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Review of the State of the Art in Analysis of the Economics of Water Resources Infrastructure  

Marc Jeuland

Water resources represent an essential input to most human activities, but harnessing them requires significant infrastructure. Such water control allows populations to cope with stochastic water availability, preserving uses during droughts while protecting against the ravages of floods. Economic analysis is particularly valuable for helping to guide infrastructure investment choices, and for comparing the relative value of so called hard and soft (noninfrastructure) approaches to water management. The historical evolution of the tools for conducting such economic analysis is considered. Given the multimillennial history of human reliance on water infrastructure, it may be surprising that economic assessments of its value are a relatively recent development. Owing to the need to justify the rapid deployment of major public-sector financing outlays for water infrastructure in the early 20th century, government agencies in the United States—the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation—were early pioneers in developing these applications. Their work faced numerous technical challenges, first addressed in the drafting of the cost-benefit norms of the “Green Book.” Subsequent methodological innovation then worked to address a suite of challenges related to nonmarket uses of water, stochastic hydrology, water systems interdependencies, the social opportunity cost of capital, and impacts on secondary markets, as well as endogenous sociocultural feedbacks. The improved methods that have emerged have now been applied extensively around the world, with applications increasingly focused on the Global South where the best infrastructure development opportunities remain today. The dominant tools for carrying out such economic analyses are simulation or optimization hydroeconomic models (HEM), but there are also other options: economy wide water-economy models (WEMs), sociohydrological models (SHMs), spreadsheet-based partial equilibrium cost-benefit models, and others. Each of these has different strengths and weaknesses. Notable innovations are also discussed. For HEMs, these include stochastic, fuzz, and robust optimization, respectively, as well as co-integration with models of other sectors (e.g., energy systems models). Recent cutting-edge work with WEMs and spreadsheet-based CBA models, meanwhile, has focused on linking these tools with spatially resolved HEMs. SHMs have only seen limited application to infrastructure valuation problems but have been useful for illuminating the paradox of flood management infrastructure increasing the incidence and severity of flood damages, and for explaining the co-evolution of water-based development and environmental concerns, which ironically then devalues the original infrastructure. Other notable innovations are apparent in multicriteria decision analysis, and in game-theoretic modeling of noncooperative water institutions. These advances notwithstanding, several issues continue to challenge accurate and helpful economic appraisal of water infrastructure and should be the subject of future investigations in this domain. These include better assessment of environmental and distributional impacts, incorporation of empirically based representations of costs and benefits, and greater attention to the opportunity costs of infrastructure. Existing tools are well evolved from those of a few decades ago, supported by enhancements in scientific understanding and computational power. Yet, they do appear to systematically produce inflated estimations of the net benefits of water infrastructure. Tackling existing shortcomings will require continued interdisciplinary collaboration between economists and scholars from other disciplines, to allow leveraging of new theoretical insights, empirical data analyses, and modeling innovations.