A new way to tackle Water Pollution (Part 2)


“Water Pollution” and the “Tragedy of Commons”

Water (Water bodies) can be classified as a commons resource; the more water that one uses the less there is for others to use and access to water bodies is also non-excludable.
Classifying water bodies as commons resource and understanding water pollution in our new framework is essential for us to solve issues relating to it. We are already trying to clean our rivers by nudging people into using ecofriendly idols & reducing industrial toxins being dumped into our water bodies so as to reduce pollution strain on the environment, but before we address these issues through our new approach we need to evaluate the traditional policy tools as a means to solve these issues.

A direct policy intervention can come in form of restrictions on the amount of toxins that are allowed to be dumped in our water bodies, these can be industrial toxins or the number of idols that are allowed to be submerged in any water body. The state can also set enforcement mechanisms to stop people from dumping in excess of the limit by creating a monitoring and enforcement agency. As most of you would have already reasoned this is not feasible on many counts, the sheer size of a river makes it nearly impossible to have an effective enforcement mechanism that is economically feasible.

The second approach is to identify stakeholders (like fishermen) and allocate property rights. But the problem is that water is a flowing resource, making effective property rights allocation difficult. When toxins are dumped in a part of the river, they are not stagnated only in that area, but they affect the entire waterbed. This means people living downstream would always pay for the misuse upstream.

I acknowledge these are some extreme examples primarily because of the sheer size of the resource in question, but the idea is to highlight the inefficiency of traditional policy to effectively solve CPR related issues.

Qualities of an effective Self-Governing Institute.

As noted previously self-governing institutions are not a panacea, over the years some institutions have flourished while others have failed. By focusing on learnings from the successful institutions we can derive insights into what goes in building an efficient Self-Governing institute that can stand the test of time.

The table given below is taken from a Journal Publication by Elinor Ostrom (1999) at the CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL FORESTRY RESEARCH (ISSN 0854-9818) that highlights some key desirable features for any Self-Governing institute.


We observe that having well-defined boundaries and effective monitoring play a critical role in the success of such institutions. These principles work to enhance the shared understanding of participants of the structure of a resource and its users and of the benefits and costs involved in following a set of agreed-upon rules.

I would like to emphasise on monitoring as no matter how high the level of acceptance of an initial agreement, there are always conditions that tempt some individuals to cheat (even when they perceive the overall benefits of the system to be higher than the costs). If one person is able to cheat while others conform to the rules, the cheater is usually able to gain substantially to the disadvantage of others. Thus, without monitoring of rule conformance few systems are able to survive very long.

How do we solve the Water Pollution Problem?

With all the knowledge that we have equipped ourselves with we can take a stab at the massive challenge of cleaning our water bodies.

What we need is clearly defined boundaries to the resource in question and we need to identify the stakeholders and instil a sense of accountability in them. The need for sustainability is not raised till we are at the brink of extinction, following this logic it is possible that many individuals have not realised the importance of the water body that they are polluting or are unaware of the consequences these actions are having on them.

This is where the need for educating the people who are affected by this comes in, a scientific report that explains the cyclical damage their actions are having on the environment can prove wonders while rationalising a need for policy intervention.
The key when it comes to Self-Governing institutions is that people who are a part of the institution acknowledge the need for action and are aware of the stakes of failure; this will motivate them to work more efficiently.

So do I have a solution? Well not yet, but I believe that if we work along these lines we are bound to find a breakthrough to solve our pollution problems. The solution will need to go beyond our conventional understanding of policy but that is what we need here.


For those of you who have skipped most parts of the article and are directly reading the conclusion (you know who you are. (Comment below if you just did that :P) here is what you need to know.

Solving Common Resource Problem is a complex issue and over the years the traditional policy has failed to give us any viable solution. Through this article we take a voyage on trying to solve Water Pollution through formulating effective Self-Governing institutions, the desirable features of such an institute are given in the table above. At this point, I would encourage my readers to take the time to apply their skills to understand this problem and comment below with ways we can solve Water Pollution problem. The conclusions we find will be incorporated in a follow-up article.

If you have any queries or need additional reading reference regarding this topic feel free to email me and I will be happy to guide you in the right direction.

Thank You for taking the time to read the article, please share the article on your social media and join our facebook community on facebook.com/econpoliticsblog

The question that I would like you to answer is

What factors do you think go into devising an effective public policy?

(Comment below)


3 thoughts on “A new way to tackle Water Pollution (Part 2)

  1. grishma goyal says:

    I found the article well written and explanatory .
    I would like to know how would you incorporate the provision where effluents are discharged by industries into water bodies , here self governing institutions can’t play much of a role in regulating the behavior of the polluter ( imposing taxes like Pigou Tax is beyond their power).


    • econpoliticsblog says:

      Hey Grishma,

      Glad you liked the article.

      Self-Governing institutions can never be of successful unless the polluters understand the need to safeguard the resource. As long as we achieve that we should be able to use a similar framework with industries.

      I would like to know why you think a Pigouvian tax is essential to reduce industrial pollution? & Can it not be achieved by any other means?


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