The global water crisis is an illusion. It is a distracting illusion that often gets in the way of solving the real water problems that plague 40 percent of the people in the world. Journalists and activists talk more and more about this “crisis” as if the water problems of Delhi and Bangkok, of Atlanta and Las Vegas and Mexico City, were all part of a sweeping set of interrelated issues, like the global recession. With water, that’s a mistake, and not just one of semantics.
Water problems are different. Almost all of them are local or regional. They are the result of poor water management or poor water understanding, environmental issues or soaring economic growth, right where the problems are happening. And the solutions are local and regional as well. We can solve our own water problems, almost anywhere we live. No one else can solve them, nor is anyone else likely to. When you realize that, it changes your sense of urgency, and your sense of how much power you have over them.
I found an illustration of this in a neighborhood of Delhi, India, called Rangpuri Pahadi, home to 600 families – about 3,500 people amid Delhi’s sprawl of 21 million. A few years ago, they reached the limit of their patience with the way they got their water. The people in Rangpuri Pahadi were fed up. Although they were living in the heart of a thriving, modern metropolis near Indira Gandhi International Airport, they had no water service. Every day, several members of each family had to stand in line, surrounded by buckets and water containers, at a public spigot. That spigot was dry 22 or 23 hours a day. The water was turned on for an hour or two, at unreliable times. You had to be in line waiting for that water, whether it came at four in the morning or one in the afternoon. If that was inconvenient – preventing children from going to school, preventing adults from holding jobs – too bad. If you weren’t in line, you and your family got no water that day.
The people of Rangpuri Pahadi push forward with their lives on the most modest of incomes. A family with three members working might bring in US$100 a month. Yet in their frustration, these people pooled their resources and, with some local advice, solved their own water problem. They collected enough money to have two wells drilled. They purchased a 530-gallon water storage tank, and stacks of small metal piping that looks like electrical conduit.
Right in their small settlement, where the homes are little more than cobbled-together shacks, they created a water utility. Families who want water delivered by pipe to their homes can sign up for 30 minutes or 60 minutes a day, at a predictable time that works for them. Two people from the neighborhood staff the water system. The families who “subscribe” to the service – 500 of the 600 do – pay the equivalent of either $2.50 or $5.00 a month.
And they are thrilled. “This saves standing in line at the hand pump,” said Bhawan Devi, who is on the board that oversees the water utility. “That was at least an hour a day, which meant you often couldn’t get a job with regular hours. That’s why people are willing to pay to get water.”
The story of Rangpuri Pahadi is a small success, but it’s a crucial and revealing parable. The people are among the most economically and politically powerless in the world. But many of them work in the upper-class homes and businesses of Delhi, so they are fully aware of what kind of water service is possible. And so with a little energy and a little advice, and with resources they managed to gather themselves, they solved their own water problem.
Not so free
Perhaps most important of all, the people of Rangpuri Pahadi know three things that people with easy access to water don’t. They know that whether or not water is a “human right,” declaring it a right doesn’t get anyone a glass of water. They know the true economic value of clean, safe, reliable water. And Bhawan Devi and her neighbors know that “free” water is often expensive.
The water from the public standpipe was, in fact, free, at least in the sense that no one had to lay out rupees to receive it. And the water that residents get now is, in Western terms, expensive. A family spends either one or two full days of wages on water each month. For a U.S. family with an average household income of $50,000 a year, that would be a monthly water bill of $140 or $280.
And yet people living with much less economic flexibility than we have gave themselves that kind of water bill, because spending a day or two’s wages on water liberated their entire families. Kids can go to school, parents can hold jobs, and the water they receive is not only dependable, it’s safe. Clean, reliable water is the foundation not just of health and convenience – it is the foundation of economic opportunity. In the United States, with our average water bills of $34 a month and service we don’t think about for 10 minutes a year, we’ve completely lost track of the actual value of water service, and the cost as well.
Indeed, the “free” water that the people of Rangpuri Pahadi relied on for so many years was free in only the most pinched sense of the word. It was really a kind of water bondage: The residents were enslaved each day to the pump and the peremptory schedule of city water officials.
I’ve spent the last four years traveling throughout the United States and the world, trying to understand water problems and the state of our relationship to water, from the poorest villages of developing countries to the most advanced, water-guzzling, high-tech factories of the West. Four things became obvious, no matter where I went.
We’re in for an era of increasing water scarcity, driven by economic development (people who are better off financially use more water), unpredictable weather, and population growth. We’re going to have to learn to be smarter about our water use.
Around the world, an incredible wave of innovation is sweeping through the world of water. New technologies are allowing us to re-use water and monitor our water use so we waste less. It’s the same kind of dramatic transformation that has swept through telecommunications, computers, medicine, and media in the last 20 years. It’s coming a little late to water, but it’s coming just in time.
The skewed economics of water is the single most limiting factor in making sure people have the water they need, everywhere in the world. We all pay too little for water. People in the developed world have an attitude that water service should be free, or almost free; as a result, systems are crumbling from lack of resources, lack of investment in everything from basic maintenance to innovation. In the developing world, there is a sense that water for the poorest needs to be free to be just. But poor people around the world already pay a devastating cost for their “free” water, through crippled health and limited economic opportunity; most would gladly pay a little for real water service. (Just look how quickly the poorest people have adopted cell phones as vital tools of development.)
Talking about a “global water crisis” isn’t only misleading, it’s discouraging. Rather than motivating people, it overwhelms them. Water problems are local. The solutions are local. And once a community has solved them, it realizes that it is, in fact, in command of its water future. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve found the same attitude that the people in Rangpuri Pahadi have: We’re done waiting for someone else to solve our water issues. People around the world are grabbing hold of their own problems, tackling them, and fixing them.
There may be important commonalities among the water issues of Dallas, Delhi, and Los Angeles, but only in terms of sharing knowledge and strategy and hard-won experience. If Delhi can fix its water problems, cavalier use of water in Atlanta can’t take that away. That’s another unacknowledged truth of water issues: Conservation in Chicago doesn’t help people struggling with scarcity in Texas, or in Delhi. But if you solve your water problems, no one can undo your solution.
It is noble to imagine getting clean, reliable water to people everywhere for free. But one of the corrosive effects of water that’s cheap everywhere in the world – besides it being so easily wasted – is that it quickly loses its value. And water that is free, of course, never is. The folks in Rangpuri Pahadi know that better than those of us with a “sophisticated” view of water.