Jun
24
2008

Is the world running out of water?

Water, water everywhere, and not enough to drink: Making water more freely available actually makes it more scarce
Water, water everywhere, and not enough to drink: Making water more freely available actually makes it more scarceCourtesy Today is a good day

Or just mis-managing what we have? Blogger Fabius Maximus argues for the latter. He claims that most water "shortages" are actually the result of political forces: in poor countries, corruption and mismanagement; in wealthy countries, politically popular price supports.

Which gives me yet another opportunity to discuss the dismal science of economics and the law of unintended consequences.

Y'see, water is essential to human life. Therefore, governments try to provide clean, safe water to their citizens. And, being all egalitarian and everything, Western democracies want to make water equally available to all. So they provide it free, or at an extremely low price, so that everyone can afford it.

(Of course, nothing is "free" -- the water service is subsidized by taxes.)

Unfortunately, this leads to a little something known as the ragedy of the commons. If a resource is free, then there's nothing to prevent people from using way too much of it, or even wasting it. Thus, free-or-low-cost water leads to farmers growing rice in the California desert, or developers building water-intensive golf courses, or simply home owners tending lush lawns in climates not suited for them.

Now, I have nothing against rice, or golf, or lawns, even. (My own lawn, I'm a little less than fond of, but that's another story.) The point is, making water freely available to everyone to drink and bathe also makes it freely available for a wide variety of more wasteful uses, which leads to some of the shortages we see today.

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