Blue Gold: World Water WarsOctober 5, 2010
October 4, 2010
World Water Wars
Why do we talk about a crisis? Let’s turn to some startling figures: 97% of Earth’s water is salt water; of the “Blue Planet’s” water sources, only 3% are made up of fresh water. But did you know that much of this 3% of fresh water is polluted beyond human use? Indeed chemicals used in agriculture pollute the ground water; automobiles’ gas emissions pollute the water in our clouds. Global industry does the most damage, and is virtually criminal in its disregard for maintaining potable water sources. Let’s turn to another list of figures: 350,000 liters of water are used for the manufacture of an average automobile; 2 to 7 barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil; 32 liters of water are necessary for making 1 microchip, and 50 thousand dams were built worldwide. To these numbers we must add the factor of urbanization. Indeed, for the first time in history there are more people living in cities than in the countryside, and this phenomenon is not going to stop.
But what is the point? Well, it points a finger at the becoming scarcity of fresh water because of human activities. Indeed, those activities pollute water, and as a result water-borne diseases today kill more children than malaria, AIDS, or even wars. In the past 100 years, 60% of the wetlands in the world have been destroyed, while wetlands are the natural purifying means for water. Deforestation – which is well underway, is a major contributor to soil erosion. Indeed, trees roots absorb water and hold the watershed in place; but when trees disappear so does the water. Because our water needs continue to increase, and also because surface water is not sufficient anymore, there is a growing dependency on ground water. Even though we have no idea how much ground water there is in total, we are pumping up to 15 times more water from the ground than is being returned back into the ground. Because of paved sidewalks and streets, when it rains the water can’t get into the ground, so it enters the storm drain system, sending it unfiltered into the lakes and oceans; evaporation increases our cloud cover, and concurrently the ground water decreases. Dams prevent water from moving, and thus the nutrients it contains die, and eventually lead to desertification. All these factors combine to result in nothing short of an ongoing scarcity of water and the dark prospect that, in 50 years, there will likely be a collapse of the planet’s water sources, the essential element of life.
Now that you are aware of the primary issues, we can turn to the politics of the matter with one question: Whom does the water belong to? To the big water-marketing companies (Suez, Veolia, RWE, Vivendi) or to you, or to me? Well, that is a thorny question. You might think that water just belong to every human being. After all, water is a natural element, it is at the root of life and it is the only element you cannot live without; it is a death or life condition. Whether you agree or not, this answer is wrong: In fact, at “The Dublin Statement on Water and sustainable Development” held on January 31st, 1992, the United Nations named water as an economic good. Water is therefore a good and not a right. So like any economic good, water can be owned, and it is actually owned by big water companies. France is the country of big water companies. There, water was privatized in the 18th century. The idea was to bring water to newly built neighborhoods. The expensive water supply system would be borne by private investors that would get their money back by selling the water. In the 1980’s Margaret Thatcher privatized all the water in the UK; and in the 1990’s those companies began taking a global significance. So for example, today, Buenos Aires’ water – like New York City’s water – belongs to Suez; Puerto Rico and Chicago to Veolia; Jakarta and Pittsburgh to RWE/Thames. Like any economic good, water has been subject to the law of profit, so only people who have the money have water.
Because of contracts that bind governments with companies (that means that the water of the country is owned by a company), more and more governments want to help themselves to the waters of the oceans, which means doing their own desalination. Nowadays, there are 87 corporations building these plants. But this solution turns to be a bad one. First, even though there are more desalination plants in the world, only rich countries, or the World Bank, or big corporations, or the three together are going to be able to afford to build these plants. Second, desalination requires fossil fuels burn and thus leads to more global carbon emissions, which means more global warning. So while responding to one problem, you actually aggravate another. And still, thorny issues remain: who is going to own this water? Once cleaned, will the water be returned to the public domain? In fact, as water is necessary to live, “the ones that own desalination plants will control life”.
Globalization has also its part to play in the fresh water’s scarcity because water is being “lost”. This can be illustrated with the two following countries: China and Kenya. China, with its few laws, is attracting agribusiness. As a result, almost all apple juice sold in the United States of America comes from China. But did you know that about 99 liters of water are needed per apple? That means that China, a very dry country, is actually exporting its water to the US through the apples. Kenya, another dry country, is also exporting its water through roses. Almost all roses sold in Europe come from Kenya while a dozen roses requires 120 liters of water. The water comes from Lake Naivaska and every day its level decreases. The point is that water is transported to another ecosystem and is completely lost. Indeed, the water does not return to the land from which it has been taken, thus the lake water level just keeps on decreasing until there is no more water, and the whole region turns into a desert area unfit for any kind of life. But though citizens are aware of that, Kenya just keep on producing roses. Kenya is actually being told by the World Bank to export water to get out of debt. Another consequence is that, as water in these dry countries becomes scarcer, it thus becomes more expensive. People who cannot afford to buy water have no choice but to take it from streams and get ill. And when people can afford to buy water, it provokes tensions within families: the person that has a job and thus pays for the water acquires the right to say for what purposes the water must be used. It also provokes some dramatic incidents: like a fire at someone’s home, the owner is not at home, and unfortunately neighbors do not have the money to stop the fire. In a South Africa’s village, this situation costs the life of two children.
Meanwhile people living in developed countries wonder why poor countries need emergency aid to provide something as basic as water. Actually the real question is, why are these countries poor? The answer is that developing countries have no choice but to grow cash crops (like tea, coffee); developing countries are hurt while it benefits developed countries’ corporations. So to fight the world water crisis, it is necessary, at first, to change the political and economic system.
The more we wait, the more world water shortage increases, and the more likely we are to reach a global water crisis. Indeed, serious conflict about water has already taken place. The most famous conflict concerns Owens Valley, California. In the 1920’s, William Mulholland, who was the head of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, ordered the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in order to take water from the Owens Valley and bring it to Los Angeles. Farmers in the Valley were put out of business and counterattacked in violent rebellions, trying to sabotage the aqueduct.
Another example is the fight over the Kaveri River in India, which was one of the most bloody water wars. Though the conflict’s purpose was water, it was presented as a religious conflict. Yet another well known water conflict took place in Bolivia, in the city of Cochabamba. There the World Bank refused to grant a loan to finance the investment program of a local water co-op, so a few years later, in 2000, the city was obliged to sell its water to the corporation Bechtel. Even rain water was privatized, so people were prohibited from gathering rain water. The folk, having no money to buy water, rose up, and in reaction the government sent the army to protect Bechtel’s rights. After violent showdowns, the government finally defended its people and countered the World Bank’s decision.
Future water wars are going to take place. There seems to be no doubt about it, because water is essential to life. This outcome seems to be inescapable, and that is why new maps, like the Potential Water Supply Crises by 2025 map, are being made. The aim for governments today is to identify areas where existing supplies are not adequate to meet water demands for people, farms and the environment.
Countries like Brazil, Russia, Canada, the water rich area of the world, are understanding they need to secure theirs sources of water. For these countries, water will be their military and economic security, so like oil today, water is being protected by a military defense. And poor water countries, like the United States, are trying to secure those areas for themselves. The United States, for example, tried to set up a military base in Paraguay, near the Brazilian’s Guarini Aquifer, which is the world greatest aquifer. They first tied to convince Brazil to give them access to the aquifer. But when it comes to water, and that we will lack of it, there might be no doubt that force will be used. There is no question that this area will become the “Middle East” for water.
Now that the situation’s urgency is highlighted, we cannot just sit down and wait for this to happen. We cannot, because there are available solutions. Hydrologist Michael Kravcik insists on the simplicity of the solution: water has to return to its natural cycle and irrigate the land with rain water. Like the Project Blue alternative, the solution can be simple and cheap: manually create small wooden dams in small streams and water holdings; the water is trapped so that it goes right into the ground replenishing the ground water system. Rain can be brought to countries in drought thanks to the creation of clouds and rain in the atmosphere. Furthermore this simple model can create millions of jobs for poor people around the world. Another available solution is hydroponics technology, which is 20 to 30 times more efficient than growing crops outdoors. To these solutions we can add some others: going back to a food system where we are not dependable on global trade and where local water in used to grow appropriate crops; taking large dams down and replace them with alternative microturbins like those already used in Korea and Scandinavia; buildings streets with pavements that allow rain to filter through into the sub soil (moreover the ground water quality is improved); limiting the population growth of a region depending on available water supply; using low flow shower heads; turning off the tap when brushing teeth or shaving. But the most pressing deed might be calling for a UN Convention stating Water is a Human Right and a public trust and cannot be denied to anyone on the base of inability to pay. Because water is essential to every human being, control over the water companies should take place on an international level.
Finally we should all focus on what we normal citizens can achieve, and to do so there is one example to follow: the people of Uruguay. When drinking water was privatized, prices skyrocketed. But citizens reacted and successfully passed a constitutional amendment that established the right to water and forbids privatization. “People must become the water guardian of the 21st century”.
After writing this, I highly recommend you watch this incredible eye-opening documentary. Coming from a country where opening the tap and having drinking water flowing seems so regular, having never thought of living even one day without fresh water, but being aware on how precious water is, this movie just makes me realize how pressing the moment to act is. Because, Yes, there are injustices (people in developed countries worry about having a beautiful lawn even in desert area, while others are literally dying of thirst), and because No, it is not too late. We all must, without waiting a single moment, share this duty. It is a burden we should all bear because water shortage is going to affect us all, poor people at first but also the rich. Never forget that past “smart” civilizations have collapsed from poor water management, and unless we change things, ours will too.
– Aude Feltz, MPT Intern-