Awash in waste

May 7, 2009 • Daily Email Recap

The Chinese word for politics (zhengzhi) includes a character that looks like three drops of water next to a platform or dyke. Politics and water control, the Chinese character implies, are intimately linked.

Such a way of thinking contrasts with the usual view around the world, which argues that since humans cannot live without water, it should be a basic human right, available to all, preferably for nothing. The Chinese character points to a more useful approach. In many places water is becoming scarcer. Treating it as a right makes the scarcity worse. Some of the world’s great rivers no longer reach the sea. In many cities water is rationed. Droughts and floods are becoming more extreme. These problems demand policies. Ideally, efficient water use would be encouraged by charging for it, but attempts to do so have mostly proved politically impossible. A more practicable alternative is a system of tradable water-usage rights.

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