Should water be free?

Access to sufficient clean drinking water is a basic human right.

And this was only explicitly recognized in 2010 by the UN. Does that seem a bit late to you? (upcoming post about this issue soon — I wrote my senior thesis about it)

WHO (World Health Organization) defines “adequate access” as 20L/person/day within a 1 km distance. The factors that are addressed here are quality, quantity and distance of the user from the water source. This metric, however, does not engage with the issue of the cost of water.

I believe that clean drinking water should not be free. Ever. Never ever.

Let me break that down before you think I have no soul (I do think it should be free in short-term emergency mitigation situations such as in war time, at refugee camps and following natural disasters, what’s up Hurricane Sandy). I am a strong believer in the power of economics to influence human behavior. I am of the opinion that if you give something to someone for free, it will not be valued and maintained effectively by the recipient as much as if you had sold it to them. An investment will show a commitment to the product by the consumer. In this sense, I believe there should be flexibility in charging for water. Yes, it is a basic human right, but that does not mean it should be free.

Food is a basic human right. It is not free. Access to health care is a basic human right. It is not free (not in the US of A at least).

There should be boundaries though. I would not want to see a private enterprise come in, see an area afflicted by water scarcity and make a killing by charging ridiculously high rates for clean water because they have a monopoly on the only water source. I think making such a large profit off a vulnerable population is unethical. A classic case of the (perceived) evil engineering company coming in and robbing the poor is the “Cochabamba Water War”. In this historic protest, the contract with Bechtel was canceled due to a popular uprising. I honestly believe that Bechtel could have benefited the area (yes, this is speculation). They aren’t doing too well as it stands with the system people protested to keep:

But the results, in terms of access to clean and affordable water, are far more mixed. Half the homes in the area served by the public water utility still have no water service; many of those that do have service only have it a few hours a week. A decade after people shed blood in the streets to retake their water, the company that manages it remains riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency—a source of graft for the city’s mayor and the union that represents the company’s workers.

Governmental regulation and public-private partnerships can prevent exploitation from happening. Well-managed public utilities (shout-out to George Hawkins and his fantastic management of DC Water) can charge reasonable prices for water. A private entity can work with the public utility to increase efficiency. Utilities do need money to maintain their systems of water delivery after all! If they have help from the government in the form of subsidies they would be able to effectively deliver water and maintain their delivery system (old pipes!).

As I spoke about in an earlier post, giving out free water systems will not solve the water crisis. There needs to be a (reasonable) charge for a water system or a water delivery service. This can help ensure that the consumer has the income available to purchase spare parts for an installed system later on when it breaks. It also promotes conservation. You are more likely to conserve a resource you had to pay for.

Access to water is a basic human right. This does not mean that it is unethical to charge for it. You do go to the grocery store don’t you (well, not today, the grocery stores around here are certainly bare…)? Same idea.

I strongly disagree with this article.

Going to blow away in D.C.,

A-say