Wednesday, May 9, 2001
The Halifax Chronicle Herald

Hewers of wood, drawers of tainted water

By Brian Lee Crowley

AS IF Walkerton wasn’t enough, it now appears more Canadians have died from tainted water, this time in North Battleford, Sask. And since Saskatchewan has an NDP-Liberal government, the shrill attempts to blame this kind of event on the heartless Mike Harrises of the world are revealed for the cant that they are.

Whatever the failings of public officials charged with administering the water system in both these communities, no one can now believe that such dangers to public health are few and isolated. The fatal consequences of slip-ups in these two towns have ripped away the veneer of rational public administration behind which Canada’s water system has sheltered. What now stands revealed is a haphazard, ill-organized and timorous water establishment whose survival is due far more to sheer blind luck than competent management.

Yet cries for a federal “solution” to this problem miss the point entirely, even leaving aside the question of whether you want the people who run the post office to manage your water, too. Does anyone seriously imagine that Walkerton and North Battleford happened because nobody in Ottawa told officials in those communities what “safe” drinking water was? On the contrary, those responsible knew that their water was unsafe, and did nothing about it. And while there can be little doubt that a large part of the problem springs from underinvestment in the water supply, the answer is not for Ottawa to start paying to clean up the problem.

Many Canadians claim that they believe their water heritage is priceless; yet in practice, they treat water as if it were worthless. Most pay far less for their water than even just the cost of supplying it, cleaning it up and returning it to the environment. Halifax, like many other cities, simply treats the ocean like a free dump site for its waste.

Something like a quarter of all the water that goes into municipal water systems in this country never reaches the consumer; it is simply “lost” along the way, because of leaky, poor-quality infrastructure. Many people don’t even have water meters, the basic tool of water management.

The proper solution to these problems is not for Ottawa to further subsidize the consumption of water, but for the people who want to use it to pay the full cost. Subsidizing water consumption is economically foolish and ecologically disastrous. It encourages overconsumption, damages the environment and makes water equally cheap for the parsimonious and the profligate.

Why have people not been charged the full cost of their water, including needed investment to keep the infrastructure up to par? Because politicians get elected for making people feel good today, not for taking care of tomorrow. By underinvesting in the water system, and undercharging for water, they please voters today. But the necessary investment and improvements cannot be put off indefinitely. Walkerton and North Battleford are only the most obvious manifestations of the insidious decline caused by a political system that allows politicians to reward voters today at the expense of voters tomorrow.

In this, politicians are aided by the way the public sector keeps its books. If a private firm refused to invest the money to keep its factories or trucks or machinery in good shape, that would not show up as a saving in their accounts, but as a cost – the lost value of a neglected investment. But in the public sector, underinvestment in vital infrastructure looks like keeping costs under control. Time and time again, whether it is buses, or roads or water infrastructure, public officials have put off the long-term investments society really needs, preferring to spend on current consumption instead.

When government is the supplier of a service, such as water, it tends to be a poor regulator of quality. Regulator and supplier often work in the same department, may belong to the same union, and are both responsible to the same elected officials, who want to avoid unpleasantness and conflict. Problems are hushed up or ignored with a wink and a nod. Governments can be far more rigorous regulators when they are at arm’s length from the supplier.

That’s one of the reasons why a public-private partnership for Halifax’s harbour cleanup is a good idea. It means that water quality and other performance standards are made explicit, and that the municipality can penalize or fire a company that doesn’t perform – something that’s almost impossible to do when it’s a city department that does the job.

The solution to our water problem is user pay, tough and transparent performance standards, and a strict separation between competing suppliers of water services on the one hand, and the governments that enforce the standards on the other. That sounds less exciting than a “national drinking water policy,” but the measure of a policy is not whether it sounds good, but whether it works.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@aims.ca