The price of potable water is a contentious issue. From a purely economic point of view using the supply and demand principles, water scarcity should herald higher water prices in order for the cost to reflect the water shortage.
When people have to pay a premium price for a product, they tend to value it more, and use it more sparingly. While water usage would undoubtedly go down were prices to increase, there would also be a clear distinction between the poorer households, who would be unable to afford water for general use, and the wealthier households, who could continue to use water as normal.
While some economists may believe that an increase in the price of water is necessary, clean drinking water has been recognised by the United Nations as an essential human right, and as such should be available to everyone, with no water access distinctions among citizens.
Having said that, currently 780 million people do not have access to clean water, and 6-8 million people in the world die each year as a result of disasters and water-related diseases.
In developed countries such as Australia, we are lucky enough to all have access to clean water, but when access to clean drinking water is as easy as turning a tap, it becomes an expectation that water will always be available.
And if water scarcity doesn’t affect the public on a personal level, will they really care about the issue?
While it’s quite understandable that prices of water must remain reasonable so that everyone has access to clean water, it may be that other penalties or incentive need to be put into place to discourage high water usage.
Drought conditions in Sydney resulted in mass communication in an effort to change people’s paradigms. The Every Drop Counts program and Go Slow on the H2O campaign were run by Sydney Water in an effort to reduce water use, alongside water restrictions and additional projects such as Waterfix and the rainwater tank rebate, which were also widely promoted and subsidised.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted surveys on water use and conservation in 2007, 2010 and 2013. Analysing the raw data for the rainwater tanks within Sydney Water’s area of operation, they found that the number of residents in Sydney that submitted the reason of “water restrictions” for installing a rainwater tank increased in 2013. This is particularly interesting as water restrictions ended in 2009.
Unsurprisingly, Sydney Water found that water usage decreased when water restrictions were put in place and enforced, however the water usage unexpectedly maintained its lower usage even after water restrictions had ended.
The continuance of water use patterns that were established during the drought’s water restrictions may have occurred for a number of reasons. It might have been that the lower water usage was maintained due to more rainfall in the following years; however rainfall after the water restrictions is comparable to rainfall prior to water restrictions, when water usage was much higher.
It may also be the use of alternate water sources, such as rainwater tanks reducing the amount of mains water supply, and suggests a habit or behaviour change in the community to reduce their mains water usage, which may be due to the water restrictions and public communication strategy.
In a survey conducted several years after the drought, it was found that the majority of Sydney Water customers were still actively saving water, which suggests that water savings are engrained amongst Sydney residents.
That the effect of a successful campaign can be sustained several years after it has ended demonstrates that a strategy to shift paradigms can be highly effective with long-term effects. This could have implications for further water efficiency campaigns and even assist in resolving discrepancies between the number of households with rainwater tanks and the number of rainwater tanks being used and maintained without failure.
The importance of finding solutions to water shortage is undisputable, and must be found sooner rather than later. Highly populated areas such as Sao Paulo, and areas of California, are on the verge of a water crisis, and water scarcity is an ongoing issue for many countries, including India, China and Ethiopia.
Decentralised water systems such as rainwater tanks are increasingly coming to the forefront, with adaptations to the traditional rainwater tank such as cistern fences developing, however it is important to recognise and address the ongoing maintenance a rainwater tank requires, which is critical to receiving the ongoing benefits of a tank.
Undeniably the solution to the water crisis will be as complex as the problem. There are many aspects the solution may take, including regulation, community awareness and subsidies, however the biggest step will be communicating and engaging the public alongside the policy makers, to make the issue, as well as how everyone can do their part in the solution, as clear as our drinking water.