Rationing water in a thirstier world

The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future – but “lacks the political will”.

Women carry metal pitchers containing drinking water to their homes at Merta district in Rajasthan
"Rationing cannot help when the community water supply is wholly inadequate," writes Stan Cox [Reuters]

The right to water and sanitation is recognised in international law, but it is often left up to each local community’s initiative to secure that right. And a village in the Thar Desert of western India has recently been singled out by The Hindu newspaper for its exemplary water rationing system: 

In Kalyanpur village of Barmer, one of the most parched and barren districts of Rajasthan, the villagers have found a solution to their water woes in water rationing. There are no fights over water distribution, no quarrels over breaking the queues or attempts at snatching other people’s share of water… [the village’s well] is a blessing in the barren zone for its water is very sweet and light, devoid of fluoride or other contaminations … [A steering committee has] laid down rules after assessing needs of the 1,100 families in Kalyanpur, said Loon Chand, secretary of the committee. The [well] was constructed through public participation and the water rationing system also is being run successfully by the committee.  

Each family’s share is about 4,000 litres per month. That is barely enough water to sustain a family of four or five according to international standards, but the people of Kalyanpur could not consume more than that without depleting their one well. So they are making it work. 

Meanwhile, 900 kilometres away in the megacity of Mumbai, residents of a slum known as Kadam Chawl have developed their own urban-style water rationing system. Because their single municipal tap runs for only 20-30 minutes each evening, the chawl’s residents have devised a well-choreographed rationing system in which all women and men gather at the tap 365 evenings a year to fill and quickly haul numerous large water pots to all homes. 

When water becomes scarce, whether in the global South or North, rationing happens. Experience and research have shown that urging voluntary reductions in consumption is of little value, while raising prices to reduce demand is cruel and unworkable. In contrast, mandatory rules for restrained but equitable water consumption tend to foster a sense of common purpose in the face of scarcity. 

Efficiency against fairness 

In many cities around the globe, residential water supplies are routinely restricted to certain hours of the day. But the past year has seen a global outbreak of emergency water rationing in the face of sudden, extraordinary scarcity. In a diverse group of countries, including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, a wide variety of rationing plans have had to be put into practice. Rationing has even become necessary in normally moist, green places, most prominently the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand. 

But rationing cannot help when the community water supply is wholly inadequate. That is the case in many slum areas of Mumbai and other cities, where family members must trek several kilometres to purchase water from bootleggers by the one-litre plastic pouch. Those customers pay five to 10 times the price that middle-class or affluent families pay for their piped-in water. We may find those bootleggers contemptible, but in their own defence they would argue, correctly, that they are putting free-market principles into practice, simply responding to signals from the market. 

Any economist can show you how the most efficient method of allocating water works out to be “marginal cost pricing”, under which the first litre per week or month is the most expensive and the cost falls as consumption rises. That, of course, penalises low-income households and rewards heavy consumption. Therefore, many municipalities, from Durban to Las Vegas, have turned marginal cost pricing on its head. Under what are called increasing block tariffsystems, each household has a monthly right to an initial “block” of that is free or very cheap, with the price escalating sharply for subsequent blocks. 

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But there will always be a wide gap between what it costs to provide municipal water and what many urban dwellers can afford to pay for it. Even fairer pricing cannot guarantee the right to water when the system is expected to fund itself fully through fees or even to turn a profit if privatised. The situation is aggravated when lavish consumption is permitted in affluent areas while other areas suffer inadequate service. Treating water as a market commodity almost inevitably leads to conflict

Going to the source 

A whopping 86 percent of the world’s total fresh water consumption is accounted for by production of food, fibre and other agricultural products, and 9 percent is attributable to industrial production. Although a scant 5 percent of the footprint is residential water use, it is in the domestic supply where shortages are felt most immediately and most intensely by the majority of people. Often, rationing is necessary. 

In many situations, the trigger for rationing has been much more complex than chronic drought or high population density. Thanks to greenhouse emissions, local climates are becoming increasingly fickle. The severe shortages that hit Dublin in late March can be traced to Europe’s recent stretch of frigid weather, which froze pipes and caused leaks throughout the municipal water system. Early this month, water rationing in cities of northern and southern Taiwan – a policy made necessary by alarming drops in reservoir levels – coincided with heavy rains that cause flooding and landslides near the centre of the island. 

Beyond climate disruption, a much wider variety of events and conditions can disrupt the flow. Headlong economic growth in Pune, India, and rapid industrial development in Moshi, Tanzania, are creating a need for water rationing in those cities. Mining of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing requires huge quantities of water, and it is competing with more immediate needs in the Midland-Odessa region of Texas – a place where strict water rationing has already been in place for years. The Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River has boosted water supplies in some areas, but it has forced other, downstream towns and cities to ration. Water-stressed Pakistan has similar concerns about India’s plans to continue building dams upstream on the Indus and other rivers. 

Left alone, Palestine’s West Bank would have ample reserves of renewable groundwater; however, neighbouring Israel’s heavy extraction of water resources from lower western edge of the West Bank’s massive aquifer and from the northern and eastern borders of Gaza – along with its policy of forbidding well-drilling by Palestinians – has created an artificial scarcity that makes tight rationing necessary in the cities and villages of the occupied territories. Israel uses that pilfered water to maintain its high per-capita water consumption (which equals that of Australia or Denmark), while the average West Bank resident’s daily ration is only 50 litres per day, and many get by on barely 20 – perilously close to the minimum supply required simply for bare survival. 

Talk of looming worldwide conflict over water resources has been going on for years. But it is often conflict itself – state versus state, class versus class, and, increasingly, humanity versus nature – that triggers water scarcity in the first place. The only long-term solution is to resolve such conflicts, to ensure that every community has an adequate water supply. But even then, as in Kalyanpur village, resources may not be bountiful, and rationing by some means other than ability-to-pay will be necessary.   

If we cannot manage to conserve and share water fairly, there is little chance that we will manage share other resources fairly. Enforcing the right to water is, or at least should be, less complex and contentious than ensuring rights to, say, energy, food, or medical care. As Maude Barlow concluded in her 2007 book Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, “If ever there was a time for a plan of conservation and water justice to deal with the twin water crises of scarcity and inequity, now is that time. The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will.”   

Stan Cox’s book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, will be published by The New Press.