October 11, 2007, 2007
Drinkable Water Supply Is Vanishing
global warming, pollution, population growth, and privatization,
we are teetering
on the edge of a global crisis.
By Tara Lohan,
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 water."
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.
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
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.
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.
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 percent.
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.
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
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
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
The crisis is
also worldwide, most noticeable in Mexico, the Middle East, China
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
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 companies."
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.
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 States.
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 homes.
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
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
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
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 of nature.
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 multinational consortium.
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 packing.
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
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 great
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 affordable water.
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.
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 changes.
Some see technology
as the necessary fix -- or at least a step in the right direction.
As the BBC reports:
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
drastically cuts the amount of water needed, low-pressure sprinklers
are an improvement, and even building simple earth walls to trap
rainfall is helpful.
are now treating waste water so that it can be used -- and drunk
-- several times over.
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.
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
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 Gold.
should be investing in their people, in conservation and in the
infrastructure that we depend on to access clean, affordable water.
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 all?"
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