When I meet up with David Zetland, he’s chatting up two Forum attendees over complimentary drinks and light hors d’ouvres from the Brazilian Pavilion at Parc Chanot’s Palais Phoceen. Usually the center of attention by virtue of a lightning quick wit and polymathic knowledge, Zetland is skewering a newly-formed NGO designed to help investment banks and other financiers assess risks associated with climate change… “Which makes perfect sense,” proclaims a sardonic Zetland, “because NGO’s are so adept at evaluating investment risks and investment banks have no idea.”
Zetland, an American, is a Senior Water Economist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands where he’s involved in number of projects, including an EU-sponsored study evaluating the use of economic instruments for promoting efficiency and sustainable water management in Europe. He’s the author of a recent book, “The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity,” and pens an iconoclastic daily blog, called Aguanomics, focused on the political economy of water. Unabashed, he claims to have plans to return to America someday in order to run for Congress in California. He’ll let ‘the market’ decide which district by allowing disgruntled constituents to register their eagerness for a new representative at an online site. This theory of enabling individuals with market tools that give them greater control over the decision making process encapsulates Zetland’s views on the way the world ought to work.
Well-tanned, outspoken and undeniably cool, Zetland is to water economics what John Gardener was to modern American literature. He even rides a motorcycle, which brought him from the Netherlands to Southern France for the conference, stopping at the homes of old friends along the way.
He once so flustered Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, Wenonah Hauter that she abruptly left the stage of a debate before proceedings concluded, rushing down the aisle, claiming an imminent flight departure. At a panel forum on the looming global water crisis, Zetland-the-audience-member reaches for the Q&A mic and gives a shockingly bullet proof and well-reasoned explanation as to why there really isn’t a global water crisis at all. Beyond exposing alarmist arguments and championing the incontrovertible logic of market mechanisms – Zetland believes in the necessity of strong protections for nature and ecosystems. “And you must do that,” claims an emphatic Zetland, “in some bureaucratic way called ‘we care about this river and we’re going to keep water in the river.’”
You have to take care of environmental health first by ensuring enough water goes to ecosystems, says Zetland. These ecosystems, in turn, provide us with important benefits and services that are difficult to value. “The water that’s above that base flow…it’s okay to use that for other human uses whether its irrigation or drinking water.” But it’s important to let those uses compete for water through pricing or a market, says Zetland. Given a limited quantity of a resource, people will make wise decisions about how best to allocate that resource. Fee structures that recover system and scarcity costs and market mechanisms that put a price on water will actually improve water services and extend coverage to the very poor, contends Zetland. This flys in the face of theories advanced by activists that claim that pricing mechanisms will effectively exclude poor people from water. These activists fail to acknowledge that lack of pricing and cost recovery often equates to a lack of service for the poor they are trying to help.
A problem arises when, instead of individuals in a market deciding how to allocate water, some third party tries to direct where water goes. Often that third party is government. It’s an insidious maneuver, believes Zetland, who sees politicians and the politically powerful holding society hostage by preventing a fair and equitable system for access to and acquisition of water. Political forces take advantage of the agricultural sector’s reluctance to change and make it difficult to transfer water from one sector to another. On its face, this provides farmers with a guarantee to the water they have traditionally enjoyed. In reality, it sets up politicians as a class of dishonest middle men, leveraging water for votes and power. Water is an important economic input. Preventing it from moving to sectors where it can produce the greatest value creates tremendous inefficiency and may actually deny farmers their right to best utilize the water to which they are entitled.
With at least 70 percent of human-directed water going to agriculture globally, any discussion of water needs to engage farmers and address traditional but inefficient modes of agricultural irrigation. Zetland believes that agricultural inefficiency can be corrected. “I’m quite an optimist about farmers and water because if farmers can make money by turning water into food, they can certainly make money by turning water into money,” he said. By selling water to downstream cities and industry, farmers could turn a healthy profit and still grow crops by using remaining water more efficiently. But Politicians would never let that happen, says Zetland, because “politicians do not want to give farmers clear property rights in water; they prefer that the farmers continue to depend on them for water, which means more `campaign contributions’ – or what the man on the street would call bribes.”
He dances through explanations, setting up scenarios and making analogies, reducing complex economic and political interactions into “you and I go into a restaurant and we only have $20.” One might accuse him of obfuscation or oversimplification, but if you slow down the tape, and there’s no slick attempts to mislead; just an energized mind trying to reduce complex problems to the simplest terms possible.
“I’ve gotten it down to a bumper sticker,” says Zetland, sliding a 4”x12” blue sticker between the bottles of beer on our table: “Some Water for Free…Pay for More.” A cartoon droplet separates steps one and two of this simple prescription. It’s an idea that’s catching on and one that should satisfy those advocating a human right to water. Why should NGOs persist in their deep-seated fear of market mechanisms? Perhaps it is due to a fear of the unfamiliar.
The biggest challenge for anti-corporate crusaders in dealing with Zetland and his arguments is that at the end of the day, he’s advocating for the same causes as they are – water for humanity and water for nature. But instead of viewing corporations as the enemy and politicians as canny managers promoting efficiency and well-being, he puts his faith in the logic of individuals and carefully structured market mechanisms that empower people to make the right decisions.