Can Price Controls Conserve Water?


Food shortages receive more press and more attention from relief agencies than do water shortages, but water is arguably a bigger problem worldwide and a more direct threat to human health and well being. More than one billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. This problem is acute in Africa, South Asia and Central America. Groundwater used primarily for agriculuture is being depleted in many parts of the world far faster than than it be recharged. Finally, wasteful uses and inequitable access are causing water scarcities that already exist to become even more severe.

Recent thinking in the water policy world holds that market theory, that is, supply and demand could help ease water shortages. Theory suggests that water is wasted because it is so cheap. Therefore making users pay for water should eliminate inefficiencies and waste.

Professor Isha Ray of the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley has asked the question, What would be the effect of increased water prices on water use by farmers in Turkey and India ? The answer is, not much. Cheap water may be a problem in many parts of the world, but it is not the primary problem.

We spoke with Professor Ray about her field work in agriculture in developing countries and her insights into water use there.

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