We rarely value what we don’t pay for. This is an unfortunate paradox, but it is also a human reality. And for water, this means that until we set a price the world will continue to overlook its essential value.
This is an issue that I have touched on previously in relation to my firm belief that water should be regarded as a human right but not a free good.
The idea of pricing water, which is sometimes viewed as controversial, can sometimes be mistaken as a very modern concept. Yet its true origins can be traced back to antiquity to the Aflaj water systems in Oman. The Aflaj is an ancient network of subterranean water channels originally built by farmers more than 4,500 years ago to irrigate fields and supply water to villages for household use. To this day the system provides more than 60% of the country’s fresh water supply and irrigates around 55% of its cropped land. It is also drinkable, with many Omanis still preferring the Aflaj water to pipe water.
Yet the real genius of the Omani Aflaj is not just in the inventiveness and efficiency of its irrigation system, but in the story of tradable water rights and the power of private ownership that it provides.
The system works by giving water a real value. First of all, only naturally renewing water is tapped. Using gravity, this water is channelled from underground sources or springs often from a distance of over many kilometres (the longest is 17 kilometres) through a simple system that is maintained by its joint owners, who each hold a defined share of the water.
For the first 50 meters or so, access to drinking water is free to everyone, including passing travellers. The water then goes to the mosque, and is free for ceremonial washing. A certain share of the water is also allocated to schools. After this point, the water becomes private property. Water entitlements are mostly measured by time of use: days, hours, half hours and minutes, which are traditionally measured by sundials during the day and by the movement of the stars at night.
Creating a price for water use not only creates a market. It also creates an incentive for sustainable and efficient use. Farmers are able to channel their share of water at specified times on certain days. These entitlements can also be traded at weekly auctions, where they can be either sold or temporarily rented out when not required. The price of the Aflaj water is not fixed but rather changes constantly to reflect variations in supply according to the season, the location and the type of usage. And crucially, the money exchanged in trading water remains within the community, allowing all costs for maintaining and developing the Aflaj to be recovered.
With the gap between global water withdrawals and renewals widening, the story of the Aflaj has several important lessons for us today. Giving water a price not only creates a mechanism that promotes greater efficiency in the supply, it also re-establishes respect and shared responsibility for water among end-users. The Omani Aflaj is one celebrated example of the contemporary relevance of ancient practices. But I would very much welcome readers to share any other examples from around the world that also deserve recognition.