Pricing water to encourage conservation

Elizabeth Brubaker

World Water Day 2012 prompted a flood of advice on how to conserve water. The UN, focussing on water and food security, marked the event with admonitions to stop wasting food, which requires considerable water to produce. The World Wildlife Fund and other organizations broadened the message, urging Canadians to discover their “water footprint” by figuring out how much water is embedded not only in the food they eat but also in the clothes they wear and the products they use every day.

The Ontario government took a different approach. Aware that Canadians tend to let their faucets flow freely – according to a recent poll, 36 percent of Canadians leave the water running while they brush their teeth, and 53 percent enjoy at least an occasional tryst in the shower – it announced its adoption of water-efficiency labelling to identify efficient faucets, showerheads, and toilets.

There’s just one problem: Many water wasters aren’t enthusiastic about those low-flow showerheads. According to the above-mentioned poll (conducted by Ipsos Reid on behalf of the Canadian Institute of Plumbing and Heating), 50 percent of Canadians would choose a high-pressure showerhead over a more efficient alternative. Labelling, on its own, is unlikely to change their minds. Nor is knowing how much water is used for rearing cattle or growing cotton likely to change most consumers’ decisions about what they eat or wear.

The solution lies in pricing water at its full cost. Prices that reflect the value of water, its availability or scarcity in a given place or season, the competing demands for it, the costs of managing, treating, and distributing it, and how much of it is consumed (rather than returned to the source) will give all water users – residential, commercial, and industrial – good reasons to conserve. Wasting water will hit users where it hurts – in their pocketbooks.

Full-cost pricing allows individuals to make choices about what they value. Some may continue to indulge in long, intimate showers … but may be motivated to turn off their taps when brushing their teeth. Some may keep their swimming pools … but may fill their gardens with drought-resistant plants. Others may wash their cars less often or stop hosing down their sidewalks. Still others may install efficient faucets and low-flow toilets. All will have the freedom to use water in the ways that are most important to them, and to cut back on other uses.

With full-cost pricing, consumers can also be more confident that the water embedded in the goods they purchase has not itself been wasted. Pricing will prompt industries – like individuals – to look critically at the value of the water they use. Farmers will have financial incentives to use more efficient irrigation methods or to plant less water-intensive crops. Manufacturers will have incentives to audit their water use and invest in efficient technology.

To prepare for World Water Day 2013, the UN, the WWF, the Ontario government, and others now urging consumers to use less water would be wise to promote full-cost pricing. It is the one policy that will enable these organizations to realize their goals of conservation and efficiency.

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