Tell me why I don’t like Tuesdays? Actually, it is pretty obvious why. In the mornings while we try and get the kids up and ready for school, I must also water the garden (a half hour job). We get up at 5:30am on a normal day to achieve this. The logical thing would be to get up half an hour earlier on Tuesday and water the garden. Can I do that? No. Instead I have to wait and get everyone up a half hour early so that I can water after 6am. This is the sort of lunacy that comes with arbitrary water restrictions (see my earlier post and this one from Andrew Leigh).

Now to quote Talking Heads, “well, how did we get here?” We got here because the government is using a policy designed for temporary emergencies — Stage Whatever Water Restrictions — when the problem is long term. Population pressure combined with other climatic changes — caused by humans or otherwise — means that water is becoming scarce. It is not just scarce this month but likely to be scarce forever.

At the moment, the State governments are sending the message: we want you to reduce water consumption but we don’t want to lose votes if people are miserable about conserving water in showers or washing clothes and dishes. So what we do is impose restrictions that make it difficult for people to water gardens and fill pools in the hope that they simply won’t. That will keep water consumption down.

But the correct long-term behavioural and habitual response is not this. Instead, it is to make people aware of their ACTUAL water consumption and take measures to reduce it. Take, for instance, showers. We all probably shower much longer and with higher pressure than would be the case if we had to bear the TRUE SOCIAL COST of our water consumption. But what are we doing at the moment? We are showering even longer to try and fill a bucket so that we can water individual plants! All the time, we know it is stupid. The question is who to point the finger to.

Well, if you are serious about water management as one of the key environmental challenges facing this country, then the finger has to be pointed at the State governments. They have squandered an opportunity with the current drought to educate the population on their true water use. If they had either (a) imposed increasing water charges related to use (and this won’t hurt the poor because every household could have a free allowance) or (b) imposed a limit on consumption per household (with increasing tax penalties for over-use) then everyone would get a quick wake-up call. They would be forced to think about what water use is really important and they will conserve appropriately. Moreover, they will do so in a sustainable manner.

Dealing with environmental issues and managing their consequences is not one for heavy-handed, gut reaction, wait and see policies such as current water restrictions. Imposing them reduces the constituency for real behavioural change. And the opportunity for education on that is being washed away.

Joshua Gans blogs at CoreEcon. For this post in full, click here.