Water: Of infinite value, but worth nothing

By Lezette Engelbrecht I remember once standing in the security-check queue at the airport, watching an exchange between a very irate women and a very determined airport official, over a bottle of Chanel No 5. She kept repeating her extenuating circumstances – she was in a hurry when she packed, she thought she could take…

By Lezette Engelbrecht

I remember once standing in the security-check queue at the airport, watching an exchange between a very irate women and a very determined airport official, over a bottle of Chanel No 5. She kept repeating her extenuating circumstances – she was in a hurry when she packed, she thought she could take it in her hand luggage – and the official kept nodding at the “no fluids over 100ml” sign. Eventually protocol won out and the now dejected woman had to dump her treasured perfume, but not before a last few desperate sprays to save what she could. I sympathised with her then, being a hurried packer myself, but never got the image out of my head for a different reason. What always struck me was the immense cost attached to what is essentially fragranced water – of no essential use to anyone – when that same water in a different formulation and packaging is treated with very little regard.

Water in its natural form – vital for every form of life; necessary for agriculture, construction, manufacturing, consumables, energy, mining; virtually any process you can think of – is in rand terms not worth very much. It runs out our taps and down our drains with nary a worry. It is probably the smallest component of our household bill. It is often overlooked and taken for granted by those of us lucky enough to have it in abundance, except when we are faced with brief intervals without it. Then suddenly it hits with full force how much you need to wash a grimy hand or make a cup of tea. I sometimes imagine using perfume as I use water, and am horrified to think of the kind of bill it would rack up. But then the image fades and I go on with my day, because, water is cheap and available.

The failure to attach an accurate cost to water is not just a failure of economics – it is a reflection of the deep disconnect we have in terms of the value generated by natural resources – which almost no one is paying adequately for. Businesses dump their waste in rivers and oceans, doing immense and long-term damage, with no real equivalent cost. Factories spew chemicals into the air – as do I as I drive to work each day – with no ‘filtration’ fee. The work the atmosphere does to keep us healthy and safe isn’t compensated by anyone, despite the critical and global role it plays.

An economist once told me that unless you attach a price to something, it will never be
conserved. I disagreed with him at the time – how do you ‘price’ an orangutan or a forest or a sunset? Why does everything have to be reduced to a monetary value in order for it to be taken seriously? But I realised later that in a world that bows to money, sometimes you have to speak the same language for change to occur. That’s why initiatives like The Economics of Ecosystems and Diversity (TEEB) are so important – by ‘making nature’s values visible’, they can help bring issues of biodiversity and ecosystem services to the debating table, and influence various levels of decision-making. Because rivers and forests mean something, not just in a spiritual, cultural
sense, but in a hard numbers one. This may seem obvious – we have only too recently seen the effects of the drought on our economy and people – yet the cost of water has not been addressed, only how to scramble for solutions when we don’t have it.

Unless we start matching the price of natural resources to their value to us and the world we live in, we will continue our slide towards unsustainability – and bear the cost in a very different way.

Lezette specialises in climate change communication and has a Master’s degree in Climate Change and Development from the University of Sussex. She enjoys hiking, large cups of tea and tending her unruly but sanity-restoring back garden.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do necessarily represent the views of the African Climate Reality Project.

Iain Cluett

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