How much should we pay for water?

Jokes about ponding aside, Singaporeans are no strangers to the issue of water scarcity. Thanks to our endless water...

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Jokes about ponding aside, Singaporeans are no strangers to the issue of water scarcity. Thanks to our endless water campaigns and nagging parents or teachers, we generally do acknowledge being fortunate enough to have unfettered access to affordable clean water, unlike 663 million [1] other people in the world. Still, it’s easy to ignore images of dried up rivers, malnourished kids carrying pots of water on their heads, and news of water rationing across the Causeway because a. we have not actually been paying for the real cost of water and b. our everyday life isn’t actually affected by real water scarcity.

How much should we pay for water? On the one hand, water should be cheap, because everyone needs water to survive. On the other hand, water is invaluable precisely because it is essential for survival. The presence of this gap was popularised by the economist and philosopher Adam Smith as the paradox of value [2] (or, the catchier water-diamond paradox).

But who should be paying for the true cost of water? After all, the percentage of domestic use of water is projected to decline to 30% by 2060 [3], so why penalise the average Singaporean when it is (likely going to be) the non-domestic sector guzzling up most of the water? These are valid questions, and we could always be a little more creative with how we manage water demand (say, implementing incremental water tariffs beyond certain limits, much in the style of how tax rates increase the richer you are, or mandating the use of water-efficient devices by law, for example). But for now, let’s be honest to ourselves – if 85% of us can afford to have smartphones [4] (and for some of us, more than one), then a fair majority of us can afford to pay more for water.

As Thomas Fuller said, “We never know the worth of water ‘til the well is dry”. As much as campaigns, education and awareness are key, they alone will never amount to sufficient action. In other words, we will never understand the real cost of drying up the Earth until we actually pay for it – if not with our wallets, then with the lives of our future generations.

[1] Source: http://water.org/water-crisis/water-sanitation-facts/
[2] Source: Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations.
[3] Source: Public Utilities Board. https://www.pub.gov.sg/watersupply/singaporewaterstory
[4] Source: CNN. https://www.cnet.com/news/singapore-has-the-highest-smartphone-adoption-in-the-world/


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