Drinkable Water Supply
By Tara Lohan
11 October, 2007.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Hungarian
biochemist and Nobel Prize winner for medicine once said, "Water
is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without
We depend on water for survival.
It circulates through our bodies and the land, replenishing nutrients
and carrying away waste. It is passed down like stories over generations
-- from ice-capped mountains to rivers to oceans.
Historically water has been
a facet of ritual, a place of gathering and the backbone of community.
But times have changed. "In
an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most
essential needs for survival, water has become the victim of his indifference,"
Rachel Carson wrote.
As a result, today, 35 years
since the passage of the
Clean Water Act, we find ourselves are teetering on the
edge of a global crisis that is being exacerbated by climate change,
which is shrinking glaciers and raising sea levels.
We are faced with thoughtless
development that paves flood plains and destroys wetlands; dams that
displace native people and scar watersheds; unchecked industrial growth
that pollutes water sources; and rising rates of consumption that nature
can't match. Increasingly, we are also threatened by the wave of privatization
that is sweeping across the world, turning water from a precious public
resource into a commodity for economic gain.
The problems extend from
the global north to the south and are as pervasive as water itself.
Equally encompassing are the politics of water. Discussions about our
water crisis include issues like poverty, trade, community and privatization.
In talking about water, we must also talk about indigenous rights, environmental
justice, education, corporate accountability, and democracy. In this
mix of terms are not only the causes of our crisis but also the solutions.
What's gone wrong?
As our world heats up, as
pollution increases, as population grows and as our globe's resources
of fresh water are tapped, we are faced with an environmental and humanitarian
problem of mammoth proportions.
Demand for water is doubling
every 20 years, outpacing population growth twice as fast. Currently
1.3 billion people don't have access to clean water and 2.5 billion
lack proper sewage and sanitation. In less than 20 years, it is estimated
that demand for fresh water will exceed the world's supply by over 50
The biggest drain on our
water sources is agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of the water
used worldwide -- much of which is subsidized in the industrial world,
providing little incentive for agribusiness to use conservation measures
or less water-intensive crops.
This number is also likely
to increase as we struggle to feed a growing world. Population is expected
to rise from 6 billion to 8 billion by 2050.
Water scarcity is not just
an issue of the developing world. "Twenty-one percent of irrigation
in the United States is achieved by pumping groundwater at rates that
exceed the water's ability to recharge," wrote water experts Tony
Clarke of the Polaris
Institute and Maude
Barlow of the Council
of Canadians in their landmark water book
Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water.
The Ogallala aquifer -- the
largest in the North America and a major source for agriculture stretching
from Texas to South Dakota -- is currently being pumped at a rate 14
times greater than it can be replenished, they wrote. And, across the
country, "California's Department of Water Resources predicts that,
by 2020, if more supplies are not found, the state will face a shortfall
of fresh water nearly as great as the amount that all of its cities
and towns together are consuming today," add Clarke and Barlow.
Demand is outstripping supply
from the rainy Seattle area to desert cities like Tucson and Albuquerque.
And from Midwest farming regions to East Coast cities.
The crisis is also worldwide,
most noticeable in Mexico, the Middle East, China and Africa.
As population growth, development,
consumption and pollution take its toll on our water resources, the
ability to fight this problem has been further complicated by the spread
of neoliberalism. The same ideas that have resulted in the booty of
private contracts being doled out in Iraq also have contributed greatly
to our water crisis. Neoliberalism is the belief in "economic liberalism,"
which espoused that government control over the economy was bad. It
opened up the commons to commodification and let corporations privatize
what once belonged to the public.
In 2000 Fortune magazine
printed this telling statement: "Water promises to be to the 21st
century what oil was to the 20th century; the precious commodity that
determines the wealth of nations."
It has oft been expressed
that the next resource wars will not be over oil -- or energy at all
-- but over water. As the idea of neoliberalism, proliferated by institutions
like the World Bank and the IMF, spread, the public sector has become
dangerously privatized. And it may not be the wealth of nations on the
line -- but the wealth of corporations.
A senior executive at a subsidiary
of Vivendi, the world's largest water controller summed it up, "Water
is a critical and necessary ingredient to the daily life of every human
being, and it is an equally powerful ingredient for profitable manufacturing
But when private companies
control water resources, people's needs for survival are pushed aside
in place of the bottom line. In Africa, an estimated 5 million people
die each year for lack of safe drinking water. And yet Africa, with
its many cash-strapped countries, is targeted by multinationals that
force governments to turn over their public water systems in exchange
for promises of debt relief.
When corporations control
water, rates go up, services go down, and those who can't afford to
pay are forced to drink unsafe water, risking their lives. This has
happened across the world -- in South Africa, in Bolivia, in the United
This same philosophy of corporate
control drives the construction of dams, which have displaced an estimated
80 million people worldwide. In India alone, over 4,000 dams have submerged
37,500 square kilometers of land and forced 42 million people from their
Multinationals looking to
cash in on the water business have also made giant inroads in selling
bottled water in richer countries. Expensive marketing campaigns convince
people that their tap water is unsafe to drink. Then, companies like
Coke and Pepsi bottle municipal tap water and others like Nestle pilfer
spring water from rural communities and resell it at huge profits.
The water crisis may be growing,
but so is resistance to privatization as communities are fighting back
against the corporate control of the world's most vital resource.
How we can fix it
We need water to survive,
not just as individuals, but as communities. Author John Thorson put
it perfectly when he said, "Water links us to our neighbor in a
way more profound and complex than any other."
Just ask the people of the
Klamath Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California. They've experienced
water wars for the last hundred years that have pitted neighbor against
neighbor and tribal member against farmer.
Native American tribes in
the region -- the Klamath, Hoopa, Karuk, and Yaruk -- with priority
rights to water, have struggled with farmers over limited water resources.
Nature has been unable to deliver as much water as the government has
promised to farmers and tribal members, as well as downstream fishermen.
With not enough water in the river, either crops have failed or fish
have died, creating community strife and economic hardship.
But in the last year, things
have begun to change. These groups have formed a coalition to save the
river they all depend on for survival. They are sitting at the same
table and finally beginning to hear from each other about the needs
of farmers, the value of subsistence economies, the history of families
on the river, the ceremony that comes with the salmon runs, the rights
Together, this unlikely
alliance is taking on PacifiCorp, one of the largest multinational
power companies, whose out-of-date dams are threatening the ecosystem
and the economy of the region.
And just over the peak of
Mount Shasta another community and tribe are battling to save
their spring water from Nestle, which hopes to tap the
community's greatest asset for its own wealth.
The people of the small town
of McCloud and the Winnemem Wintu tribe are fighting back, and they
are not alone. Across the country a backlash to the bottled-water business
is gaining steam. Fancy restaurants like California's Chez Panisse,
Incanto, and Poggio and New York's Del Posto have gotten on board. San
Francisco has also led the way among municipalities that are beginning
to cancel their bottled water contracts, understanding the great harm
the industry does to the environment and communities.
It is not just bottled water
that has posed a problem, but private companies buying out municipal
water systems and then raising rates and lowering services. One the
best examples is Stockton, Calif., which went private in the largest
"public-private partnership" in the West. Since 2001 the people
of Stockton have been fighting for control of their water against a
The case gained international
attention when it was featured in the
film and book Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft
of Our Water. The public finally won out in July, when the city
council voted to get rid of the 20-year contract and send the corporation
The citizen groups that have
been working to defend their communities are being supported by many
national and international groups pushing back against corporate control
and empowering people -- groups like Tony Clarke's Polaris
Institute in Canada, which has focused on public education
and research around issues like the privatization of water services,
bulk water exports, water security and bottled water.
In the United States, Corporate
Accountability International is encouraging people to drink
tap water over bottled water with their "Think
Outside the Bottle Campaign." They are working to
educate the public, as well as city governments and businesses, with
And today, on the 35th anniversary
of the Clean Water Act, Food
& Water Watch, is sponsoring a National
Call-In Day for action on clean water to urge representatives
to support the creation of a clean water trust fund, "which is
a long-term, sustainable, and reliable source of funding to upgrade
and improve our public water systems." The organization has been
working to protect public water systems from private takeover and to
help fund municipal water so that all residents have clean, safe and
The movement extends across
the country and the world as people are also rebelling against the corporate
takeover of their municipal water systems -- in California, in Ghana,
in Brazil, in Canada, in France, in Indonesia -- and the list goes on.
Opposition to corporate control
is rooted in the belief that water is part of the commons. Everyone
should have access to clean water, regardless of their level of income
or their country's international standing.
In order to ensure that all
people have access to clean, affordable water, we need to make some
Some see technology as the
necessary fix -- or at least a step in the right direction. As the BBC
New technology can help, however, especially by cleaning up pollution
and so making more water useable, and in agriculture, where water use
can be made far more efficient. Drought-resistant plants can also help.
Drip irrigation drastically cuts the amount of water needed, low-pressure
sprinklers are an improvement, and even building simple earth walls
to trap rainfall is helpful.
Some countries are now treating waste water so that it can be used --
and drunk -- several times over.
Desalinization makes sea water available, but takes huge quantities
of energy and leaves vast amounts of brine.
But many warn against relying
on a "techno-fix" to solve our problems.
Water experts argue that
we need to reduce consumption on individual and community levels. Author
Tony Clarke advises working with those closest to the problems, such
as helping farmers to develop a more sustainable agriculture system.
And the same goes for industry. Looking to the folks who have been on
the land longest, like indigenous and traditional cultures, will also
help us learn how an ecosystem works.
And experts say that we also
need to start developing a comprehensive water policy that goes from
the regional to international level. The World Bank and United Nations
have the capability to change the designation of water from a human
need to a human right, ensuring that corporations can't exploit this
resource for economic gain, as Clarke and Barlow advocate for in Blue
Governments should be investing
in their people, in conservation and in the infrastructure that we depend
on to access clean, affordable water.
It ultimately comes down
to an issue of democracy. "We came to see that the conflicts over
water are really about fundamental questions of democracy itself: Who
will make the decisions that affect our future, and who will be excluded?"
wrote Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman and Michael Fox in their recent
book Thirst. "And if citizens no longer control their
most basic resource, their water, do they really control anything at
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.
© 2007 Independent Media
Institute. All rights reserved.
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