Economics | Scarcity | Supply and Demand | Opportunity Cost | Incentives

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


‘Water scarcity’ and economic concepts that shape decisions on resource allocation

Econ 101

By the_farsight |

Individuals, businesses, and societies make decisions on an everyday basis that determine how resources are allocated in various economic scenarios, from personal finance choices and household budgeting to business strategies and government policies.

These are i) scarcity ii) supply and demand iii) opportunity cost and iv) incentives.

Let’s take a real-world example — water scarcity — to understand these concepts and how they drive decisions on resource allocation. 


A basic economic problem is when resources are scarce/limited but wants are unlimited. This reality forces individuals, businesses, and societies to make decisions on the efficient allocation of resources so that the allocation of their highest priorities is met to fulfil their priorities. 

The limited supply of freshwater is an example of scarcity. When the population grows, the demand for freshwater for drinking, agriculture, industrial processes, and other purposes also increases. The availability of freshwater supply however remains relatively constant, leading to a situation of scarcity.

How would allocate resources in this scenario?

Supply and Demand: 

The principles of supply and demand are prominent in the water sector. During periods of drought or water shortages, the supply of freshwater decreases, leading to demand exceeding the supply. This can drive up the price of water or lead to water rationing. 

Conversely, in regions with abundant water resources, the supply can exceed demand, resulting in lower water prices.

Opportunity cost:

When it comes to water, opportunity cost becomes evident in various decisions. 

For example, a farmer must decide whether to use their limited freshwater resources to irrigate one crop over another. The opportunity cost here is the value of the crop they did not irrigate, which could have generated income or food. 

Similarly, a municipality must decide whether to allocate freshwater to residential use or industrial use, recognizing that allocating more to one will come at the expense of the other.


Incentives are factors or mechanisms that motivate individuals, businesses, and governments to make certain choices or take specific actions.

The price mechanism is one of the most direct ways incentives operate in water scarcity. When water is priced too low or subsidised, it may lead to wasteful consumption because there is no strong economic incentive for users to conserve water. 

On the other hand, if water prices accurately reflect its scarcity and true cost, consumers are incentivised to use water more efficiently and consider alternatives like water-saving technologies or practices.

There are other ways incentives can be enforced to reduce scarcity.

When there is a demand for more efficient water technologies or practices, businesses have an incentive to develop and market these solutions.

Economic incentives such as financial incentives or rebates for individuals and businesses to adopt water-saving technologies, such as low-flow toilets, efficient irrigation systems, or rainwater harvesting.

Regulatory and legal incentives such as setting strict limits on water withdrawals or imposing penalties for over-extraction.

Market-based incentives, such as water markets and cap-and-trade systems, allow for the buying and selling of water rights or permits. When individuals or organisations are allowed to trade water allocations, water can flow to its highest-value use, and those who conserve can profit from selling unused allocations.

Understanding and manipulating these incentives are essential for addressing water scarcity effectively. By aligning economic incentives with sustainable water management practices, societies can encourage responsible water use, reduce waste, and better manage this critical resource in the face of increasing water scarcity challenges.

Properly aligned incentives can lead to positive results. Misaligned incentives may yield detrimental consequences.

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