Debating the Future of Water


If you’re looking to get your mind off the financial disaster and instead focus on another potential disaster — the worldwide water supply — you might want to check out The Economist‘s online debate on the subject.

From The Economist:

It’ll be a two-week long, Oxford-style online debate on the topic of the global water crisis. As both an industrial input and a prerequisite of life, water has become extremely scarce for roughly a billion people who do not have a constant supply of clean and safe water.

The exact proposition is, “This house believes that water, as a scarce resource, should be priced according to its market value.” Some of the issues the debate will cover include: Would water supplies be better managed if it were treated as a commodity, and priced accordingly? Or is water a basic human right that governments should secure for their citizens?

Arguing for the proposition: Stephen J. Hoffmann, founder and president of WaterTech Capital, a merchant and investment banking firm that specializes in serving the myriad of companies that, in aggregate, comprise the water industry, and co-founder of the Palisades Water Indexes.

Arguing for the opposition: Dr. Vandana Shiva, author of Water Wars and founder of Navdanya, an Indian-based, non-governmental organization founded to protect nature and people’s rights to knowledge, biodiversity, water, and food.

There will be noteworthy guest participants as well. If you wish to get up to speed, you might want to look at earlier related posts on this blog like these and this one.


I find this a very difficult question to determine. Before one can decide on wether to support or oppose the proposition, other questions arise. Water as a commodity? A necessity for living? Would food then be considered as such? If so, which types of food? What about air? Where can you draw the line? How do you differentiate what is a right and what a privilege? These questions need to be cleared before one can go on to discuss wether to argue for or against the proposition in a coherent manner.


Water was the subject chosen for the last International Expo that took place from June to September this year in Zaragoza, Spain. Experts from all over the world gathered to discuss about this important issue. Some of the results can be found on the Expo's website.


"Water is a right."

Unfortunately that isn't as easy as say, free speech, which can be made a right simply by inaction on the part of the government. We can "right" water up all we want and wax forever that we'd like clean drinkable water to be something people are born with automatic access to it but unfortunately no matter how long we rant on like Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein that's not going to solve the problem of distribution and no, George Bush is not why not everyone has water.

Of course the implication is that water being a "right" means we should have a political, not a market, means of distribution but unfortunately that doesn't help anyone.

Areas of water definitely should be privately owned and there definitely should be a market for it. That's the only way we can judge the relative demand of different groups or to give the incentive for infrastructure to be built cleaning and transporting it in places like Canada where we have way more than we need but neither us nor others are getting any use out of it.

There's the argument that poor people won't have enough money for it but that's part of economics and the solution isn't to have governments sit on it as public property and do nothing with it. If we want charities or governments to spend money on buying water for people in x-region who can't get it by themselves great.

But wanting to help poor people access it because they can't on a market isn't an excuse for nationalization. Imagine trying to fix hunger by nationalizing the agriculture and grocery industry. Good luck Stalin.



People need to understand that nationalizing something and letting it be used on a first come, first serve basis actually allows the wealthy a much greater advantage.

Why do people still fill their pools during a water shortage? Because it's nearly free because the government deflates the price; there's no incentive not to over-use it.

Again, instead of having the government mismanage it, privatize water so we can see what the market value of it is, which will send it to the people who can more use of it. THEN we can worry about getting it to poor people, which we can do a lot more efficiently once we have market infrastructure going.

Sorry but whether or not we label something a "human right" there's still a finite amount and work still needs to be done to utilize it. We can't legislate away thirst.


Lol @ 17.

I love how nowadays "social consciousness" pretty much means "left-wing."

Joan Bartos

To a great extent, both air and water have become commodities by virtue of the fact that the quality of both resources is inextricably tied to the cost of living in any part of any country in every part of the world. Poor access to clean water and air resources is highly correlated to poor living standards and a poor quality of life index.

Given that pollution of both air and water cross borders (i.e. the poor air quality in China can affect our air quality in the US, for example), the entire world must "value" these resources highly and "pay" for them equitably.

Instead of viewing air or water as a "human right" (a concept with which I have no argument but many others seem to), perhaps we should see these resources as a "humanity right"- that is, if human life is to continue on this planet, we must elevate access and quality of these resources to a higher value than they currently occupy and do everything possible to enhance and protect them.

Given this purely pragmatic framework, any pollution of these resources must be heavily penalized and any enhancement of these resources should be universally subsidized.

Currently, the poor of the world bear the burden of resource pollution by countries and global corporations. The refusal by these entities to link the plundering and poisoning of resources to the eventual decline in the quality of their own resources is an aspect of human psychology and corporate behavior that will be too slow to change without the heavy hand of a stick. The intractable soiling of our global nest will inevitably precede human moral evolution.

Because of the dire ramifications of resource pollution, both for the poor and increasingly, for all humanity, acts of resource pollution must be viewed as a form of genocide, and the perpetrators dealt with in a similar manner.

For many if not most who pollute our resources, the carrot of enlightened self-interest is not enough. It will take the stick of the harshest penalties to change individual, governmental and corporate behavior.



Water is should be priced and sold! As the Free market works by the supply-demand relationship, and since the demand for the quantity of water is so high, yet the price would be high as well because of its scarcity. - this is how it works for other goods in the free market system and so should the water be treated. In America, a country where effort will guarantee success: ie: "american dream", will give incentives to the poor people to work harder, thereby earn more wages to get water which is a necessity for humans; which will create higher competition, thereby increasing the society’s standard of living. Those who cannot keep up with this will have to DIE. Going back to the time of our ancestors, where there many different types of mankind that developed from Australopithecus, but only us, Homo Sapiens survived, did not get extinct, because we were successful compared to others. And the producer (seller) would benefit from it, which will come back to us. Therefore, water should be treated as a commodity.

Although, being in the side “anti-human rights of water” or “pro-commodity of water” will allow an interesting debate, I personally am against what I said above. I believe in human rights, and water is one them. I agree with all the Carol Morgen-ers (those with CMS prefix). I believe that water should be provided to everybody, yet, the way it is returned back to the environment should be strictly monitored by the government. (ex: taxed if not cleaned when dumped by factories etc.)



You have a right to as much water as you can collect from natural sources. If, however, someone else is required to filter it and move it from the source to you, you get to pay what that company charges.



Anyone with any kind of social consciousness should oppose what they are trying to do with water.

Vandana Shiva is brilliant, overall, in many fields, not just for this issue.

Tkwon CMS

Jon @13 makes a good point in that while food is also a necessity, we pay for it. However, there are some differences to be noted. Food has to be produced through various levels of specialization and there is a whole range of food that a person can eat (from cheap to more expensive food, etc).

Water, on the other hand, is not a produced good like food. Sure, water has to go through a cleaning cycle, but the government doesn't really "produce" water per se. They just make sure its clean and deliver it to us.

Moreover, water is more important than food. In 2002 (Source: WHO) approx. 1.5 million people died from diarrhea in Africa and South East Asia alone. Deaths from diarrhea are mostly because of lack of proper, clean water supplies. The day H2O becomes a commodity, expect these numbers to grow exponentially.

And now, the question is, what is more valuable, human life, or water? Obviously, water is mostly important to us because it sustains human life. Therefore, H2O must remain a basic right.



You can't possibly price water as a commodity. If it were priced at its real market value, many health issues will develop rather quickly due to the fact that the percentage of the population actually obtaining clean water would be reduced drastically.

While we're pricing basic survival necessities, why don't we start pricing air as a commodity? I mean, after all, good, clean air is becoming increasingly scarce on this planet.


Water is a basic human right only up to a point. No one has the right to water their driveway and fill their backyard swimming pools.

Water is too cheap, at least in the US. People squander it because the next 500 gallons costs only $2.00.

Water should be cheap for the first however many gallons, allocated on a per capita based for consumption and to maintain sanitary conditions. Any usage above this amount should be priced outrageously.

So next time you want to water the lawn and the driveway, you would think twice.


Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink...

If we allow GHG(greenhouse gases) caps, with permiting as such, then so should water. Though I disagree that either should be restricted. For those who whine that we shouldn't have to pay for water due to it being a basic necessity; then stop paying your water bill and sue your local Utility Company and discover reality. If you look at your property deed you have water-rights just like mineral-rights. Each country has their ground water they can do as they please, as we have for hundreds of years, if a country decides to squander is water on industry and leave nothing for it's residents then it will soon discover itself without residents, and without industry. It will also help advance technology in water purification, thus increasing the world's available clean water supply. So I say open it up and let the market decide, we might stop complaining about the price of oil.



The previous comments all agree that water is a right and a market solution for its allocation is a bad idea. That means it will be allocated politically, surely no problem can come from that!


Maybe "global crisis" is the wrong idea.

A lot of the world has water, but not clean water. There they need people to work to make it available, and the means to do so are out of reach of poor countries.

In Australia there's a shortage of actual H2O, and the govts are responding with regulation and pricing (the details are the subject of much debate) and for a few years we've had to forgo the lawns & gardens we've been used to.

Then in some parts of the world, water isn't scarce at all. But water can't be carted here from Canada (or indeed the tropical parts of Aust) in the sort of quantities we need.


Even though water is becoming a very scarce resource, giving people controlling it, scarcity power over it, a moral question arises; should water be treated as a commodity or should it continue to be treated as a basic human right?

Water should never be treated as a commodity, in terms of price. Water is a basic human need, that all humans need in order to survive. Such an important resource should never be used as a profit object, but instead should be used as how it is being used now, as a right. If some water company increases the price of water a lot, it might go out of business because there is too much competition with lower prices, so the market is still maintaining the price of water relatively low, but if all companies decide to increase the water price, the government should interfere and pass a law forcing companies to lower the water price.

Since water is a necessity of life, all people should have access to it, and so it is the government's role to make sure that all people do. Water should NEVER be treated as a commodity!!!



Water is definitely a right we have because it is REQUIRED for our living despite the fact that it is a natural resource. Seeing it as a natural resource that has a very high demand and is lacked in many communities of the world, it should be priced at market price but it cannot be. It cannot be because it is a requisite to survival and if many communities are not being supplied with water how is raising the price going to help fix anything? Water cannot be compared to another natural resource that is at market price, like oil, because we can live without oil and there is no substitute for water in our lives. But there are ways to make water more abundant in the world since is it indeed becoming scarce and some people say that in about 100 years we might not have enough water at all.

In the Dominican Republic there are textile industries, in which threads are made and then exported, that use thousands of gallons a day and throw it back into the river in "good" conditions under government requirements (but is actually not very useful after that). If governments around the world would increase the requirements for the condition of water then the water that companies use will still be useful. Obviously, the governments would have to enforce these requirements and it might be hard to do in developing countries as is Dominican Republic. Consequently, the price of the product the industry is selling might rise because cleaning water is expensive and often requires hiring chemists and what not to do so. This is just one way to look at it but it is one solution to "recycling" (or preserving) water.



I'm with Klaus- monetarizing water is a bad idea- then, only the rich will get it (Milady, the peasants have no water!- Let them drink milk)


Their is no such monster as a "global water crisis."

water is local.

Solutions are local.


This is interesting, because it brings into question what is a human right. Is water a human right? If water can be classified as a right, because we need it to survive, then aren't food and shelter also rights? Then we run into Communism/Socialism type issues...