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Why Carbon Trading Can't Solve Our Water Crisis

In a recent NYT opinion argues that one of the best ways to ensure that the world's poorest have access to water is through carbon trading. Here's why they're wrong.
 
 
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In a recent NYT opinion piece Clean Water at No Cost? Just Add Carbon Credits, Tina Rosenberg argue that one of the best ways to ensure that the world’s poorest have access to water is through carbon trading. Having spent “more than two decades reporting on social problems around the world, and where possible, exploring new models to address them,” in October 2010, she, along with David Bornstein, began a series, entitled Fixes, that proposes to help spread knowledge about solutions (or potential solutions) to real-world problems, and how they work.

But in this case, her solution rests on a simplistic understanding of the two central issues: the water crisis and carbon trading. There are a many of reasons for the water crisis and the large numbers of water-poor, and working through them is like peeling the layers of an onion. The most apparent reason for not having access to safe water is the lack of public financing to build a water infrastructure. So, for a while, multinational-led water privatization was promoted as the solution, with these companies leveraging the financing for building and maintaining the water infrastructure. However as the article acknowledges, “for-profit water multinationals such as Bechtel and Suez” have been critiqued “for the way they treat rural people and slum dwellers.” 

These companies “have little incentive to lay pipes to reach people who are far away, and if they do, they charge very high prices.” In the absence of water infrastructure, the next best solution is decentralized water treatment systems. The article tells us about a technology that can help individuals and households clean their own water! LifeStraw, an instant micro-biological water purifier, is a “point-of-use water purification system that can filter up to 18,000 liters of water,” which is estimated to last for about three years (at  the rate of 16.43 liters of purified drinking water per day). It is as simple as having a straw for an individual, or a slightly bigger "LifeStraw Family" with a spout that can be hung from the wall of a household. Point-of-use water purifiers have been called more effective compared to cleaning the original water source, especially when it comes to poorer environments.

Several U.S. government organizations including the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as Coca Cola, have been involved in the testing and promotion of this technology in a number of countries in Africa. It is understandable that the organizations would want to test it in sub-Saharan Africa where access to clean drinking water is seen as a challenge. Vestergaard Frandsen, the company that developed LifeStraw, plans to provide the technology at no cost to water poor people! So far, so good!

How would they pay for it? Vestergaard Frandsen is multinational leader in making what they call "profit for a purpose." They plan to raise money by charging those who emit greenhouse gases (GHG) in exchange for an allowance of GHG emissions, or put in simpler words, in exchange for an allowance to pollute more.

The argument goes thus: If there were no LifeStraw, poor people would have to boil their water. This would contribute to GHG emissions. Thus, access to LifeStraw potentially leads to the reduction of an activity that would have otherwise contributed to global warming. All this sounds very good, but there is a big “if” involved here. What this imagined scenario ignores is the fact that along with lack of access to water, the poor also lack access to other resources, including firewood. Boiling water is neither a common practice, nor a priority for poor households in most parts of the world. It is mainly those with easier access to resources, and the ability to spare resources for doing that additional chore who take up the practice. This has been my repeated experience across two decades of interactions with poor communities.