Thanks to global warming, pollution, population growth, and
privatization, we are teetering on the edge of a global crisis.
by Tara Lohan
AlterNet (October 11 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 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
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 twenty 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 twenty years, it is estimated that demand for fresh water will
exceed the world's supply by over fifty percent.
The biggest drain on our water sources is agriculture, which accounts
for seventy 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 six billion to eight billion
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 (W W Norton, 2002).
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 fourteen 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 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 five 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 States.
This same philosophy of corporate control drives the construction of
dams, which have displaced an estimated eighty 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.
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
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.
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, California, 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 (Wiley,
2007). The public finally won out in July, when the city council voted
to get rid of the twenty-year contract and send the corporation packing.
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 great success.
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
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:
"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 Gold.
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 all?"
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet
© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.