Recent conversations around how unwashed my vehicle sometimes appears underscored how, even amongst those who ought to know, concern for resource use is the least of our worries.
In these conversations, my opposite numbers are more interested in how a dirty-looking car may hurt sundry reputations than in considering how we may be some of the most wasteful users of water on the planet. Across the world (between states in India, between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile, between countries in the Middle East, etc.) water rights (both access to and use of) are potential casus belli. Water is getting scarcer by the day, as the world’s population, and both its water hunger and waste grow. Despite these, I find that amongst significant numbers of my peers, it is okay to hose down a car (or two in most cases) with water from the mains.
I do not have the numbers put down precisely, but I can try to run through the cost elements for getting water to a Nigerian home. First is to find a natural source of relatively clean water. The cleaner the better. Because then the amount of beneficiation required to render it potable is that much less (expensive). Still, the water has got to be treated. Growing up we were informed that this was achieved through adding a cocktail of chemicals (including chlorine). Now we all know how dirty our natural sources of water have become. This is not simply a question of large fecal loads. It is also that most rivers in the country have become integral parts of our system of discharging industrial effluents. So, to make these drinkable, we must spend more cleaning them up.
Add to this the investment in infrastructure (pipes, valves, and sluicegates) that take the water into our homes; the power for pumping the water down these pipes; and maintenance across these, and you can understand why governments here no longer meet these responsibilities. Check out this exclusive review on inexpensive water systems for the home. Should users pay in a way that helps water utilities recover these costs? Without doubt, “Yes”. Besides, such payments (so we are delivering water to homes along metered pipes) will allow users better estimate the cost of this resource vis-à-vis the uses to which it is put (including hosing down cars all day).
At this point, the conversations usually pivot. “But our governments no longer provide water via the mains”, I am told. True! “And most of us have had recourse to sinking boreholes to meet our water needs”. Equally true! But this is where the water right argument gets even more interesting. For those who live in their houses, the right to the land may not include the right to unhindered use of all underground aquifers that pass through that property.
We do not know how large these aquifers are. We do not know what other parties would have access to them were these also minded to drill boreholes. And for those “upstream” of the aquifers, in what relationship do these stand with users “downstream”? How are these underground reservoirs replenished? For Lagos residents, this latter is a particularly important question. A penchant for paving land as soon as buildings are erected on them means a large portion of rain water in the state ends up as run-off into poorly maintained sewers. Very little of rains in the state return to earth and hopefully seep into the underground water reservoirs to replenish these.
If, therefore, most of Lagos’ aquifers are rain-fed (quite likely), then our innumerable boreholes are drawing down on a fast depleting reserve. Washing cars with the balance on them will then be the ethical equivalent of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s current foreign exchange policy.
Taking the cars to the car wash simply passes this buck — it doesn’t resolve much. The average car will require 75 litres of water to reach the levels of cleanliness that Lagosians consider consistent with car ownership. At most car washes, the hoses spew more than 100 litres per wash cycle. However, the car wash would be an optimal option were every such facility required to capture and recycle two-thirds of what is currently the run-off from their activities. Of course, that would mean we would have to pay more (to cover the cost of installing the recycling equipment) per wash.
Truth is, this reluctance to fully capture costs (and the subsidies involved in delivering services below such costs) and to pay full value for our consumption is the biggest drawback to our desire to become a normal economic space.