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Should water be free?

Every other day some prophet or some political leader come calling that the next world war will be over water. True, truths are always bitter. In the recent years, there has been a lot of discussion over sustainable development and to check the over exploitation of natural resources. Climate activists have suddenly sprung up all over the world. Among all the natural resources water stands as the most important. It not only keeps the humans, animals and plants alive but also lubricates our industries. The developing nations have been several times accused of the indiscriminate usage of the natural capital. In such a scenario, should the governments revert to the idea to put greater charges over water use, with an objective to curtail its use or say make the citizens use it judiciously?

Definitely, water doesn't come cheap and is rather subsidized by the government, in general. In many countries the citizens are charged in order to bear the distribution costs and not the procurement and purification. In several other countries, like India, it is mostly free. Given the large number of water borne diseases in the developing world further aggravates the concern. On one hand the people get water at no cost, and on the other hand they pay for the medication. In several cases the cost is death. The governments rub the dust off by saying that providing quality water is very expensive. The citizens do the same and say that why should they pay for poor quality water. This deadlock can be broken if the people realize the importance and value of water and the need of its judicious use. In many areas of extreme water scarcity, it is used as a commodity to barter with. Thus, water has some exchange value but people do not realize it often. If the government increases charges, there is a strong probability of mass protests. People will protest because they understand the value of water but this understanding gets to work only when they could see the exchange value of water. In this case, the exchange value will be more easily understood because it is in terms of money. So, the importance of water will only be felt by a common man, when it is weighed against money.

Water, water, nowhere...
But the woes of the developing nations do not end here. What will happen to the people who go to bed with a glass of water and nothing more? Poverty has many dimensions. Can governments think of distributing water through the "public distribution system", like kerosene and sugar? What are the alternatives then?


{ rajesh } at: March 06, 2010 said...

Yes, it's correct in coming years water might not be available at free of cost. Especially in India more water is wasted by people. Only drought prone region know the importance of water. This is the situation of India that water is available at free of cost till date. But, here I would like to say that in gulf countries especially those countries which have only crude petroleum wells. In these countries water is available on money. And it might be water is distributed through PDS. Here I say one point only that water is already distributed through PDS but we as Indian, don't know about this. In this situation what would you like to say?

{ kunjmann } at: March 06, 2010 said...

Thanks Rajesh,

But when we talk about India, we are confronted with a diverse range of geographical circumstances. We have floods, rivers, deserts, forests and some of the really high raining places like Cherapunji. Water is also sold in India, and in many Indian cities. But the problem is the controlled use and controlled distribution. It's in fact a challenge. The PDS system in India is already infamous for many many things. In such a case, how can it be ensured that the poor will get water as needed?

And after we have ensured that water is distributed freely through the PDS, how do we ensure that there are no "free riders"? I think, that is a bigger challenge. One alternative can be, to begin with, doing away with the subsidies on water in the urban area for the APL families or some specific income bracket people. It can ensure that the poor still has access to safe and cheap water and the rich pay more for it. But, there are still possibilities for protest and "free riders". The rich people may start to buy water from the poor. In this case, at least the poor will have an additional source of income. And if there are protests, it's good to sensitize more people. At least, people would understand the "exchange value" of water.

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