economy | May 03, 2011

Charles Fishman on Water: "The Best News is the Big Picture."

In a Q&A with The New York Times today, Charles Fishman talked about his new book—The Big Thirst—and the turbulent future of our most valuable commodity, water. A Fast Company writer who spent years researching the book, Fishman discussed water as it relates to everything from economics to corporate responsibility to Las Vegas, while mentioning the “good news all over the country that doesn’t get enough attention,” such as the efficient use of water by US farmers. “The best news,” Fishman said, “is in the bigger picture.” The U.S. uses less water in 2011 than it did in 1981, meaning we use less water to produce a $13 trillion economy today than a $6 trillion dollar economy 30 years ago. This, according to Fishman, shows that “it’s possible to continue to grow and modernize, while actually reducing the amount of water we use.”

Answering questions from Pulitzer Prize winner David Leonardt, Fishman also discussed the developing world, where access to clean, safe, and reliable water is an ongoing problem that, in his opinion, has more to do with political will and cultural understanding than with technology or resources. (The cost of the Iraq war is enough to provide water systems for basically every person on earth. Heartbreaking.) He also talked about a big theme that has emerged in all discussions surrounding The Big Thirst, which is the “proper” price of water.

Here’s an excerpt:
David Leonhardt: Your discussion of the downsides of free water reminds me of parking. We think free parking is great. But it actually leads to all kinds of problems— like long waits to find a spot in some cities and too much traffic. How would you try to persuade someone that free water is actually a bad thing?

Charles Fishman: First, let’s agree that water isn’t literally free — people say, “Hey, I pay a water bill, it’s $30 a month, that’s not free!” Almost, though. A half-liter of bottled water costs 99 cents. The average U.S. water bill at home is $34 a month. So for what we thoughtlessly spend on a few gulps of water at 7-Eleven, we get a day’s water at home — 300 gallons, for everything from bathing to cooking. One dollar a day.

Free water — water so cheap you never think about cost when making water use decisions — is a silent disaster. When something is free, the message is: It’s unlimited.

Free water leads to constant waste and misallocation. Farmers and factory managers, hotels and gardeners never consider how much water they are using, and whether they are using it smartly — because the water bill itself sends no signal to be careful. (Half the water used by farmers worldwide is wasted.) There’s no incentive for efficiency.

Cheap water also means that the organizations we rely on to supply water — utilities, irrigation districts — never have the money to modernize, to replace crumbling systems, to find the “next gallon” of water supply.

Meanwhile, the poor pay the highest cost of all — hundreds of millions of people spend half of every day walking to fetch water that usually isn’t even clean. That water is “free” in that they don’t pay for it — except in terms of their health, their children’s health and their economic opportunities.

If you could change one thing that would fix almost everything about water — from better environmental stewardship to getting water to people who don’t have it now — it would be price. We can afford a bit more for our remarkable water system. We’ll be in trouble if we let it slide into obsolescence.

Read more about keynote speaker Charles Fishman