Like there is no tomorrow…
If Lahore has a population of about 9 million, and if say 8 million of them have access to bathrooms, and if on average each person uses the bathroom and flushes it 3 times a day, which is a conservative estimate but so be it, and if each flush uses 3 litres of water, we are, on average and as an estimate, flushing a whopping 72 million litres of water everyday. Imagine the energy it takes to pump this water to our homes in the first place and then the energy needed to dispose of the waste.
But the issue I want to raise has to do with whether this is all needed? Do we need to use a three litre flush every time we need to flush? Can we do, for some flushes, with a litre or 2-litre flush? If that is the case, and even if one flush per person needs to be a one-litre flush, we would need 16 million litres of water less than what we are flushing currently. And the key is that it is not an issue of science or even technology. We have the science of flush systems already worked out, and we have the technology to design variable use flush systems too, or smaller flush systems etc., it is an issue of design and more than that, awareness of the need to conserve water and not waste it.
The above example shows that I am talking of waste and efficiency issue and not about changing consumer preferences and reducing existing consumption. There might be an argument for that too, but that is a separate argument. Here I am just talking of cutting out waste and using existing resources more efficiently.
Here is another example. Many people have their cars and driveways washed every day. Whether it is middleclass area or a high-income area every morning or mid morning you see people getting their driveways washed clean. The water is the swept off the driveway and into the street outside. Apart from the wastage of water, it causes damage to roads as well. Water stands on the road and when cars go over the wet road it destroys the roads by creating potholes. Why can’t people just get the driveway swept and/or use a wet mop for getting the driveway clean if simple dry sweeping is not good enough.
How much water is wasted when we just let water run while we wait for hot water to reach from the geyser to the tap? Is there a way of collecting that water and using it for something? And why do people let water run while they are brushing their teeth or shaving? Why can we not use a mug of hot water when shaving and use a glass of water when brushing our teeth instead of letting water run for the duration of the brushing? These are small things, but like the flushing example, a change in how we go about doing them can have, over large number of people, a significant impact on the environment, our energy needs as well as the ground water levels in places where we live.
Water is becoming a scarce commodity by the day. Ground water levels are falling in most big cities and the cost of pumping water is going up. Dealing with waste water, even in rivers and streams, is having large impacts on the environment and this will, in turn, have consequences for all of us. But even though we are starting to see strains here and there, and we talk of trying to ensure that India does not make it difficult for us to get water by building dams on the rivers that flow to Pakistan from India, we are not doing anything for water management.
Interestingly we have not even started to think of ground water management in any sensible way. In most cities, anyone can easily drill a hole in the ground and start pumping water. The same is true in most rural areas as well, for tube-well boring. Groundwater aquifers are clearly not the property of any one person. In fact, it seems in Pakistan it is not clear who does ground water belong to? Should it be the property of landowners? But groundwater is spread under land that is usually owned by many people and when one person pumps water the water table is affected in the entire area and not just under the particular person’s land.
The water should belong to all the people of an area. But that cannot be the case just by default, it has to be a right that is recognised in law. Only then can the community decide what to do with the water. How much to pump and who should be given the right to pump, and at what price? Currently, since the right is not even established, people mine water according to their needs, and since the benefit of mined water goes to the individual while the cost of less water is distributed over the community, we have the classic problem of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ where the result is over-mining. If the right was established then the transactions that are right now going on by default and without a regulatory framework or a market framework could be brought under the required frame. Should private companies be allowed to pump and bottle water, and at what price? Should water pumped in one city be allowed to be piped to another city, and under what conditions?
A lot of people have been arguing that water is going to be one of the main constraints to our growth and wellbeing moving forward. We are already seeing shortages develop in various areas and sectors: for electricity generation, for agricultural purposes, as well as for drinking and other household chores. We are already considered a semi-arid area. But at the same time we have not even started to think about developing the jurisprudence for ground water, the regulatory mechanisms and /or market mechanisms, the dialogue on water conservation and ways and means of doing that, and how to start preparing the society to internalize better water management practices. Why should we wait for this to become a full blown crisis before we decide to move on these issues?
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]