Lessons from the History of Drinking Water

Brent Fewell and I had the pleasure of participating in an interesting program on December 16th observing the 39th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act sponsored by our friend, Ben Grumbles and the U.S. Water Alliance.  Full disclosure:  Brent and I serve on its board.

The featured speaker was professor James Salzman of Duke School of Law and Nicholas Institute’s School of the Environment.  Jim is also the author of a great book, Drinking Water:   A History (2012) (now available in paperback). I have previously reviewed the book.  The review is here.

I recommend this short yet comprehensive volume which covers the social, cultural, political, technical, financial and health aspects of drinking water in an accessible and sound way.  Water, it seems, encompasses elements of a commodity, a sacramental, a resource, religion, and mysticism. Economics are a very real part of its capture, treatment, delivery, and disposal or reuse.

The widely differeing views of water are embodied in two different international pronouncement. The Cochabamba Declaration states, categorically, that water can never be commoditized or subject to privatization or even public-private partnerships to finance it. One wonders if the drafters translate the right to water into a complete freebie.

The Dublin Declaration, on the other hand, recognizes the need to price water adequately both for purposes of encouraging stewardship and financing necessary infrastructure without which poor people the world over are left to the tender mercies of water vendors who charge 20-25 times the normal utility rates for water.  All of this gets wrapped up in the debate over globalization.

Jim Salzman, citing the Romans, views the debate as often posing false choices.  Water is a necessary thing, and people have a right to a basic amount of water for their needs.  But beyond that, water needs to be priced accurately.  In the Roman empire, there was free water in the public square. But once you desired a connection into your home for baths, fountains, etc, you had to pay for it.

From this I conclude that water utilities need to provide Lifeline rates, subsidies, etc., for poor people. But the rest of us must pay. In sum, water rates that are too low most likely subsidize wealthy people with swimming pools, big lawns, sprinkler systems, etc. Read the book and see what you think.

2 Comments
  1. Brent Fewell 4 years ago

    Tracy, great and informative event it was. Jim Salzman’s exposition on the history of water is a great piece of work, and shines light on the complexity of the social issues and compact between government and the citizenry to provide basic life-sustaining goods and services. While water is free, the costs of treating and delivering it isn’t, and someone must pay for those costs. While we in the US subsidize food for the poor at the cost of $80B each year in food stamps, there is no such comparable provision for water. Society has a responsibility to help care for the poor, and this goes for water as well. I’m proud that my company, United Water, has a strong commitment to helping those who need a helping hand. http://www.unitedwater.com/uploadedFiles/Corporate_Content/40/UN%20OHCHR%20Letter%20March%202010.pdf

  2. Rick 4 years ago

    Tracy – If we go down the path of providing low income subsidies, I’d prefer the subsidy be made explicit and transparent on any user bills and such documents as annual financial reports produced by the water company/utility. The mechanism by which the subsidy funds are generated and distributed should be equally explicit and transparent to the public and those paying for the subsidy. None of this ‘hide the ball’ approach to most income transfers.

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