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I am a water economist. AMA on water issues anywhere on earth, now or in the future!

Nov 11th 2014 by davidzet • 46 Questions • 2791 Points

Hi. I'm David Zetland -- redditor, water economist, author of Living with Water Scarcity and professor at Leiden University College in Den Haag, The Netherlands.

I'm here to answer any and all questions about water policy and economics, i.e., on topics such as groundwater depletion, drought and shortage, floods and storms, environmental flows, human rights, bottled water, fracking, dead rivers, big dams, privatization, meters, corruption, water in slums, etc. I've looked into water issues in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, China, India, France, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Australia, NZ, S Africa, Brazil, Peru, Iceland... Just ask... I have lots of opinions and quite a few facts :)

Proof via Twitter

Edit: I'm recommending my book because it's FREE TO DOWNLOAD

15:40 UTC: I'll be back in a few hours. Keep asking (and upvoting) Qs!

19:15 UTC: I'm taking a dinner break. Back in a few hrs.

  • Some reading: the difference between the price, cost and value of water
  • I don't work for Nestle. I'm a bad consultant b/c I don't tell clients what they want to hear. You can read my CV (PDF) if you want to see who's paid me.
  • Remember that there's a HUGE difference between "wholesale" water (ag, enviro, markets) and "retail" drinking water (utility, monopoly, regulations). I discuss these, as well as "economic vs social" water in Parts I and II of my book (yes, its free b/c my JOB is helping people understand these issues).

21:15 Ok, I'm going to respond to top-voted comments. Glad this is popular and I hope you're learning something useful (if only my opinion).

23:20 Sorry folks, I'm literally overwhelmed with questions. Please UPVOTE and I will go for the top ones in the morning (about 9 hrs)

Q:

What is your opinion on the bottled water industry?

A:

It's like the soft drink industry. Both need to worry about groundwater supplies and litter. Both promise quality and advertise WAY ahead of what they deliver.


Q:

Both promise quality and advertise WAY ahead of what they deliver.

Regarding the US specifically, I've heard that on the whole, bottled water is subject to more lax purity standards than municipal tap water, with the former being under FDA jurisdiction and the latter being under EPA jurisdiction. I'm sure this depends on the state and municipality, but have you found this to be generally true?

Source: ex-roommate works for the EPA inspecting municipal wastewater systems in the Northeast US.

A:

Two systems, but they DO cross check. The problem (as with USDA, FDA, et al) is lack of inspectors to enforce laws...


Q:

Unfortunately, that's not how it [Edit: i.e. "orthodox water management"] has happened in California, and that's why 80% of the water goes to agriculture though it is only 1% to 2% of GDP.

And of all of California's water, a full 10% goes to growing almonds (it takes 1 gallon of water to grow just one almond). 90% of the world's almonds are from California, and they're shipped around the world. The farmers who hold the senior water rights pay very little for it. Others keep drilling deeper and deeper wells, which cause the ground to sink.

And isn't it interesting that dairy farms in China buy hay grown in California to feed their cows - when we could ship dried milk and cheese from water-rich Pacific Northwest or the Midwest) to capture the entire value-add?

Or how about water-intensive rice growing that requires flooding? Why not grow rice in places like Thailand, where water is abundant?

And they tell ordinary residential users to conserve...

A:

CA water (like lots of water W of Miss) is allocated "first in time, first in right' which meant ag.

Your other observations are "right" in their perversity, but it's not obvious that ending ag rights would affect that (cities wouldn't increase use by 3-4x)

That said, the "save 20% of 2020" only applies to cities :-\


Q:

Is Fiji water actually different?

A:

I'm not in total agreement with other replies, so I'll just add that Fiji Water is nothing special, but VERY heavy in carbon footprint.

I've been to Fiji (and ALMOST talked to FW), and it's true that the people drink lower quality water (in cities)


Q:

Hello. I live in Manila, where the tab water is not as clean as in other countries, so we don't drink it. Do you know what it would take to make it drinking water, just in general? Also, any interesting water facts about the Philippines? We have loads of slums and corruption here, coupled with massive flooding and the biologically dead Pasig River flowing through town. As far as improving water quality is concerned, what would you say is the best way?

A:

Yep. Tough problems. Leaking pipes are the start, as they lose water and allow contaminants to get clean water (from the treatment plant) dirty. neighborhoods should look at small scale treatment for sale facilities (see photo with bottles here: http://www.aguanomics.com/2010/04/travelblog-indonesia-photos-i.html).

Corrupt people don't care about slums, so they need to take care of themselves. For drinking, you can use filters and chlorine, but it's MUCH better to have drinkable tap water for cooking, showering, etc.

Get your neighbors together. After you get 100, look into larger filters. After 1,000, you can build a larger system. They are affordable, even in slums, when shared among many...

ps: download my free book and read chapters 2 and 6.


Q:

What's the water situation in Yemen like? I've seen some reports (apart from the Houthi rebellion) that the water situation is terrible now, facing long lasting droughts.

A:

bad Bad BAD. No governance, water used for qat, nobody cares about future (wars, poverty, qat). Yemen was magic when I visited (1998), but now it's going back to sand. They will have to abandon Sana'a, I think -- or wait for 50 years (no irrigation) to refill aquifers.


Q:

Hello Dr. Zetland. I am a research scientist volunteering in Nepal for 6 months and I am transitioning my career to global health, specifically drinking water contamination. I am very interested in drug resistant gram-negative bacteria and the growing issue of co-selection of heavy metal/metalloid resistance and antibiotic resistance. There is some survey data that has described water supplies contaminated with arsenic seem to increasingly co-select drug resistance in gram-negative bacteria. This is likely due the selective pressure of arsenic and the genetic linkage of arsenic resistance genes and drug resistance genes on plasmids or other extra-chromosomal elements.

Now to my question, to do this work I need to get some seed funding. Do you have any suggestions about organizations that might be open to funding a small pilot study to get started?

A:

Wow. You're working on one of the "fear frontiers" and I hope you can update me later (guest blog post?). On funding, there are the usual gov't sources (NSF, DG R&I), but I'd recommend the major food companies (Coke, Pepsi, SAB Miller et al.) as their products depend on clean water. Some utilities (Singapore PUB; Israel's Merkot?) also fund research that they want to implement. There are MANY NGOs, but few are really into research.


Q:

If you've been keeping an eye on Ireland's recent implementation of water conservation and taxes.

  1. How do you feel about their method or way of introducing it?

  2. Would you have a better implementation of it than what is being proposed or done so far?

A:

I haven't followed the details, but lots of people will be upset to move from rates to volumetric pricing, especially if service is still crap.

I would have rolled it out gradually, with borrowing (not easy in IE) to pay for improvements and higher charges to REPAY those debts. This is the normal model that most of the world followed 50-100 years ago.

Gradually could have gone one community at a time, in an order determined by their vote in favor (or $$ committment), so that those in a hurry to get good service could go first.

There's also an ideological problem. Plenty of systems were build as a social service (like police or fire) not a service for hire (like phones), so some people object to that reverse in the "social contract."

I think it's better to move it to pay for service, but you've ALSO got to make sure the poor don't suffer, etc.

I have a related paper here: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2352674


Q:

The general consensus in Ireland is that this is a money making exercise, pushed upon the government to service bailout debts. And that the utility will be sold off to a private concern once it's properly up and running.

What are your thought on calls for a referendum to ensure that won't happen?

A:

Ow. Definitely possible.

The law can be amended so revenue is used for water services and privatization is off the table. Fine with me.


Q:

Sao Paulo/Brazil is going through the thoughest drought ever, having used almost all water from the nearby reservatories. What can you tell about it?

A:

Terrible problem (other places will go there too, e.g., using up ground water). I think it was caused by a combination of low preparedness, (too) low prices, and a poorly maintained and managed network. I think I read that 40+ percent leaks away.

The poor will probably suffer, but the rich will lose their lawns and pools. Hopefully, there will be a big move to improve management, but Brazil has LOTS of issues in that area. Best chance will be some cities get it together and show others how it's done.

More dams are not really the answer vs. demand management.

Got a link: 180 liters/capita/day and 40% leaks. Improve those #s and problem solved (for now)


Q:

I love this topic. Thanks for doing this AMA I'm a little out of loop on water issues, so if I may:

  1. Back in the 80s and 90s, "they" were saying that we'd run out drinkable water by 2020 or so. Do people in your circles think that?

  2. What's your take on undamming rivers to return them to their natural state and allow wildlife to use them freely versus farmers' water rights?

  3. In light of the recent droughts in the Southwest, what are viable options for the government to obtain drinking water for people if the reservoirs continue to dry out/not be replenished by the snowmelt? I've read various ideas but they all seem very expensive.

Thank you!

A:
  1. Nope. You can get as much as you want with $ (energy, equipment, pipes).
  2. I LOVE breaking down dams, but rights are tricky. I'd recommend reauthorizing dams IN EXCHANGE for energy companies ripping out other, obsolete dams (cap and trade), incl the cost of buying out farmers.
  3. Raise the price of water so people let their lawns die. Read Chps 1 & 2 of my book.

Q:

LOVE #3. Water is way too cheap in many areas.

And the problem isn't that the homeowners will get fleeced (you can implement a "stairstep" pricing regime based on usage), it's that the farmers will pay much more, and complain to their congressmen, and the reforms will come unravelled.

Why RICE is farmed in arid California completely dumbfounds me!!!

A:

it's farmed in clay soils on flood flows :)


Q:

There is a pretty severe drought right now in California and lots of places in the southwest US get droughts regularly. Which places in the US, if any, are at risk of becoming too dry to continue to inhabit or utilize agriculturally?

[edited for tense]

A:

Many places have avoided the impact of drought by "mining" groundwater to replace lower surface flows. (This includes the famous "Dust Bowl" states that were not tapping the Ogallala as much in the 20s/30s.) Those places are going to HIT THE WALL in the future, even with the same droughts, b/c their g/w will be gone. As usual, ag will get hit first (they cannot afford to pay so much), leaving cities like Phoenix and Vegas in the desert.


Q:

Thanks for the reply! That's what I'm worried about. What can normal citizens do to reduce the shock of a large ag center like California being completely without water?

A:

Normal citizens? Nada, really, as aggies run this show. The recent move to monitor/regulate groundwater is good, but implementation looks lame.

Water markets -- by putting a PRICE on water and allocating by VALUE -- will make it easier to identify who "needs" it more than others. Those markets are hard to implement (regulations, command and control, environment, end of taking for free) but better than the alternatives.

Put an emphasis on FLEXIBILITY. It's currently hard to sell water to neighbors in many places (different ag districts).

Check out my book to explore how "all the flows" interact :)


Q:

So if you had property in California...when would you sell?

What's the timeline for the bottom falling out on this market because of water?

A:

The bottom will NOT fall out of the market for most residential RE. farms will have problems and some suburbs. As others have said, CA will move to desal (or, better, recycled wastewater) and people will have smaller lawns.


Q:

I've heard that subsidies are distorting market incentives and encouraging people to grow water-intensive corn in regions where other crops would be more appropriate. Could you elaborate on what crops you think make a good fit in which parts of the US?

A:

ZERO subsidies for crops would result in better patterns and less mono cropping (it would ALSO result in more "garden" crops grown outside Cali.)

Farmers can figure stuff out (based on water, soil, markets), but subsidies push them all one way. Helps Agribiz, not small/smart farmers


Q:

What does California need to do to solve (both in the short-term and long-term) the drought/water shortages it is currently facing?

A:

(1) Raise the price of water so people don't have lawns in the desert (2) Protect groundwater and use aquifers (3) Allow water markets, so ag can reposition/shrink (4) STOP subsidizing sprawl (via cheap water)


Q:

Hi there!

I live in Melbourne, Australia and in the first decade of the new millennium, we went through a drought that rendered our water storage levels dangerously low. As a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, our government hastily spent BILLIONS of dollars building a desalination plant, because I guess they saw the possibility of our water reserves running dry. Shortly after construction of the plant had gone past the point of no return, we had record breaking rainfalls which basically filled our water storages, and continue to have very good rainfalls year on year. We are still paying money for our desalination plant via a water levy (tax), and will continue to pay it until we have completely paid off, which will be in about a decade or so, and the plant is yet to deliver us with a single drop of water.

My question is do you think that building the plant was a good idea back then, and do you think it is a good idea to have it for the future of Melbourne? Do you think in the foreseeable future we will ever turn it on?

A:

Good question. The plant is an insurance policy. You don't always need insurance... until you do.


Q:

Based on your knowledge of major trends, what will be the biggest changes we'll see over the next 20 years?

A:

Food chain disruption. Groundwater exhaustion. Dead ecosystems.

These will be black and white WTF situations in many places.


Q:

Based on your knowledge of major trends, what will be the biggest changes we'll see over the next 20 years?

A:

In answer to Qs below: * Global warming will make things worse. * population def pressing on resources, but environment much more (tragedy of commons) * energy has allowed us to move to places without water (Riyadh is extreme)


Q:

Is it okay to drink from the back of the toilet?

A:

Yes (it's usually drinking water) BUT the tank should be clean of crap.


Q:

In your opinion, will clean water scarcity lead to war? If so, how soon?

A:

I'm still leaning to no, mostly because it's cheaper to "make" water than fight a war and it's really easy to poison (the winner's) water. That said (as I discuss in Chp 9 of my book), there are plenty of leaders willing to sacrifice their army to get water for their friends. (Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan spring to mind, over the Aral Sea and irrigated cotton.)


Q:

I know there's issues with wasting freshwater and all that jazz, but in the states, even with our constant use and wasting of freshwater, will there be an issue for us in the future? I know there are areas in the states that have droughts all the time, but the "wetter" regions. Where I live, wastewater and street is cycled back into the river and then treated for home use. So to me, there seems to be no issue, but is there something I'm not seeing?

A:

You may be right. Issues to consider: falling quality (birth control gets past drinking water filters, etc.), lack of $ for system repairs, HUGE impacts from climate change (floods, drought). Nobody thought Atlanta (or London) would suffer shortage...


Q:

How do you feel about the trash "islands" around the oceans?

What might you think would be a solution for this mess down the road?

A:

Very annoyed.

I want a deposit on plastic bottles, bags, etc. to pay for cleanup costs.

Cleaning the ocean is VERY expensive.


Q:

Are Nestle really evil and stealing all of our water to sell back to us in the future at ridiculous prices? This might sound like a stupid question, but I see it so often on here that it's starting to worry me.

A:

No. There's a BIG anti-capitalism movement and Nestle is a bug bear. If they "took it" governments could take it back.

I'd worry MUCH more about the government making wrong policies...


Q:

It's not just an anti-capitalism movement. It's an ethical issue of privatisation of natural resources necessary for life, and nestle has been front and centre to making the poor pay for a resource they've always been able to freely access and that no one had traditionally owned.

A:

You have it wrong. Nestle sells bottled water. The poor lack DRINKING water from utilities (private or public)


Q:

Why aren't countries, particularly the US, pushing for water conservation measures such as gray water systems in homes? What will it take for these measures to be implemented?

I can't believe my toilet still flushes with fresh water!

A:

Short answer: dual (purple) pipe systems are VERY expensive (ripped up streets). It WOULD be nice to ease restrictions on in-home re-use, but the public safety people (yeah, I know) tend to freak out. I recall that California had 99.98% illegal systems (there were less than 10 legal) before they reformed the regs. So... go get a change in rules at your city council (or just run a pipe from the roof gutter to your toilet tank -- but careful about overflow!)


Q:

Do you think that solar powered water evaporation and other techniques to get water will play a prevalent role in the future?

What do you think about moisture farming on Tatooine?

A:

Nope. Far too energy intensive (vs. rain collection).

Id' rather live in Portland than Tatooine. Even people in the Sahara live in oases. That said, the Saudis (et al.) use massive energy to live in the desert. Totally risky/unsustainable.


Q:

How does one get into studying the economy of water?

A:
  1. Read my book.
  2. If still interested, then find a water issue that interests you.
  3. Study that (or work in the area).
  4. ???
  5. AMA!

Q:

Is there any realistic way or filtering saltwater for drinking purposes? At what point would it become worthwhile to do it despite the cost?

A:

Sure. It's desalination, which people have done for centuries. The cost has fallen as techniques have shifted from heat to physical filters, but it's still the most expensive way to get drinking water. Cost is about $1/m3 (not including cost of getting it to your tap), but the energy (and environmental) costs can be larger. It will become worthwhile when benefits are large enough (e.g,. start with submarines, go to cruise ships, then islands, etc.). Some countries do desal for agricultural irrigation.


Q:

Hi. I'm curious. Which country has the largest supply of groundwater?

A:

FAO keeps data on water resources (http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4473e/y4473e08.htm). Aquastat (http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/data/query/index.html?lang=en) doesn't necessarily separate groundwater (because it DOES connect to surface water), but it's also VERY hard to know how much groundwater is there, in terms of quantity, quality or accessibility.


Q:

If we are new to the subject, but want to donate time or money in the future, what water issues and developments are the most promising and realistic to solve in the near future?

A:

Time: get to know your local water managers.

Money: I'm not a fan of charitable water projects, but there are some that put a LOT of effort into helping communities get a supply AND maintain it. Read up. Be skeptical.

Promising: Utilities need to open to customers. They also need to work on demand (customer service) instead of supply (more dams).

Read my book (108 pages) and then consider how Uber disrupted taxis. Do THAT for water...


Q:

Where did the water go?

I understand that mankind has polluted water and made is undrinkable but the water isn't destroyed. Polluted water along with salt water can be distilled so it isn't like it has been removed from our continued use.

I also understand that water isn't necessarily in the most convenient place for where we have chosen to live but we build trans-border oil and gas pipelines, why don't we do the same for water?

Thanks for doing this AMA, I missed the last one.

A:

ITT, I've said that it's expensive to MOVE water. It's also expensive (energy, capital) to treat it. LOTS of g/w is being mined and then ends up in the ocean. Reversing that process is $$$.

We're going to pay more to get less.


Q:

Why is coca cola cheaper than water in USA?

A:

Price discrimination: Anyone foolish enough to mistrust tap water will pay a lot for bottled water.

(Or marketing, rebates, etc.)


Q:

Hey David, any thoughts on the Georgia/Florida water wars?

A:

"Get your house in order"

Both states have terrible water management. Now they are fighting to take other water instead of improving management. If I was in DC, I'd cut off both until they get their act together. I'd also reserve water for the ACT, which benefits MANY people and plays a more important role than lawns.


Q:

Is there a situation where water shortage will benefit specific companies in terms of profit? What companies stand to benefit? Both in terms of selling new technology and profiteering on the water scarcity.

A:

Yes, bottled water companies can sell water when city supplies go (Katrina) or when the gov't is incompetent (India, et al.). I'm a big fan of competition (on quality) between utilities and bottled water companies, but both sides dislike those comparisons.

On scarcity, you will have companies selling good ideas (low flow showerheads) and crap (water from air), but "profiteering" isn't the word I'd use -- unless they put a hole in the pipe.

The best protection for consumers (citizens) is to make sure water managers are doing their job. Chp 6 in my book goes into this, big time.


Q:

In countries where you have been, can you tell an experience on how communities deal with water shortage that is inspiring, and which news solutions for water shortage you get excited about to see spread around the world?

A:

Good question. Plenty of countries (communities) have lived with scarcity for centuries, mostly by sharing the burden and conserving their resources (7 years of fat, 7 of famine). I'm impressed by Singapore's technocratic devotion to managing their water. Much of the Middle East used to conserve resources (qanats in Iran, etc.), but many have gone for over-exploitation using cheap energy. I think the Australians have also done a good job with urban changes in habits and ag markets for water, as means of coping. They were against the wall (10 year drought) and changed. yes, they spent a lot on desalination plants, but mostly decent responses.

Solutions: markets for ag water (C5 in my book) and higher prices for urban water (Israel, Singapore, et al.)


Q:

I recently watched last call at the oasis. What do you think of the vegas water supply and the depletion of the Hoover dam?

A:

Vegas has made a one-way bet on growth attracting water. Their best hope is markets that allow them to buy water from other basin users. They are irresponsible for selling water so cheap.

Read this and this


Q:

how likely is worldwide water privatization by big companies like nestle etc, and how far off could that be?

A:

Impossible. There are 50,000+ utilities in the US, "only" 20 in the UK. FAR FEWER energy companies and those are pvt and public. ALL are regulated by govt that can take them over. China? Russia? Water is often poliitcal and the most corrupt gov'ts will never privatize, since they can steal far more.

Further, there's very little $ to make off tap water. It's a utility after all.

As I've said before, WATCH THE REGULATORS if you're worried about Nestle, the poor, corruption, etc.


Q:

Should I start hoarding water and if so when can I expect to get rich from it?

A:

Hahaha... Not unless you have an alpine reservoir. It's REALLY expensive to store, but "water banks" do make good money saving winter water for summer irrigation.

Watch out: government may seize it "in the public interest"


Q:

Can you comment on the impact of the privatization of water? The movie, "Tambien la Lluvia," did a great job illustrating the water war in Bolivia.

A:

The real problem is NOT privatization but poor regulation.

This post discusses the public-private-public failure in Cochabamba


Q:

What's the best charity to support for giving people drinking water?

A:

Look for one that builds local projects that locals want and locals run

More thoughts


Q:

What are the cutting-edge technologies that will influence the way we approach water conservation/consumption in the next 10 years?

A:

Desalination is always getting better but it's no silver bullet.

My bet's on handheld quality testers. I'd pay $100 to plug one into my smart phone and test water in my glass. $Billion.

On the policy side, it's going to be a move to scarcity-based pricing. We cannot continue to price water at cost of delivery (i.e., water is free). Check my book for more ideas...


Q:

Will the Keystone Pipeline potentially spoil the groundwater?

A:

Nope. Easy to monitor spills. Easy to fine them $$$ for spills.

Read this


Q:

Hey! I'm a student at Georgia Tech and am just getting started on a project related to conserving resources in agriculture, particularly water. Could you provide some insight into this issue? I don't like being vague, but I would just like to know what you think about it.

A:

Farmers will use less water when it costs more, i.e., extraction charges OR option to sell to other farmers or cities. Farmers are VERY smart, and they will often take conservation $ and use it to spread same water on more crops.

Read Chp 5, on water markets, ag, etc.


Q:

is there any way that clean water could be accessible for everyone in the world?

A:

Tough question. There are many examples of people suffering due to corruption, poor management, lack of property rights, etc.

Incentives matter: Compare clean water to mobile phones