Interesting stuff

  1. What’s the point of money?
  2. Want Trump to let you out of prison? (1) Be a corrupt politician convicted of selling offices for “campaign funds,” (2) Note that your enemies are Trump’s enemies, and (3) Appear on Fox while Trump watches.
  3. Los Angeles tries to take back the data commons. Uber objects at this threat to its business model of profiting from data.
  4. Madeline Albright on how to respond to tyranny and populism 
  5. Our [American] institutions lost the capacity to mold character and have become platforms for performance instead.
  6. Here are 7 interesting visions of how the Netherlands might adapt to extreme (+2-10m) seal level rise. I am glad to see several in which Amsterdam is an island in a tidal lagoon.
  7. 100 ideas for better living
  8. Is there a science to better marriage?
  9. Why we need rules
  10. …and why we need freedom: “Modern liberalism fits the modern world of high human capital better than the old rightish model of dim-witted peasants properly led by the aristocracy or the old leftish model of gormless proletarians properly led by The Party. If ever there was a time to let people go, and to have a go, it is now, when they are so obviously ready for a liberal autonomy. Yesterday, one might put it, was the time for the aristocracy or the state. Now is the time for liberalism.”

H/T to BZ

La Paz at risk of drying out

Lea writes*

Since the turn of the century, water management in Bolivia has been a never-ending rollercoaster of shifting governance and responsibility. Previously, inhabitants of El Alto and La Paz experienced resource shortages and horrendous water quality due to corruption under the service of the private company “Aguas de Illimani”. The situation became so drastic that citizens began to strike and demonstrate against private water. Known as the water wars, individuals nationwide demanded a reformation of the water management. As a consequence of a political socialist uprising during that time period, water was finally proclaimed a human right in 2009 under the newly elected president Evo Morales. The right of water regulation was transferred to EPSAS, a public wastewater and metropolitan drinking water company.

People were hopeful the situation would finally change, however it never really did. In November 2016, La Paz and El Alto experienced their worst water scarcity crisis to date. A combination of low precipitation, high temperatures leading to increased glacier melting, and intensified southern oscillation of El Niño forced the company to ration water supplies for two months. La Paz has yet to recover from the drought and the government still struggles to provide safe, sufficient and easily accessible water for all sectors of the city.

La Paz and El Alto receive their water supply from the mountain catchments in Cordillera Real. Three main dams (Inkachaka, Ajunkota and Hampaturi dams) stationed within this region capture glacial meltwater which is then passed through four different treatment plants. However, water levels are falling due to increasing population, intensive industrialization and climate change. Households have experienced improvement in the water supply, but especially in rural areas they are still struggling to be supplied with water. El Alto’s and La Paz’s unique geographical characteristics due to being situated in the basin of the Andes Mountain range significantly complicates the challenge of water distribution 3600 meters above sea level. As early as 2025, the water system supplying El Alto specifically is expected to have severe water shortages.

Bottom Line: Privatization and municipalization have both failed to resolve the water crisis and deliver adequate living conditions to the population. Appropriate or innovate approaches need to be taken instead to ensure sustainable and fair management of the resource if the citizens still want to have sufficient water resources in the future. Pipes need to be restored, water lines extended, waste water plants made more efficient. National taxes can be augmented to cover the costs of the system renewal and avoid dependence on external support. Most importantly, a competent and motivated organization must attempt to effectively take into consideration economic, social, political and geographical challenges of water management in La Paz and El Alto and commit themselves to saving the habitants of this unique city from a rigorous drought.

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

Itzapalapa’s water trucks

Anna writes*

Water supply in Mexico City is a good indicator of the persisting inequality, as residents have to live with very different amounts of waters in this city of water scarcity. In Itzapalapa, the most populous and poorest district in the city’s east, people face severe water shortages. Therefore, their daily water supply is often brought by water tanks – or not. Whereas pipe pressure in rich districts like Cuajimalpa is about 14kg per cm² – enough to irrigate numerous golf courses – in Itzapalapa peoples’ pipes have a pressure of only 0,50kg per cm², which leads to dry taps and thus water scarcity. Due to the numerous leaks in the pipe system around 40% of the water that runs through the pipes is lost, which makes it extremely inefficient, but the funds that would be needed to renew the underground pipe system are immense. Thus, people in Itzapalapa must proportionally invest a lot of money and time to find and get water of acceptable quality. Alejandra Salgada, resident of Itzapalapa, estimates that about one fifth of their family’s income is spent on water, which makes them consider leaving the city because they can’t afford their life there.

Sometimes parents like Silvestre Fernandez have to choose between buying new diapers for their toddlers or buying water, which illustrates the severity of the situation in Itzapalapa. The district relies on the supply of water from 1000 tanks. The alternative to the tanks is getting water downhill from a municipal tap, that then needs to be transported on donkeys all the way uphill. Not only the residents suffer from the water scarcity, but the drivers of the tanks called pipas feel the negative consequences when they are threatened by desperate residents with guns and dry taps. This hopelessness for water also leads to water theft in form of illegal tank fillings. Apart from that, even if water reaches Itzapalapa it is often untreated and of low quality, which leads to health issues.

In order to relieve the miserable situation of water supply in Itzapalapa Clara Brugada, the mayor of this district plans to make use of the nearby located Xico lake to supply Itzapalapa with water. She wants the 600,000 residents of Itzapalapa who partially receive water only every week or two to have regular access through piped distribution. Apart from this possible solution, several pilot projects are under development to deal with the water crisis in Mexico-city. One of them is the rainfall catchment project, already realized in 25 schools in Santa Catarina, a part of Itzapalapa, which has been implemented by the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Iztapalapa. It allows the schools to be independent of water supply, as long as there is precipitation, whereas half of the water can be used in the school and the other half is used to replenish the degraded aquifer under Mexico-City. Unfortunately, those smaller scale sustainable possible solutions are often opposed by SACMEX, Mexico city’s water operator, which prefers larger-scale and more expensive solutions.

Bottom Line: There’s a need for new solutions and new policies if the water scarcity of Itzapalapa (and Mexico City) is going to be addressed.

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

Prague threatened by extreme weather

Veronika writes*

Hydrologically, Czech Republic is unique in Europe. No river from another country flows through the region, making the country self-sufficient on its own water sources. It may seem counterintuitive that a region which has suffered from great floods, could have its water security compromised by droughts. In Prague, the 2002 flood alone caused damages as high as €1 billion.

Moreover, compared to the communist era, Czechs have become more conscious of water prices and significantly decreased their clean water consumption. Since the mid-1990s, average water consumption has decreased by half. As the capital, Prague has the highest consumption of 109 liters per person per day but, compared to Western Europe or the United States, this is still a relatively low amount. In recent years, the average Czech drinking water consumption has been so low that it has reportedly reached the so-called hygienic minimum, which is determined by the World Health Organization to be 90 to 100 liters per person per day.

Also, as the representative of Association of Water Supply and Sewerage (SOVOK) Filip Wanner reminds, before the Velvet revolution of 1989 and subsequent downfall of communism, as much as 40% of drinking water was lost through pipeline leakages. This has been improved upon since the privatization of water services in Prague in the 1990s. Prague’s Water Supply and Sewerage Systems company (PVS) managed to increase the efficiency and steadily lower leakages to 13,5% in 2018 (see more on PVS’s website).

However, while the city of Prague seems to be improving its water conservation and service efficiency, increasing temperatures fuelled by climate change could present a considerable challenge to the region. Due to its low groundwater levels, the country is heavily dependent on surface water from precipitation and melting snow. Because high temperatures increase evaporation, droughts endanger surface sources and thus water security. Extended heat can also damage the underground water pipes and, as a consequence, increase water supply outages. In 2018, “the number of incidents exceeded 5 000 for the first time”.  Data supplied by PVS shows this trend to be increasing over the last ten years: in 2010, there were 3,960 incidents; in 2015 there were 4,677.

Bottom line: Drinking water consumption in the Czech Republic has significantly decreased since the communist era. However, increasing droughts and temperatures threaten the water security of a seemingly water -abundant region.

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

Hi-tech industry & low-tech H2O

Hannah writes*

2003 drought, 2005 flood, 2015 flood, 2019 drought. Chennai is experiencing a cycle of under- and oversupply of water that the climate crisis will only accelerate. Chennai’s water management strategy must address floods, droughts and climate change, but the city’s government has prioritized economic growth over sustainable water management.

This led the city to run dry on June 19, 2019, meaning that the population shifted to unreliable and unsafe private water supplies. This event was a result of many factors. One being the incentives for the IT business to settle along the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) area, which was previously wetland. Businesses were encouraged to move to the OMR by the construction of a 45 km road connecting IT parks. Furthermore, the municipality increased the floor space index, determining the built-up space, which meant that buildings could be taller and provide more housing opportunities.

How did this development influence water management? For one, the construction of glass buildings and cement foundations for companies like Amazon, PayPal and HP, headquartered in the OMR area, pushed away the marshland and natural infrastructure of channels which used to connect different water storages and served as a natural flood mitigating system. As water has no place to go the risk of flooding increases. Close to the sea, this water also gets contaminated with salinized water due to sea water intrusion in freshwater aquifers which means that drinkable water is lost.

Moreover, the marshy ground around OMR requires the water pipes to be resilient against high hydraulic permeability and sponginess. There is a lack of clarity as to why there is no proper network of piped water supply, but one could guess that it is due to the high costs and corporations’ tendencies to cut corners. As a result, OMR relies on water tankers. Most of those private-owned tankers extract from farm wells outside of the city. This leaves the farmers with less water for irrigation of the fields. People in the villages are upset as water is taken away from them for their drinking supply. Understandably, they do not want to cater to the non-piped supply in the OMR area.

According to the citizens of OMR, the municipality knew about these circumstances before construction. To remedy the situation, they promised to build piped supply, but they have yet to follow through.  The economic growth brought an increase of demand for water. Municipal tankers could not keep up, so the area increasingly turned to private tanker businesses. While the businesses are fairly reliable, they are not accountable as they steal water from the water sources of the surrounding villages. This is where it gets tricky: one deficit creates a network of deficits. The government failed to provide safe piped supply and regulate the over-extraction of water sources in the villages. However, the IT companies whose water consumption happens at the expense of the villagers, should also be held accountable. The companies must ensure that they do not support an inequal water management of the region while the climate crisis accelerates the overall demand.

Writing as a German who has always enjoyed the privilege of piped, unlimited water supply, I am trying to somehow capture one aspect of this downward slope of Chennai’s water management. Some of those IT companies originate in the West. Often, we, as Western consumers, see the benefit of outsourcing our software development but seldomly get to know about the impact of our consumption. My main point is not to criticize globalization or transnationals. I want to point out how our outdated Western understanding of growth (based on GDP and annual revenue…) has gotten some cities, such as Chennai, into some serious trouble to ensure basic services, specifically a secure water supply.

Bottom line: In July 2019, Chennai hit its Day Zero due to several overlapping failures of water management.

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

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 🙂