Water is scarce. So why is it underpriced?

A drinking fountain in Rome. Image: Getty.

In the summer of 2017, for the first time in 2,000 years, Rome shut off its public water fountains. 

Since the first aqueduct transported water to public fountains at the ancient city’s cattle market, there has always been water to supply Rome’s fountains. Through centuries of wars, conflicts, revolutions and other human and natural catastrophes, the tradition of free fountain water in Rome has continued uninterrupted, until the devastating 2017 drought.  With farmers in the surrounding countryside facing over one million euros in agricultural damages, city authorities decided to stop the flow of water to Rome’s 2,800 public fountains.

The tradeoff that Rome faced – water for its fountains versus averting a catastrophic drought for farmers – is likely to occur again, as agricultural, municipal and industrial uses of water arise and climate change makes dwindling supplies even more variable. 

But this dilemma isn’t limited to Rome. For the entire globe, the era of plentiful water appears to be over.

Every year, water shortages affect more than one-third of the world’s population – around 2.5 billion people.  By 2030, water scarcity may displace as many as 700 million people worldwide. By 2050, more than half of the global population – and about half of global grain production – will be at risk due to water stress.

If water is valuable and scarce, why is it so poorly managed?

The problem is that our policies and institutions for managing water were developed when the resource was abundant, not scarce.  We continue to exploit freshwater as if it were limitless.

To find a way beyond this impasse, we must put an end to policies that underprice water and allow it to be used as if it was a plentiful resource. There are two approaches that could make a significant difference.


First we must allow markets for trading water to flourish.  Throughout the world, the predominant use of water is for irrigated agriculture, around 80% of all water withdrawals.  Yet, the fastest growing demands for water are for urban residential, commercial and industrial use. Because people in cities have less water, they are willing to pay much more for it than what it costs farmers to water their crops or pastures.

Through water markets, farmers could sell any excess water to other users, allowing both parties to gain. Urban users are able to pay lower prices and increase consumption. Farmers would have another revenue source, and because their water is now more valuable, they will squander less and conserve more.

Already, many regions and localities are experimenting with various water trading schemes.  In some places, farmers sell all or part of their water rights; in others, they lease their water over one or multiple years. 

One promising development is water “banks”.  Like regular banks, farmers deposit their excess water, including “savings” from conservation, and can subsequently draw down these deposits during future droughts.  Alternatively, farmers can sell or lease some or all of their water deposits to other users. Environmental and recreational groups also pay to keep the deposits in rivers, lakes and streams, thus preserving valuable habitats.

Second, we must stop subsidizing water and sanitation services for residential, commercial and industrial users. Current prices charged rarely cover the full costs of these services.  Governments typically pay for most if not all of the investment costs, and often subsidize the operating costs.  Any environmental damages are usually settled through costly litigation.

Ending the underpricing of water and sanitation services could improve cost recovery and lead to greater conservation by users.  A fixed service charge could pay for the costs of operating and maintaining the water system.  A two-tier block rate charge for households would increase water conservation while protecting low-households from the burden of water pricing. 

Since poorer households use less water, typically less than 20 cubic meters of water per month, the price for this first “block” of water could be kept very low.  However, for monthly water use that exceeds 20 cubic meters, the price would be set much higher.

Finally, some of the revenues earned by local utilities and governments could finance the adoption of water-saving technologies and domestic appliances by households through discounts and rebates.  Additional programs could be targeted to low-income families, who would otherwise find it difficult to pay for new appliances or repair faulty plumbing.

Creating water markets and ending the underpricing of services are just two of many ways in which we can manage the rising scarcity of water to meet new and growing demands.  Otherwise, we may find tradeoffs like that in Rome an increasingly frequent occurrence.

Edward Barbier is a professor in the Department of Economics, Colorado State University, and the author of The Water Paradox, out now from Yale Books.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.