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The economics of water

Jess Varela



No human being can exist without water. In 2010, the United Nations declared access to water and sanitation is a human right. Despite such statement, how do we ensure that every person has access to drinkable water when drinkable water is a finite source?

The Earth contains 326 million trillion gallons of water, 97 percent of which is comprised of salty water that is undrinkable in its raw form, 2 percent is trapped in ice and the remaining one percent is what the entire world uses as drinkable water. These forms of water, if not maintained in a dam, are drawn from aquifers. Aquifers are deposits of water that took millennia to build underground and thus need to be dug through in order to access it.

“ According to a study conducted by University of the Philippines in 2013, most of our water supply from these aquifers may be depleted by 2050.

The current practice is that we draw as much water from these aquifers as we want to supply the needs of our citizenry, but there are consequences. Some of the negative effects of ground water depletion include the high cost of pumping water, reduction of water in streams and lakes, the sinking of land and, worse, the inability to pump as aquifers run totally dry. If the aquifer was indeed to be pumped out of all its water, studies indicate that a portion of the ground would become so condensed and compacted that no water may seep through it again, and we lose a catch basin for most of our water supply. According to a study conducted by University of the Philippines in 2013, most of our water supply from these aquifers may be depleted by 2050. There is no greater evidence of the water supply running dry than the experience Metro Manila faced with the recent water shortage that Filipinos were subjected to.

In Capetown, South Africa, a Day Zero for March 2018 was called by government. Day zero referred to the shutdown of water distribution and rationing would have taken effect.

Drastic measures were taken to conserve water with the citizenry doing its part. Day Zero was moved to August. The sacrifices and correct use of water showed that their water reserves have improved dramatically with government declaring the indefinite suspension of Day Zero by 2019.

How are these waters used by the public that we are about to deplete our own water supply? According to the study concluded by the World Bank in 2018 only 8 percent of that 1 percent usable drinking water is for personal use, such as showering, drinking, washing and the like. A total of 70 percent is used for agricultural purposes and the remaining 22 percent for industrial purposes. The true value is not reflected by what should be the cost of water if it was treated as a special and finite resource.

An example of which is the production of burgers. Alfalfa, which is a key ingredient in making animal feeds, takes 510 liters of water to produce a kilogram and in turn a cow will eat 12 kilograms a day of feeds made from said alfalfa. Yet a quarter-pounder burger will go on average for P120 only, despite all the water used to make such.

How do we address this problem? Well there are two factors to focus on if one is to apply the true cost of water and the other is for government intervention.

To add the true value of water in agricultural products may compel those engaged in agricultural production to apply a sounder cost benefit approach. Adding cost to water may also be a bitter pill to swallow as the cost of food may surge. An agricultural roadmap, however, may be put together where producers may concentrate on cost-effective measures, such as new technologies on irrigation that will not necessitate the flooding of an agricultural field.

As to government intervention, there are technically two laws that can help manage this crisis, the first being the Disaster Risk and Reduction and Management Law and the Climate Change Law. These laws have been created to organize councils that will help manage problems like these.

The problem with the depletion of water from the aquifers is actually a mismanagement problem of the supply. Concessionaires for water distribution also always should be ready to nudge government to be on board in seeking solutions to problems and government must continuously crack the whip to ensure that the concessionaires are performing their given roles. After all, their books indicate an enviable FS and hefty returns.

In Barcelona, the government has invested in the technological means to recharge or refill their aquifers in times when the supply of water is plentiful, so when the water supply becomes limited, there is an aquifer to draw from. This does not solve the problems of wastage of water but it allows the government to take charge of the situation and manage the problem before our cities are left out to dry.

Meanwhile, there is no better solution than reeducating the populace about the importance of water conservation.