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Measuring Drinking Water Affordability and Sustainability


Access to safe water is necessary for life, but safe water is not always affordable or accessible. The human right to water and the Sustainable Development Goals are landmark social visions for a world where everyone has access to safe and affordable water. These frameworks embed water access in broader aspirations for sustainably managing resources on earth. Metrics play a key role in developing policies and analyzing progress toward water access equity and sustainability. This dissertation contributes to scholarship on water access, economics, and sustainability through developing metrics of household water affordability and greenhouse gas impacts of bottled water.

The impacts of unaffordable water can be substantial for economically vulnerable households, who may compromise health and food-related expenses to pay for water and utilities. In a comprehensive and critical review in Chapter 2, I evaluate the state of water affordability research to understand how water affordability should be measured to advance the human right to water and Sustainable Development Goals. In the following chapter, I aim to operationalize metrics for household water affordability in California as part of the state’s first human right to water tracking tool. The research in Chapter 3 offers insight into California’s water affordability challenges through the development of three water affordability indicators, as well as analyses by system size and poverty levels. At the same time, this study underscores the substantial data gaps facing researchers and policymakers aiming to improve water access equity in the U.S.

In Chapter 4, I turn to the question of water access sustainability in Mexico, where water access is high, but trust in water quality is low–resulting in the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world. I develop a representative metric of greenhouse gas emissions associated with household bottled water use in Mexico using life cycle assessment modeling. To realize sustainable transitions, research into the antagonistic or synergistic interactions among Sustainable Development Goals is required. Achieving water access through the use of bottled water is a prime case study to evaluate such interactions and identify areas for emissions reductions on the pathway to water access for all.

The projects in this dissertation enable me to quantify equity and sustainability dimensions of household water access in novel ways, and I explore the scholarship and policy implications of this work in a concluding chapter.

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