A Costly Thirst
Friday, April 4, 2008
By Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent
Slum-dwellers in Dar es Salaam pay the equivalent of ?4 ($8, ?5) for 1,000 litres of water, bought over time and by the canister. In the same Tanzanian city, wealthier households connected to the municipal supply receive that amount for just 17p. In the UK, the same volume of tap water costs 81p and in the US it is as low as 34p.
Figures from other countries confirm the evidence: it is generally the poorest who pay most for what is one of the most essential of all natural resources. Water is in short supply for a large proportion of the world’s people: about 1bn lack access to clean water and 2.6bn have no sanitation. An estimated 5,000 children die every day from water-related disease, according to WaterAid, the London-based charity.
If the number of people lacking safe drinking water were halved, at a cost of about $10bn, the world would benefit by $38bn in annual economic growth, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Disputes over water rights can, the UNDP argues, lead to conflicts – such as in Darfur.
Yet, as each shower of rain serves to remind, water is just about the most renewable natural resource. The problem is its distribution – not only the climatological patterns that leave some places parched while others flood but also the way societies manage their water resources.
The question is how to put a fair price on water. In some of the same countries where poor people lack access to clean water, others waste the resource because their supply is subsidised by the government or is otherwise priced so low that they have no incentive to save it.
This is hardly a problem confined to the developing world. Farmers in Spain are estimated to pay a price for water that is only about 2 per cent of its real cost. Rice and wheat farmers in California’s central valley use one-fifth of the state’s water but the low prices they pay represent a yearly subsidy estimated at $416m for 2006.
“Water is absolutely not fairly priced or realistically priced. Therefore people are using water as if it is a resource that will be free of charge forever. That is the reason we are running out of water,” says Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (pictured below), chief executive of Nestl?, the foods group. He warns of an impending crisis in which businesses will struggle to find the water they need and will be forced to pay much higher prices for it, if more is not done to conserve the resource and distribute it more rationally.