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Book Review: The Sound of Thirst

“Forget water wars: think about water peace.” - David Lloyd Owen

The Sound of Thirst: Why urban water for all is essential, achievable and affordable, by David Lloyd Owen, published by Parthian Books in June 2012.

by Anne McIvor

Dr David Lloyd Owen has written many academic books on water – but The Sound of Thirst is, as he puts it himself, “written for anybody concerned”. However, he believes that even “soft books” need some statistics. He drops in those statistics with ease to relay some uncomfortable truths about our attitudes to water and sewerage services.

One set of statistics looks, on the face of it, to be somewhat encouraging. We are informed that between 1990 and 2008:

“In the developing world, those with access to improved sanitation rose by 701 million (68%), those with access to improved water by 925 million to 2,252 million (94%) and those with household water by 7,336 million to 1,749 million (73%).”

However, as often with statistics, they show just part of the picture. In the context of other statistics, the bigger picture appears. Over the same period:

“The number without improved sanitation in fact rose by 268 million, those without improved water sources by 44 million and those without a household tap by 233 million.”

Both sets of statistics are correct: the point Lloyd Owen makes is that we need to factor in population growth over the same period.

This book addresses the implications of population growth – and the related challenge of urbanisation – against the need to provide water and sewerage treatment services (often overlooked but essential for maintaining the health of rivers and people alike). It explains the urgency of taking water and wastewater seriously “in an age where good management and political will are chronically scarce”, and presents a moral, economic and sustainable case for financing the many trillions of pounds of work needed worldwide to ensure safe water for all.

Lloyd Owen points out that the sheer scale of population growth and urbanisation is overwhelming conventional supply-led water management. Far from progressing, real access to water and sanitation, meaning actual household access to a reliable supply of safe drinking water and household sewerage, are in danger of falling back. He frequently dips into the history of water and sewerage treatment to illustrate his case – that access to water and sanitation is achievable for all. The book is littered with anecdotes and historical references to figures such as Hugh Mydddleton and Joseph Bazalgette, whose achievements in introducing safe water and sewerage transformed London’s public health.

Lloyd Owen addresses the issue of water pricing throughout the book. As he puts it:

“The water cycle provides priceless services to humanity; it has a value and it needs to be valued. Water services also need to be properly valued.”

Bottled Water – The Paradoxical Premium, an entire chapter devoted to bottled water, makes the point about payment clearly. The price tag of £21 for a 42 cl bottle of New Zealand’s 420 Volcanic water (admittedly pre the 2007 stock market crash) may be an extreme example, but:

“Bottled water paradoxically demonstrates that water has a value, since people do, in fact, pay for it."

Leaving behind the old lie that water should be free, The Sound of Thirst explores how the human right to water is about empowering people to make reasoned choices about their destiny – and how mismanagement and political expediency have contributed to global inequality.

Lloyd Owen argues that misapprehensions concerning water scarcity obscure the real challenge in sustaining our water resources, which is about demoralised management and under-financed utilities, together with an even scarcer political will to change things.

The Sound of Thirst explores why little has been done to attain universal water services, let alone sustain the integrity of the water cycle, and how we can address this. It puts water and wastewater management challenges in their global context and suggests realistic ways of addressing them. Lloyd Owen claims that water scarcity is “a problem of our own making” and calls on us to: “Forget water wars: think about water peace.”

Dr Lloyd Owen, Managing Director of Envisager, a strategic consultancy advising governments, multilateral institutions, financiers and companies on water and wastewater market, policy, regulatory, environmental and management, has followed the water sector for 24 years, previously at BNP Paribas and Ecofin Limited. He is a member of the Advisory Board for the Pictet Funds Water Fund and XPV Capital’s Water Fund and is advisor to the Board of Bluewater Bio and an Ambassador for Pump Aid. He has written seven books on water finance, markets and management including the Pinsent Masons Water Yearbook (13th edition, 2011) as well as a monthly column for Global Water Intelligence.

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