Citation: Sharon Beder, ‘Water must go to those who deserve it most, the rich’, The Age, 21 September, p. 17

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

It's a good way of saving water. Denying it to those who can't afford it.
ON MONDAY the Business Council of Australia published its report Water Under Pressure that advocates the use of the market to solve water problems.

Ah yes, the magic of the Market. It can turn water scarcity into a myth with the cling of a cash register. Ask the Business Council. All you have to do is put a high enough price on it and there will be plenty of water to go around, well, at least plenty to go around to those who are able to pay for it. Those who will inevitably bleat about the cost and how they can't afford it, clearly don't value it enough.

The Market makes sure that a scarce resource is allocated to the highest value uses. If a Toorak resident is willing to spend more to water his manicured garden than a Broadmeadows mother is willing to spend washing her dishes, then clearly he values the water more.

Without the Market, water is easily affordable and accessible to everyone so the Government has to put in place rationing and pesky restrictions to limit its use. In a Market there are Choices. If you are well off you can have 24-hour running water for whatever tickles your fancy. If you are poor you can choose between water and other optional items such as food and petrol. If you don't like it you should get off your butt and work harder.

And why not introduce Competition into water supply? Just like the electricity market. More Choices. Householders can choose who to buy water from and private companies can choose what to charge them, since no household can do without it. Think of the profits! - sorry, investment potential. Nothing like a bit of price manipulation and speculation to raise the prices and provide the right incentive for finding new sources of water.

If it's worth enough, all sorts of water sources become viable. Harvesting water from the gutters? Just filter out the syringes and the doggy poop. What about all that industrial waste water? Why pour it down the drain and watch it bioaccumulate in the fish when it could be worth a fortune once that heavy metal discolouration is taken care of?

It is no wonder people in NSW don't trust Sydney Water to recycle sewage. Its PR department can barely give its partially treated sewage a good enough image to put it in the ocean. But combine a trusted corporate logo with a high-powered PR firm and the public would be willing to pay five times as much for the product they flushed down the toilet yesterday.

A private water company doesn't have to make public health its first priority, so the cost of recycling could be cut dramatically. Nor do those irrational consumers who dislike drinking their own sewage have to know where their water came from or how it was treated.

Those who continue to harbour suspicions based on irrational fears about the quality of water supplied by companies looking after their bottom line can buy bottled water. The market fills every need and ensures that hard-working businesses can profit from filling that need. Win-win.

And why should water trading be confined to farmers. As the Business Council points out: "Farmer groups would be able to compete against existing water authorities and so control their own destiny." Think of the sense of wellbeing that comes from knowing that the water authority and large city manufacturers outbid you for the water you needed for your summer crops. At least most farmers can be sure of outbidding those armchair environmentalists who insist that water is finite and cannot be moved around the state without consequence. Let them pay for their unrealistic goal of environmental sustainability. Put their money where their placards are.

Melbourne could become a sparkling oasis in the desert, sucking water from the surrounding countryside. Don't feel sorry for those farmers. They've been paid well for their water. Win-win.

Those who are on the ball will be buying up the water rights now, while they are relatively cheap. In a few years they will be able to charge what they like and those rich city dwellers will have to pay. The rest of them will just have to go without. What do they think, that water is a human right?

Professor Sharon Beder is author of Environmental Principles and Policies and Suiting Themselves