PUBLISHED: 04 August 2011

Guest Columnist: Tilly MacRae

What Are You Willing To Pay For Your Water?

The book “The Big Thirst” discusses how we have been in a golden age of water, a period of free and accessible water while the earth’s climate has been warming. Water has been so inexpensive, readily accessible and reliable that to society it has become invisible. This is not to say that we do not appreciate, or misunderstand its importance, it is just that it has become so available that we do not even consider the implications of usage and waste, when we do use it.

The result is that society has created a false economy for water. For sure, there have been some economic accounting for water, often with a fee charged to households and industry. But this only reflects the cost of delivery and purifying the water (not any cost for the raw water itself). The result is a standard economic reference point or price for water that is not sustainable.

This form of socio-economic thinking cannot last. Water is a life critical commodity and a life sustaining fuel. Our water problems relating to shortages, accessibility, purity and availability are imminent, and need to be addressed as part of our social balance.

The issue is, how can we change a consumptive behaviour that is so ingrained in our culture? Historically with all other valuable commodities, society has placed a value or a price on that commodity. The concept could easily be extend to water by charging the population for their water usage, and thus creating an awareness and sensitivity about how everyone’s actions affect water usage.

Assigning a “true value” to water can accomplish many things. For one, the government can recoup infrastructure costs. Right now we are essentially paying for the cost of water delivery and treatment, we are not paying for the raw or real social and economic value of this resource. Applying a true value will also create incentives for municipalities and industry to begin conserving our water resources. It is hard to expect companies and people to value and conserve something if it does not have a cost or economic value to them – if they do not see a financial effect of their actions. Also, such an economic model can then accrue the proceeds towards developing new programs and technologies designed to conserve and reuse water. This way all the money that is paid is actually going towards increasing efficiency, reducing overall costs and improving the environment.

Many argue that everyone has a right to clean inexpensive water, that applying a ‘true value or cost’ to water will create a classed system, where only the rich will be able to afford the water and people who do not have the financial means to pay for it, will not have access to water.

The issue we are addressing is that we as a society are already paying for water. We are just not paying for its true market value. As water scarcity becomes more apparent across the globe (and in Alberta) and residential and commercial demand increases, creating an economic opportunity that reflects the true value of water will generate a natural economic value that across society will become apparent over time. Municipalities and industry can gradually adopt the idea of paying for the true value of something that they use. People are willing to spend significant amounts of money on bottled water, why not on the water that they drink at home? For the most part, both are of the same caliber, but today they have a very different economic value to society.

Government must be careful to provide the means for that small and select group of citizens who cannot adapt to the new economic cost – by bridging the gap, possibly with some form of subsidy or other financial support. One common example across the world might be food tickets. Another concept would make some provision for a household that ensures fair allocation (on a daily or monthly basis) to support basic water use necessities. Consumption above and beyond this allocation would be subject to the standard true value principals.

There is a risk that our social system and society will view this approach as having our water liberties being taken away. The concept being presented here suggests that the progression to a True Value system should be viewed more like a migration to a real and common system that is already in place today – which we call a tax. This is commonplace today with examples such as gasoline, sewage disposal and weekly garbage disposal. The social incentive we are trying to create is conscious conservative consumption.

Historically, the creation of an economic system that reflects the true value of the commodity often results in each person or industry being aware and more conscience of how their individual actions affects the overall outcome. We as a society do have the capacity to change, with the proper education and socio-economic incentive systems. This is where projects such as Alberta WaterPortal, which provides access to unbiased and factual water information, can assist in education and better decision making.


Tilly MacRae is a student in the Bachelor of Science program at the University of Western Ontario. She is a volunteer for many local and international environmental and social programs and projects.