Tag Archives: water

BC Government's blog on renewing the Water Act

On Friday the Government of British Columbia announced that it was beginning the process to renew the province’s water act. This is, in of itself, important and good.

More interesting however, is that the government has chosen to launch a blog to discuss ideas, prospective changes and generally engage the public on water issues.

It is, of course, early days. I’m not one to jump up and proclaim instant success nor pick apart the effort and find its faults after a single post. What I will say is that this type of experimentation in public engagement and policy development is long overdue. It is exciting to see a major government in Canada tentatively begin to explore how online technology and social media might enhance policy development as more (hopefully) than just a communication exercise. Even if it does not radically alter the process – or even if it does not go well – at least this government is experimenting and beginning learn what will work and what won’t. I hope and suspect other jurisdictions will be watching closely.

If you are such a government-type and are wondering what it is about the site that gives me hope… let me briefly list three things:

  1. Site design: Unlike most government websites which OVERWHELM you with information, menus and links, this one is (relatively) simple.
  2. Social media: A sidebar with recent comments! A tag cloud! RSS feed! Things that most blogs and website have had for years and yet… seem to elude government websites.
  3. An effective platform (bonus points for being open source): This may be the first time I’ve seen an official government website in Canada use wordpress (which, by the by, is free to download). When running a blog wordpress is certainly my choice (quite literally) and has been a godsend. The choice of wordpress also explains a lot of why point #2 is possible.

So… promising start. Now, what would I like to see happen around the government’s blog?

Well, if you want to engage the public why not give them data that you are using internally? It would be great to get recent and historic flow rate data from major rivers in BC. And what about water consumption rates by industry/sector but also perhaps by region and by city and dare we ask… by neighborhood? It would also be interesting to share the assumptions about future growth so that professors, thinktanks and those who care deeply about water issues could challenge and test them. Of course the government could share all this data on its upcoming Apps For Climate Change data portal (more on that soon). If we were really lucky, some web superstar like this guy, would create some cool visualization to help the public understand what is happening to water around the province and what the future holds.

In short, having a blog is a fantastic first start, but lets use it to share information so that citizens can do their own analysis using their own assumptions with the same data sets the government is using. That would certainly elevate the quality of the discussion on the site.

All in all, the potential for a site like this is significant. I hope the water geeks show up in force and are able to engage in a helpful manner.

The Bottled Water Debate Redux (a public policy case)

I’m a big believer that public policy cannot be written in a vacuum. All too often people become obsessed that their issue or problem is the only problem and so design policies that address their concern while ignoring secondary effects that can be as, if not more, costly.

This has been my point in the debate on bottled water. An outright ban might decrease the number of bottles that head to the landfill every year, but at what cost? First, if someone doesn’t buy water, I’ve suggested there is a good chance they’ll by something else… say Coke… which has many more calories and is less healthy. What are the aggregate health costs of having people drink more high-fructose corn syrup? Secondarily, if people are buying other drinks, then they aren’t really reducing the amount of waste, they are simply substituting it with other waste. We need to understand the bottled water not as strictly and environmental issue, but as a systems problem that impacts a number of areas. (Hence, why I’ve argued for any, and preferably larger, deposits on bottled water).

When I’ve written about this is the past some people have understandably disagreed with my logic, claiming that those who buy bottled water would never (or only rarely) buy a different, higher calorie drink. Recently, however, I stumbled across this interesting article in The Telegraph. It discusses the decline consumption of bottled water in Britain. The quote I found particularly interesting was this one:

Last year the bottled water market suffered a significant fall, as consumers – swayed by an environmental campaign and the high cost – turned away from the once fashionable drink.

However, figures from the market research firm AC Nielsen, which tracks in detail the spending habits of tens of thousands of consumers each week, indicated that 71 per cent of the money saved was spent not on free tap water, but rather than sugary soft drinks…

…this equates to Britons consuming an extra 1,700 tonnes of sugar and 6.8 billion calories,

So it would appear that if we ban bottled water there is a cost – in terms of health – that we should be expected to pay as a society. Moreover, while there is some reduction in waste it is not absolute, indeed, since just over 70% of money is still spent on beverages it is quite significant. This of course is because (as I’ve been arguing) people aren’t buying the water, they are buying the convenience (something they are less willing to pay for during a recession and hence the decline). Indeed, this hypothesis has been confirmed by another British survey conducted by the University of Birmingham. Its researchers:

…found that convenience and taste — not health — were the main motivating factors for choosing bottled water.

“The majority of participants believed that bottled water has some health benefits, but that they were not necessarily significant or superior to the benefits provided by tap water. Convenience and taste were more influential factors for participants when deciding to buy a bottle of water”.

So let us stop trying to scare or guilt consumers out of buying bottled water and instead focus on solutions that address both health and environmental issues. I suspect that if we increased bottle deposits significantly on all beverage containers (and made sure water containers had deposits on them) we might discover that people a) buy fewer beverages, b) will be more inclined to recycle/re-use the containers and c) don’t create an incentive to purchase sugary high-fructose beverages over water.

Okay, barring some national emergency, I promise not to write on bottled water again for a while – it’s just that the topic makes for such a great policy case study on looking at an issue as a system versus seeing it as single issue problem.