Water for Sale | Book Review

The poor need water, not ideology” – This book by Fredrik Segerfeldt, printed in 2005, aims to shed some light on the problem of water shortage around the globe. In Segerfeldts own words: “You just have to be pragmatic and look at what works and what does not“. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the water!

Water for Sale Segerfeldt

Do you like numbers, statistics, and cold hard facts? “Water for Sale” offers plenty. The earlier chapters pull up many, as a  form of warm-up, to show how bad access to clean water and sanitation is in the world – Especially in the developing world.

After having checked some of these numbers against ours, the future of “Water for Sale”, a significant amount of these numbers have seen no improvements, the fact is, some got even worse!

“The worlds worst poverty is in part due to substandard food production. Since access to, and proper use of, water is essential to greater agricultural efficiency, water shortage is one factor that leads to poverty” – Fredrik Segerfeldt

Through statistics and examples, Segerfeldt dismantles the fallacy of ‘natural shortage of water’. The ‘natural shortage of water’ fallacy states that, since water is limited in the world, this is the reason some have little to no access to clean water. By showing the impossibility in there not being enough water, the author offers a different reason for there being a lack of access to water in the world: Faulty politics and policymaking.

As one of his examples, Segerfeldt points to the Indian city of Cherrapunji, considered to be one of the wettest cities in the world, yet having constant problems of water shortage. Even today, 13 years after “Water for Sale” got printed, the city struggles.

“Of course, the supply of water is not unlimited. The earth holds only a certain amount. Water is a finite resource. In principle, though, the supply of water is so great as to be infinite for all human purpose.” – Fredrik Segerfeldt.

The author introduces the concept of a difference in physical and economical water shortage (“Kenya has the potential for supplying its entire population with water, but its water resources are underexploited“), to give a good explanation pole to center this argument around.

Another fallacy, when it comes to water, gets the boot as well: The ‘Development leads to water shortage’ one. By going down the path of development, efficiency comes along and with that, the use of natural resources, like water, drops considerably. You get more out of every drop of water, so to speak. Segerfeldt looks at the historical data of the United States to see how a positive trend in productivity can decrease water-usage.

The author spend a great deal of effort in looking at classic poverty traps that getting water represent in large parts of the world, mainly Africa: If you need to use much of your day to tend to your most basic of needs, like having for walk for miles to get water, this leaves very little room for improvement on your situation overall – Leading to the necessity to repeat the same pattern of barely surviving indefinitely. Forget the luxury of saving – You start from scratch every day.

“Much of the shortage of safe water and sanitation in the third world can be attributed to underinvestment and lack of maintenance. Quite simply, the infrastructure needed for supplying people with water has not been built” – Fredrik Segerfeldt

In the spirit of the ‘Tragedy of the commons’, Segerfeldt argues for the right to own water as a key factor in increasing availability of water on a national basis and holds up Chile as a positive role model in this sense. If you allow people, and groups of people, to concern themselves with production and distribution of clean water, you create a decentralized competition force that tries to find a solution in several different ways to a problem – Without excessively fat bureaucracy – and where there is profit good ideas and practice prevail.

Another point Segerfeldt brings up is, despite it being illegal to trade water in some parts of the world, people still do it out of necessity and out of a natural order-kind of a way that draws awfully close to an Agorism view on counter-economics in practice. Just because something is illegal, doesn’t mean its immoral.

Segerfeldt expands on this in chapter 5, “market and conflict”, which is a superb read for anyone interested in history – This chapter seeks to zoom in on different conflicts, where the core source of disagreement have been over water and who gets to control it.

Well-researched and with plenty of sources given, I can appreciate the amount of labor needed behind the scenes for “Water for Sale”.

“When water can be acquired by means other than force, these means are likely to be used. […] Of course, giving the market and private sector a greater role in the water sector would not be a universal cure for war, but it would certainly reduce the cause of conflict.” – Fredrik Segerfeldt

The strength of the book is the parts of the book that handles economic aspects of water. Segerfeldt brings up curiosities like how South Koreans literally bathed themselves out of water, how half the water used in the developing world used for agriculture produce no food, or how Californian water distribution is mismanaged to catastrophic effects (we saw this in the last few years, with water rationing as one of the symptoms, for example).

Surface level case-studies of Cambodia, Guinea, Gabor, and Casablanca gets examined as examples of where private companies have taken over the market for water for a more prosperous effect than the previous public versions ever did and Segerfeldt gives great data to swim around in.

Segerfeldt also gives examples of where privatization hasn’t had a particularly positive outcome, even worse in one way or the other and the author uses these examples as formulas for improvement, an attitude which is refreshing. Instead of banishing problems to his theory to the do-not-speak-about corner, Segerfeldt opts to bring these up and ask “Where did these fail?”. A productive approach.

All in all, a good book that pro-free market individuals will appreciate a great deal. But, perhaps the ones that are skeptical about if corporations should handle our water supply would enjoy this book to sharpen their arguments against something well-researched?

This is a clear and concise book, with plenty of information for those thirsty for knowledge in either case.

Water for Sale Segerfeldt

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