poem often gets read at national and international conferences on water policy.
Water is far from a simple commodity
Water’s a sociological oddity
Water’s a pasture for science to forage in
Water’s a mark of our dubious origin
Water’s a link with a distant futurity
Water’s a symbol of ritual purity
Water is politics, water’s religion
Water is just about anyone’s pigeon
Water is frightening, water’s endearing
Water’s a lot more than mere engineering
Water is tragical, water is comical
Water is far from the Pure Economical.
studies of water, though free of aridity,
by the great economist Kenneth Boulding, it is a fine poem.
It scans, the rhymes are strong and unforced, and it chimes strongly with
our sense that there is something special about water.
But the underlying sentiment is wrong. All wrong. Water is not special. It is a natural resource, which obeys the laws of economics like any other. This matters because of those readings at the water conferences.
They goes like this. A health expert speaks on the vital need for clean water, an engineer shows how it can be delivered, and an economist shows the benefits of pricing and of secure property rights.
an environmentalist stands up and says that’s all very well but:
is special. Water is too important
to be left to the market. It’s
wrong to make profits from water. Water
must be free.”
The environmentalist then reads this poem, usually omitting the last two lines, so it ends with the line "water is far from the Pure Economical."
Instead of justly laughing the environmentalist off the stage, the well-watered audience sighs in agreement and the conference report fails to advocate privatisation and secure water rights.
politicians take fright at water reform and the local water company remains
nationalised. Water remains
under-priced, misallocated and polluted, and the children who drink it
keep dying of diarrhoeal diseases.
not suggesting that this poem is responsible for as many deaths as
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
But if it prevented the introduction of even one sensible water policy, it will indirectly have killed some.
is powerful. It can also be
Jim Thornton, Lahore. April 2006
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