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Efficiency, market and the responsible use of water

6 September 2006

We live in a limited world. Our biggest challenge is dealing with scarce resources. This is what Economics is about. And one of the main points is efficiency, that is, how to do something using as few resources as possible. For example, using a toilet.

I was recently to Vienna, which is a wonderful city, full of History, legends, music, amazing buildings and trams. As I did not want to miss anything, I was wondering around for more than 14 hours everyday. This, and the healthy habit of drinking quite a lot of water led me several times to visit the toilets of the Imperial city.

To my surprise, almost all the men’s urinals, either in palaces, auditoriums, restaurants or bars had an optical sensor. This means that when you leave, it “knows” and then pours water to clean. The toilets had a flush button that allowed you to pour only the amount of water needed, and some had even two buttons, one that released more water, and another for less. All these are methods to use water more efficiently.

This concern about the use of water would be understandable in a country like Spain, well known for its water shortages, but Austria uses only 3% of their annual water supply, so water should not be one of their concerns.

It clashes with the policy in England, another country where water, of which they think there is plenty, has never been a problem. There are no water-saving methods in English toilets. They treat water as if there was an unlimited supply. England has just had the driest year in many months, which has forced the authorities into a hose-ban and some information campaigns. And what is more, the shock of discovering that the water is not unlimited.

Why is the attitude towards water different for the general public of one and another country? The fact that Austria has run some campaigns to make the public concious does not explain the proliferation of expensive gadgets in the restrooms. The answer is in the water bill.

In England, people pay a certain amount of money, and they can use as much water as they want, in the bath, washing the car, watering the garden… In Austria, the households have water meters. The water bill increases with the use of water. So Austrians, private users or businesses, have an incentive to reduce their use. To the extent that furnishing a toilet with expensive items might be costly in the short term, but it pays with savings overtime. I am sure that items like “monoblock” taps or washing machines with water-saving programs, luxurious in England, are an everyday thing in Austria.

England has discussed the use of water meters, strongly opposed by some. But economists know that the market is the best way to allocate resources, and putting a price to something works miracles to make them concious users. Even in toilets.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 September 2006 8:25 am

    The Environment Agency’s director of water management agrees with you that metering is the way to go:
    http://www.newsquoter.com/ViewQuote.aspx?QuoteId=269

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