrawing water from Lake Bracciano, a recreational lake which, despite being just 8% of Rome’s water supplies, it is still a major source of drinking water for the city. Although Acea had promised to work to repair water pipes in order to avoid rationing of water, Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said “we cannot waste anymore time”.

In order to fight future water scarcity, the focus needs to be redirected to fixing infrastructure. To do that, lessons should be learned from the Ancient Roman engineers. Solutions like private rain water harvesting, recycling water in public fountains, or rethinking their infrastructure system will help avoiding major shortages in the future.

Bottom line: The drought period of 2017 was a wake-up call, not just for the Eternal city but for every city around the world coping with a changing climate, to re-think their water management strategies. Rome might lose its role as a model of sustainable water supply. If Rome cannot manage its abundant resources, how will other cities cope? Rome must act to reverse its water mismanagement.

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