State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Beyond Market Economics?

Bottled water – “one of the least green and least defensible ripoffs on the market.” Is this a routine quote from one of the usual suspects of anti-bottled water campaigners?  Surprisingly, no.  It’s from the Economist –  the journalistic bastion of free market economics – and it is included in their new special report on water that Julia summarized in an earlier blog post.


The report itself provides an exceptionally thoughtful discussion of water, in the Economist’s trademark analytic style, reviewing aspects of water management such as water quantity and quality, agricultural and industrial water use and the role of corporations in managing water use.   As a nice sidebar, the report also includes a discussion of water management in Singapore, which may be the world’s most efficient water user.

20100522specialreportcov2What I found most surprising about the report, though, was the recognition that market-oriented reforms, such as pricing and trading, are not solely sufficient to solve the water crisis.  Of course, this is still the Economist, and thus, plenty of attention is paid to the importance of supply and demand and the role of pricing, which are by and large concepts we support at CWC.  (Disclosure: CWC Director Upmanu Lall was interviewed for the issue).

In general though, the report argues for a range of solutions, including some, such as changing consumption habits in the developed world, which seem to come right out of the playbook of environmental advocacy NGO’s.   One of my takeaways from the report was that the water crisis is both large and complex enough to not be amenable to a single solution.  Rather, a range of strategies must be employed.   There is little doubt that market forces must play a critical role if we are to avert a large scale water crisis.  Yet, they alone are not enough – and when the Economist makes this point, it is a powerful one indeed.

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