The paradoxes of water: efficiency

As long as people merely “rent” the resource, efficiency devices increase overall consumption, say James Workman and Montgomery Simus. Frugally conserved water is lost through new demand by the system as a whole.

The ghost of the famous economist William Stanley Jevons is disrupting China’s efforts to tackle climate change.

Jevons’ spectre first haunted hybrid vehicles. To get their extra mileage’s worth and take full advantage of their cars’ clean and fuel-efficient credentials, people began to drive farther, more often, and at higher speeds than they did before. Jevons then haunted buildings that installed compact fluorescent bulbs and “green” appliances, causing people switch on more lights and gadgets, more often, and leave them on longer or even continuously.

In short, Jevons causes frugal misers to burn more of the energy they set out to save. If you’re disciplined enough to resist Jevons and still tamp down your demand, your haunted neighbours will likely offset any such savings by simply using up your saved fuel and electricity for their needs.

Economists frequently dismiss “spiritual” forces, and try to explain human behaviour in terms of rational self-interest. New efficient devices save gas or electricity; the increased supply costs less; lower costs push up demand and foster new consumers. In some cases this “rebound effect” is so potent that it erases earlier original gains from efficient technology.

This dynamic is bad news for China’s climate mitigation and energy reduction efforts; it is even worse news for China’s climate adaptation and water security. Whether his influence is “natural” or “supernatural”, Jevons now haunts water conservation, where we lack real options.

In 1865, the (then living) 29-year-old Jevons considered the effect of British steam engines, which improved the efficiency of coal — the finite, geopolitical, carbon-emitting economic resource of its day. Such inexpensive energy-efficient machines might actually speed up depletion, he wrote, since we then use them more. In The Coal Question, Jevons argued: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Of course, we now have alternatives to coal: nuclear, wind, oil, gas, solar, geothermal and so forth. But the steam engine generated energy by consuming another valuable element that Jevons hardly considered rare. Now scarce, water has no substitute.

In the face of global scarcity, water efficiency has become a growth industry, subsidised by governments. In response to resource depletion, a relentless barrage of education, tips, incentives and technology transfers shifts water toward ever more efficient use.

The roar of a five-gallon flush [nearly 20 litres of water] is muted to dual-flush high-efficiency toilets. Shower nozzles blast less water at higher velocities. Dishwashers and front-door washing machines use less water per load. Swimming-pool covers prevent evaporation. Lawns are replaced with rock gardens or synthetic grass. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims its efficiency campaigns have helped consumers save a cumulative 46 billion gallons [roughly 175 billion litres] of water and US$343 million in water and sewer bills.

Perhaps. Or maybe just water off our back.

And perhaps agricultural water efficiency continues to take place around China.  Dirt canals become pipes, and flood irrigation is replaced by centre pivot blast sprinklers, which in turn give rise to drip irrigation applied directly to the roots of plants at night.

Perhaps, given the undisputed wonders of widgets, China can make up the 40% shortfall between global demand and supply just by using water-efficient technology.

The ghost of Jevons moans: Don’t bet on it.

There is scant evidence that conservation technology drives overall reduction of water use, consumption and demand. In fact, empirical studies at the municipal, industrial, agricultural, state and federal level suggest that, as with energy, water-efficient technologies may extend supply, lower costs and increase demand and opportunities to divert, pump and use even more water.

Saving water in your dual-flush toilet means your children can take longer showers. Uprooting your front lawn encourages your neighbour to install a pool in his back yard. A water-efficient neighborhood lets the city divert savings into a sprawling new development or beautiful fountains in the park. Multinational corporations use efficiency technology to reduce the amounts of water per unit throughout the supply chain, but that can help them to sell more overall products containing water.

Likewise, river-basin authorities in arid lands encourage their farmers to adopt drip irrigation, for “more crop per drop”. But efficiency gains do not return water to streams and aquifers. Rather, from Beijing to Shanghai to the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers, efficiencies spread irrigation deeper and farther into ever more marginal lands, letting current farmers grow more water-intense crops on more land at the exclusion of other natural and human communities competing for that water.

As interest groups grasp this dynamic, we find the odd situation of social advocates and environmentalists fighting attempts at water efficiency.

Such a perverse and undesired outcome defines the Second Paradox of Water: as long as people merely “rent” our natural liquid resource – water – efficiency devices increase overall consumption. Water that you and I frugally conserve is lost through new and collective augmented demand by the system as a whole.

One way to resolve this paradox is through a new (yet timeless) system of what might be called “H2Ownership”. If all stakeholders have clear dominion over an equal amount of water, then whatever we save from our share we can take out of the equation, to be later sold at a premium, donated to charity, or restored directly to nature.

From the Kalahari to Oman and Bali, this system has enabled traditional systems where people compete to conserve. Under a scaled-up digital version of this virtuous cycle, urban efficiency gains could be locked in and improved on, helping China to transform its escalating water scarcity into natural and equitably shared abundance.

NEXT: The paradox of monopoly

James G Workman and Montgomery F Simus are co-authors of the forthcoming book H2Ownership vs The Three Paradoxes of Water and co-founders of SmartMarkets LLC, an online, utility-based system that they say could unleash a widespread, egalitarian race to conserve water and energy in cities worldwide. Workman is also the author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, excerpted by chinadialogue in 2010. The authors can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].

Homepage image by Jorlo