Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Big brother is watching your birdbath

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports that New South Wales is out of step with other Australian states which are tightening water restrictions as the drought continues:

WHILE other states are tightening water restrictions… NSW is steadfastly refusing to do the same, preferring to spend $1.3 billion to build a desalination plant.

On New Year's Day Adelaide and Melbourne significantly tightened water restrictions, and Melbourne restrictions will be tightened again as early as April. In Queensland restrictions are also likely to be tightened soon...

But the NSW Government said yesterday that any tightening of Sydney's water restrictions would be draconian ...

Dam levels are at a historic low of 36.4 per cent and will receive only a small boost from this week's rain. The Government has said it would go ahead with a desalination plant at Kurnell if the dams fell to 30 per cent, which is likely to happen soon after the state election on March 24.

Asked why restrictions could not be tightened to slow falling dam rates before March and April, when rainfall is heaviest, the Water Minister, David Campbell, said it would send a mixed signal to the public. "The community is accepting the position at the moment; they are doing the right thing," he said. "I don't think we need to send [sic] an air of panic. We have got a [Metropolitan Water] plan … which indicates we can secure Sydney's water supply without going to draconian water restrictions."

I have mixed feelings about water restrictions. Economic theory suggests that a more efficient way to deal with water shortages is by increasing prices (or, better, letting prices find their own level). Higher prices will encourage more careful use of water, but people will find the way to save water that best works for them. For some people that will be shorter showers, for others less water for the garden, for others washing the car less often. Over time, people will adjust in bigger ways: installing water-saving shower heads; reducing the size of their gardens and using more drought-tolerant plants.

I was at my Dad’s place in Canberra a few weeks ago and the bird bath – usually frequented by a number of native birds – was empty. Apparently Canberra’s water restrictions prohibit the filling of backyard water features because they lose a lot of water through evaporation. That seemed rather a shame to me, especially as I’m sure it’s a tiny fraction of his overall water use and there’s so many other ways he could cut down on water use. Any system of restrictions is inflexible, a ‘one size fits all’ prescription.

On the other hand, I think water restrictions can be useful in changing the way people think about water use. Economic theory prefers to let prices do their thing in encouraging behaviour changes because that will allow people to choose the behaviour changes that best fulfil their needs – and different people have different wants and needs driving their water uses. The most efficient solution is allowing people to make the choices that best fulfil their desires. But this partly rests on an assumption that the desires that underpin people’s choices are fixed and given. And this is not necessarily the case.

The thing is, water restrictions may not just stand in the way of people attaining their preferences, they may actually change those preferences. By signalling that we as a community are concerned about water use and want to limit it, that may just change my desire to have a big green lawn to show off to my friends and neighbours.

But is this something that could better be achieved by, say, educating people about the fragility of our river systems, than making people hose their gardens rather than use sprinklers?

What do you think?

Update Thurs 4 Jan:
  • ABC's 7.30 Report had a story on this issue last night. The transcript (not yet available as at 9 am) will be here.


David Jeffery said...

Another reason to back water restrictions is that, for now at least, it's not a question of proper pricing or water restrictions - it's more like water restrictions or nothing.

Miss Krin said...

I think that the answer as with many policy problems is not an either/or solution, but both, or many.

Water restrictions are useful in raising awareness of the fact that we live on an arid continent and need to be aware of how we use water. This will reach a certain section of the community.

Education about the state of our rivers will appeal to another, probably overlapping section of the community.

Pricing will drive the message home to those who won't change their practices based on a sense of conserving a common resource. I would like to see Sydney Water introducing a sliding water pricing system which allows enough water for living, as it is a necessity, but then starts to make extravagant use of water more expensive as volume increases.

The other aspect of water conservation policy that you have missed is the provision of infrastructure to allow different grades of water to be used for different purposes. Rouse Hill and Newington have recycled water as standard for non-potable water uses, like flushing toilets. Water is reusable, one of the few resources that is, so I am curious as to whether we are requiring new developments to also have recycled water as standard and starting to retro-fit the rest of Sydney.

Finally, I feel the current dabate in the media is missing an important point. The water restrictions are aimed at householders, and they are the most publicised aspect of the water plan, we don't hear much about what is being done to recude commercial and industrial water use. The NSW Water plan states that recycled water plants will be built in Camellia to service the industrial area next to the Parramatta River and one other part of Sydney. The reduction in use of potable water for processes that don't require that grade will do much to save out dam capacities, and reduce the trigger for a desalination plant. I'm wondering whether these projects have gone ahead yet.

Miss Krin said...

Incidentally have you read Larvatus Prodeo's post on the same article:

David Jeffery said...

Thanks for your comments Miss Krin, excellent points. Your point about households versus industrial uses is something that irks me about water restrictions, in that household outdoor water use is very visible but ultimately small bikkies.

Laura said...

I'm all for educating people about why they need to conserve water, but a combined approach of education, water restrictions and more realistic prices seems to be the way to go. Specifically with education, people need to know why new dams are environmentally destructive and won't help, and importantly, how incredibly energy consumptive desalinisation plants are.