May 3, 2011, 1:00 pm
‘The Big Thirst’: The Future of Water
By DAVID LEONHARDT
Charles Fishman, a longtime writer for Fast Company magazine, is the author of “The Big Thirst,” a new book on water. He previously wrote “The Wal-Mart Effect,” which was an Economist “book of the year” in 2006 and a finalist in The Financial Times’s awards for best business book. Our conversation follows.
Simon & SchusterQ. You call the last 100 years “the golden age of water,” at least in the developed world. But you also say the golden age is over. As you told Terry Gross, on “Fresh Air,” “We will not, going forward, have water that has all three of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive and safe.” Why not?
Mr. Fishman: We’re spoiled. Well-designed, well-engineered water systems were built across the United States and the developed world 100 years ago. They worked so well that they literally helped make creative economically vibrant cities possible, and healthy. And those water systems were so successful they became invisible — and they remain invisible.
We just assume when we turn on the tap, the water will be there, and that the water system buried in the ground is doing fine.
Both assumptions are out of date. Population growth, economic development (which changes dramatically how much water people want and use), and climate change are all putting pressure on water supplies — not just in places like Las Vegas or California, but in Atlanta, in Florida, in Spain, across China.
We are going to have to move from an era of unconscious water abundance to an era of smart water — using water smartly (why do we water the azaleas, or flush our toilets, with purified drinking water?), and also modernizing and updating our creaky water systems. They were advanced technology 100 years ago. Now those systems struggle to keep up with our needs, and struggle for resources.
Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst.”Q. Your discussion of the downsides of free water reminds me of parking. We think free parking is great. But it actually leads to all kinds of problems — like long waits to find a spot in some cities and too much traffic. How would you try to persuade someone that free water is actually a bad thing?
Mr. Fishman: First, let’s agree that water isn’t literally free — people say, “Hey, I pay a water bill, it’s $30 a month, that’s not free!” Almost, though. A half-liter of bottled water costs 99 cents. The average U.S. water bill at home is $34 a month. So for what we thoughtlessly spend on a few gulps of water at 7-Eleven, we get a day’s water at home — 300 gallons, for everything from bathing to cooking. One dollar a day.
Free water — water so cheap you never think about cost when making water use decisions — is a silent disaster. When something is free, the message is: It’s unlimited.
Free water leads to constant waste and misallocation. Farmers and factory managers, hotels and gardeners never consider how much water they are using, and whether they are using it smartly — because the water bill itself sends no signal to be careful. (Half the water used by farmers worldwide is wasted.) There’s no incentive for efficiency.
Cheap water also means that the organizations we rely on to supply water — utilities, irrigation districts — never have the money to modernize, to replace crumbling systems, to find the “next gallon” of water supply.
Meanwhile, the poor pay the highest cost of all — hundreds of millions of people spend half of every day walking to fetch water that usually isn’t even clean. That water is “free” in that they don’t pay for it — except in terms of their health, their children’s health and their economic opportunities.
If you could change one thing that would fix almost everything about water — from better environmental stewardship to getting water to people who don’t have it now — it would be price. We can afford a bit more for our remarkable water system. We’ll be in trouble if we let it slide into obsolescence.
Q. I assume charging more for water would not solve the developing world’s problems. Doesn’t the increasing access to clean water require some other policy change? Or am I missing something?
Mr. Fishman: The key point about the pricing of water is this: People will pay for water that is safe, reliable, convenient, and liberates them from being slaves to walking or standing in line.
I visited a very poor neighborhood in Delhi named Rangpuri Pahadi. The 3,500 residents there live on $100 a month.
They got so frustrated standing in line hours a day at neighborhood pumps for water that didn’t even come at a regular time, they created their own miniature water system. They collected money — “capital” from people whose income is $3 a day — drilled wells, used their own labor to lay pipes from a storage tank to each each family’s shack.
Those who want water pay about one day’s wages a month, and the residents are thrilled. Their “upstart utility” gets them better water than the public standpipe, it comes on schedule, it liberates them to have jobs, liberates their kids to go to school. They pay the equivalent, for a U.S. family, of $150 a month for water. And they did it themselves.
Money isn’t the only solution to water — the cost of the Iraq war, alone, is enough to provide water systems for every village, every person, on Earth. The real problem is human — helping people get a water system they understand, can run and sustain themselves, and have confidence in. That’s harder than it sounds. But the problem isn’t technology, or resources, it’s political will and cultural understanding.
Q. Has any place in this country figured out how to use water more efficiently than the rest of us?
Mr. Fishman: I think there’s good news all over the country that doesn’t get enough attention. U.S. farmers use 15 percent less water than 30 years ago, and grow 70 percent more food. Farmers have doubled their water productivity since 1980.
Power plants use less water than 30 years ago and generate more electricity.
I went to an I.B.M. semiconductor plant in Burlington, Vt., that has cut water use 29 percent over 10 years, while increasing production 33 percent (and while the chips themselves, of course, double and double again in speed). That one factory has increased water productivity more than 80 percent, and inspired IBM to create a water division as a business.
Two communities I found have made dramatic changes. Orange County, Fla., where Orlando is located, started mandating use of purified waste water 25 years ago, in all new construction, for watering lawns, parks, schools and ball fields. That’s a purple-pipe system — Orange County cleans its waste water, and pumps it back to customers. Today, the amount of re-use water Orange County pumps each day is almost equal to the amount of potable water. The county has doubled in size, but it hasn’t had double the amount of potable water it provides. In new developments, in fact, it’s illegal to water your lawn or your park with drinking water, and Orange County residents have come to regard using drinking water to water lawns as silly. It’s a whole change in attitude.
And Las Vegas, which gets so much criticism for being a completely unsustainable city in the middle of a desert, Las Vegas has quietly become the most water-smart city in the U.S. By outlawing front lawns in new homes, by paying residents and businesses $40,000 an acre to remove grass, by imposing water budgets on golf courses, Las Vegas has dramatically changed water use patterns. Las Vegas now recycles 94 percent of all water that hits an indoor drain anywhere — cleaning it and sending it back to Lake Mead. No U.S. city matches that. And water use in Las Vegas has fallen 108 gallons per person in two years. Las Vegas today uses almost exactly the same amount of water as 10 years ago — but it has grown 50 percent in population. The fountains, lagoons and topless swimming pools notwithstanding, that’s an incredible achievement — something every U.S. city could learn from.
The best news, in fact, is in the biggest picture. The U.S. as a nation uses less water in 2011 than it did in 1980. We use less water to produce an economy of $13 trillion than we did to produce an (inflation-adjusted) economy of $6 trillion.
That’s incredible. The country over all has doubled its water productivity — which means that it’s possible to continue to grow and modernize, while actually reducing the amount of water we use.
And we did it even though most of us still run the water while we brush our teeth.