Water – a Shortage? Hmmm...

They say there’s a shortage, then they charge such a low price that there’s no incentive to keep consumption down. If they want people to cut down their consumption, all they have to do is increase the price. That’s supply and demand, surely what capitalism is all about?

But what about the poor people who don’t have enough money to pay for the amount of water they actually need, at a market price? What indeed. Doesn’t that argument apply equally to all the necessities of life? Surely the answer there is to increase benefits to cover the increased costs?

And then again, aren’t the water companies making excessive profits already? They are in the wonderful position of having watertight local monopolies. The reason the price of water is low is that the cost of collecting and distributing it is low. All very true, but that’s capitalism for you. Capitalism with a monopoly, providing an essential public service? Yes, that rankles with me, too.

Is there really a shortage anyway? Nearly as much water falls on your garden and roof as comes out of your taps, if you’re a typical British household*. The total amount of water that falls as rain on London is only about the same as the total amount supplied through the pipes, but big cities depend on the surrounding countryside for everything, not just for water. Having to pipe water in from surrounding areas shouldn’t be such a big deal. So it’s not really water that there’s a shortage of – it’s the infrastructure for collecting, storing, purifying† and distributing it. (That’s in Britain, and many other places, but there are parts of the world where it certainly doesn’t apply!)

Let them spend some of their excessive profits building new infrastructure, and let them stop bleating about droughts and water shortages. If they really can’t afford to build the infrastructure that’s needed, let them increase prices to pay for it. If that hurts the poor, increase their benefits to cover the costs.

But can they afford to build the infrastructure anyway? I very strongly suspect they can, really. In fact, I reckon that the least we can expect of organizations that have monopolies like theirs is that their accounts, in full detail, should be open to public scrutiny. (That really is the least we should expect – they should ideally be taken back into public ownership. See Renationalization.)

I for one won’t listen to their bleating.

* See Water: the Numbers

† Think about the economics – and environmental impact – of that purification part of the process. Are we really wasting an awful lot of resources purifying a lot of water that’s used for flushing loos or watering gardens, not to mention golf courses? Are the economics of scale really so great that it’s better to purify it all, than to deliver it less pure, and purify a small proportion locally, for drinking, cooking, and tooth cleaning? Perhaps they are, I’m not prejudging the issue. Would it even be sensible to have parallel pipework for low purity water and high purity water? My suspicion is that that would probably be worthwhile in areas of high population density. You might even have three grades: loo flushing and garden watering grade, bathing grade, and drinking grade.
What I don’t believe is that delivering pure water in bottles makes any kind of sense at all. A litre of tap water: about 0.1p; bottled water: anything from about 25p to £1 or more. Okay, that’s mostly profit – but even if you cut out all the profit, it’s still a frightfully inefficient method of distribution.