Thursday June 30, 2022

Is water free?

January 29, 2019

Although water sustains life, it is ironically one of the most undervalued natural resources. The misconception of water as an unlimited free resource is especially prevalent in developing countries. This misconception, coupled with the country’s weak water institutions, results in an urban water crisis – as is evident from the financial situation of almost all water utilities in Pakistan.

The current water crisis in the country, especially urban water issues, can be attributed to a multitude of reasons. The population in the country has increased many folds. Water bodies have become contaminated due to the wastewater discharge from households and industries. Cities have expanded faster and institutional evolution lags behind rising urbanisation and the challenges associated with it.

Potable drinking water is produced in treatment plants using materials and energy and is then provided to users through pumping – again an energy-driven process. While people’s perception about the value of water may not have changed, the reality has. The tragedy in our country is that people still have a mindset that is centuries-old. Treated drinking water is not free and even if consumers pay the water bill, it is insufficient to cover the costs of water extraction, treatment, and distribution.

Non-evolving water institutions have an equal share in the deteriorating performance of urban water systems throughout the country. In Pakistan, like most other developing countries, urbanisation occurred rapidly (and is still increasing), and the water utilities did not evolve in response to the changing dynamics of urban environments. Water utilities in Pakistan are not self-financing. While people are unwilling to pay for water supply, it is a two-way process. For people to pay water tariffs for low service is not feasible. As a result, water utilities need to raise the level of their performance regarding clean drinking water to consumers.

Although there are numerous examples of water utilities across the globe that have turned into financially self-sufficient entities, water utilities in Pakistan seem to have made their peace with government subsidies and funding from donors. Eastern European countries like Estonia and South American countries like Columbia offer examples that cities in developing countries to emulate. Through a central technical-support facility and privatisation, water utilities in these countries made significant improvements in their performance. In Pakistan, the debt of water utilities is soaring with each passing year.

The gravity of the situation is evident from the issues involved in obtaining clean drinking water in Karachi. With a population of around 15 million, Karachi’s daily water demand is 1,100 million gallons per day. But the supply is only half of the demand. The tanker mafia uses this deficit to its advantage and sells water at a higher price in areas that lack access to piped water supply. While several studies have been conducted to increase water coverage and improve water quality, the situation hasn’t improved and has instead deteriorated.

International donors have supplied grants and the government supplies subsidies now and then. But the situation has far from improved. The Karachi Water Supply and Sewerage Board (KWSB) owes a significant debt to K-Electric due to the non-payment of electricity bills. The KWSB is unable to pay the bills due to the low-cost recovery from consumers. The KWSB owes around Rs35 billion to K-Electric while federal-government departments owe around Rs18 billion to the KWSB. This vicious cycle of circular debt as far as water versus electric utilities are concerned is due to the low-cost recovery from consumers by water utilities.

The question is: why would people not pay, let’s say, only Rs500 when they are already paying Rs2,000 on average for electricity? The answer lies in the reluctance to pay for water and our weak urban water institutions. People are not willing to pay partly due to low service and partly due to their wrong conception of the right to access water for free. While it is true that people have the right to access to clean water, it certainly cannot be free. There is a dire need for awareness campaigns throughout the country about the value of clean drinking water.

The writer is pursuing a PhD in waterresources engineering at the University of Utah.