We ask … Professor Colin Green

“If we do not address the food problem, we cannot survive”

Colin Green is a professor of water economics at the Flood Hazard Research Centre of Middlesex University, UK. He is an international authority on flood risk management and his research interests also include governance in relation to Integrated Water Resources Management and sustainable urban water management. He gives his thoughts on the urban versus rural water challenges, barriers to achieving the green economy, and the usefulness of economic instruments.

What is the most important priority for promoting water and green growth?

Our real challenge is food. Although urban water is an expensive problem, it doesn’t need much water and we can get away with, using water efficiently, perhaps 30m3 of water per person per year for all urban uses, but we need 1-3000 tonnes just to grow food.  All that water used for growing food goes straight back into the atmosphere whereas the urban water we can reuse and recycle. So just getting enough water to the right areas where we can grow things is a real challenge.

The really expensive problem is sanitation and this is particularly a problem in urban communities. But in terms of water resources, it’s a rural problem we face. We cannot shift water from agriculture to urban areas because we know under the best conditions we will need to supply 13% more water to agriculture just to meet growth in food demands, and in the worst scenario we are going to have to increase agricultural water usage by 50% and we’re not sure we’ve got that water.

Why is water important for the green economy?

Water is so connected with everything else that if you don’t solve the water problem you don’t solve anything else. Water is coupled obviously to agriculture and food, to rural development, health, education and so on, and it is also really quite different to other resources. It is technically a low unit value bulk commodity. It’s got some similarities to electricity but unlike electricity it is heavy and incompressible so what we know about electricity we can’t necessarily apply to water. But the centrality of the issue is that if we cannot address the food problem, we cannot survive.

What are the main differences between the challenges facing developing and developed countries?

The honest answer is money. It becomes a lot easier to solve problems if you have more money. A major problem for low income countries is they start off being poor and they are having to spend so much of their income on buying food, so there’s not much left for investment through savings or taxation.

You outline in your discussion paper what is needed to shift to green economy: bringing worst performers closer to best performers, changing to a sustainable mix of input resources, improving technological efficiencies, and reallocating water to higher value uses. What are the barriers to achieving these necessary changes?

It’s a problem of governance. Technically I think we know most of what we can do or should do. It’s doing it that’s the problem. We keep on seeing the difficulties of actually agreeing to and implementing measures. There is a fundamental problem there which is that water management requires cooperation, in space, between disciplines, and between communities. We’re going to have to learn very quickly about how to better cooperate.

How can we overcome this barrier?

If you go to the real core of it, I think we need to become much better at social relationships than we are at the moment. All of the solutions available have to be done by people working together. We hear again and again in terms of integrated catchment management that it’s essential to build up trust. How do we build up trust and what indeed is trust? These are the kind of questions we need to ask. We need to work out how we can influence people. This means listening to them and not just talking to them.

What are economic policy instruments?

Economic instruments involve using either charges or subsidies instead of regulations, or converting commodities into things that can be traded and creating a market-like situation. There is a lot of interest in this at the moment, and economists love anything that looks like a marketable commodity and will argue that in many cases these may be more effective or preferable to using straightforward regulation. I think you need to distinguish two situations. First, there are some cases where things have gotten into such a mess that maybe a market instrument is the only option left. For example, there are some countries that have allocated their water so badly that markets may be the only way to recover it. Then consider a second case where there are a whole range of options between regulation and market instruments. The question here is: when is one more effective than the other? It’s a matter of choice, not an either/or question necessarily.

What potential is there for economic instruments to promote water in the green economy?

I am cautious about the use of economic instruments. It may be that the most successful cases are those where we use a mix of instruments. I tend to think that Germany is about 30 years in advance of anybody else in urban water management. One of the things I like there is that they have separate charges for surface water drainage which is a real problem in urban areas. But that’s not the only thing they do. They also use regulations and information. Things together – maybe the answer is not to rely on a single instrument.

What are your expectations for the Zaragoza conference?

What I would like people to come away with are some practical tools and measures that they can use and knowledge of how they can use them, which will help their country, city, or region move towards a green economy. As the song from My Fair Lady goes, “don’t talk to me of love, show me, don’t give me the words, tell me how we can do it”.

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