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.
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 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.
- Larvatus Prodeo had a discussion on this issue overnight as well.