Thursday, 8 October 2009

How expensive can water be?

How much do you pay for the water that comes out of your tap?

I have no idea what we pay. I just pay the bill every quarter, and it rarely comes to more than $200. It's amazingly cheap, considering how long Junior spends in the shower each day, and how often Monkey goes to the toilet. For a shall chap, he wees an awful lot.

Our water is so cheap, we are completely un-bothered about wasting it. I have no qualms about having three showers a day if I feel like it. We put several loads through the washing machine per day.

But consider how expensive water becomes when it is not delivered by a tap, but instead has to be carried from a distant river like this:

The difference all this makes is enormous. Traditionally, women might have spent four or five hours a day fetching water: now they have that time free to generate income. They go to the valleys less often, bringing them into less contact with mosquitoes, meaning there's less malaria around, and their health improves in all sorts of other ways too.
No, I am not plugging a charity. Instead, I am making a point about economic development and how our lives have been transformed by cheap water and cheap power.

Those women appear to be carrying 20 litre containers. I know how heavy they are - I carried plenty of them uphills to position where we were dug in during training exercises. Believe me, carrying a 20 litre jerrycan in each hand is bloody hard work.

The charity has been kind enough to tell us that the women might spend 4-5 hours per day fetching water. If they live say 1km from the source, collecting 20 litres requires a 2km round trip. I walk unloaded at 6km/h. I think you'd be going a bit more slowly lugging 20 litres of water. Let's say it takes half an hour to do that round trip. Eight similar journeys will provide your family with 160 litres. That is all you have for drinking, cooking, washing the dishes, washing your clothes, washing your body, flushing your toilet (and washing your hands) and maybe a bit left over for watering your garden or your livestock.

That may seem like a lot, but a modern low flow showerhead still gets through 11 litres per minute. As I prefer an old fashioned showerhead that dumps water on me like a Singapore monsoon, I reckon I'd get through that 160 litre allocation on my own in an 8 minute shower.

Because our water comes from a tap, we are free to spend our days doing other things, like working in McDonalds. Even if you are only making $9 an hour, you could earn $252 a week in the time it takes to fetch that water (remember, water has to be fetched 7 days a week - it's not a Monday to Friday occupation).

The opportunity cost of that water is therefore $AUS1.57 per litre. Not too different to the cost of what we pay for bottled water. The price of course goes up the further away from a water source you live. If the family in my example lived 2km from the source, the opportunity cost would be $3 per litre.

So imagine the difference piped tap water can make to people in the third world. Forget the health benefits from better sanitation and all that - just try and get your head around the extra money that they can now earn in the cash economy because that chore is eliminated.

Now consider the next big time consuming chore in the third world - gathering fuel. Ever gone camping and had to look for and chop firewood for the BBQ? Imagine having to do that for every meal, as well as every time you needed hot water to wash clothes, wash dishes, or bathe the kids. Imagine having to do that to collect enough fuel to keep a fire going at night to keep warm. According to this book, women spend from midday to nightfall gathering firewood.

Hmm. In between gathering water and gathering firewood, that's your whole day gone.

So now we see how much of a life changer it is to move from gathering fuel to having it delivered to you, either as gas in a cylinder, or electricity down a wire. Forget the luxuries that can be powered by electricity such as Plasma TVs and air conditioning - consider the basics such as cooking on a gas or electric stove, having a gas or electric hot water system and having refrigeration for your food. Access to cheap power is a Godsend.

Our daily power bill is a couple of bucks. It's nothing. But if you have to spend 5 hours collecting wood, when you could have spent those 5 hours frying fries at McDonalds for $9 an hour, then your daily power bill is suddenly $45.

Could you live with a daily combined water and power bill of $90?

Tap water of course depends on electricity as well, as you need power to drive the pumps that deliver that water to your door.

Our Green maniac brethren of course want to deny the benefits of cheap water and power to all of us, including those in the third world that have neither. In my eyes, that makes them swine.

1 comment:

Richard_H said...

I did about 5 months work last year in Mozambique last year (working on a biiiiiiiiig coal project). Anyway, one of the first things you note is the lines of people heading into the scrub each day with their bikes to collect wood. Many of them were making charcol. That is a shit of a way to make a living too I might add. There was power, but a lot of the "shanty" houses didn't have it.

Rough place.