Free markets succeed in water, legal or not

Jack Flobeck Published: December 15, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Lest we forget the facts and overlook the logic in our water discussions, we are obligated to start at the very beginning with the known realities: that there will be 2 billion more thirsty souls on earth in 2050. We now have available to society tons of unused water even though these quantities reflect inherent restrictions on their availability, like the water frozen at the North and South Poles, like the salty water in vast oceans all across the globe, and like the monsoons of water available in Asia every spring, never controlled nor conserved, simply lost in floods downriver.

An absolutely spectacular water-saving solution, but one certainly politically incorrect and surely bound to be unpopular would be the relocation of most sub-Saharan African peoples and Asians subject to droughts; to the North or South Poles where they would enjoy limitless water, perfect sanitation; surely with very few tse tse flies or malarial mosquitoes.

We have examined economic theories such as the "tragedy of the commons," Malthus, Adam Smith, supply & demand, as well as the definition of free markets; so we can now plow forward to examine how all those jigsaw pieces answer global quandaries.

First, we are not going to perish from a population explosion, and our answers will not lie in conservation alone, because we can't conserve our way out of droughts. Preventive measures, forward thinking, and technological innovation will create and provide our salvation.

So why not capture the rainwater before it swells the rivers? Why not divert the swollen streams before they inundate the countryside? Why not reuse, reuse, and reuse the precious water already under our control? Why not have unfettered markets for the sale of water?

Government bureaucracy certainly isn't the answer. Consider when Russia decided to provide more water for cotton farmers in the 1950s and diverted the two largest rivers in that part of Asia. Results, as expected, were that the Aral Sea became 66 percent dried up, people began dying from diseases now found in the rivers, and most of fish in both the rivers and the lake, died from excessive salt in the water. The Aral Sea is now a dry wasteland, well documented in photos in magazines like National Geographic.

Central to any water solution is the requirement to overcome the twin drawbacks of recurrent pollution and continuing leakage in delivery systems. Bureaucracies excel at failure in these two areas, as the bureaucrats borrow beautifully, overspend magnificently, and are more concerned with the next election results, rather than with successful outcomes. Most Asian cities have water system pipes leaking more than 50 percent of the time, and the reliability of government water supply is most dramatically illustrated when ones reads, "Water will be delivered between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Thursday." Who could win election in the U.S. with that performance?

When research institutions and the U.N. cite that over 50 percent of the water drawn from earth to irrigate farms is lost, it's an unacceptable outcome; considering that the arid desert dwellers of Israel have scant supply, but use every drip and drop in scientific and miserly systems.

Dramatic action is required to preserve reasonable water rights, while simultaneously encouraging free trading of water at its real market price.

Water trading was illegal in Chile 30 years ago, where water was available to only 27 percent of rural and 63 percent of city folks; but necessity proved to be the mother of invention, and "informal" trading began. Now with approved and legal trading; water seeks its fair price, and 94 percent of rural and 98 percent of urban dwellers have water . all at lower prices.

Water was, is, and forever will be priceless and timeless; and like ol' man river will "keep rollin' along." While droughts persist, the most ancient Euphrates is bone-dry in places, places wide enough for armies to gallop across, having deep meaning for readers of some great books; that ol' man water keeps rollin' along, constantly seeking its own level, but forever reaching for its true price.

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