December 18, 2011

Water World

A crisis is upon us. There is nothing more essential to our existence on this planet than water. It is the most vital component to all known forms of life, covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and literally flows through us, comprising 65 percent of the human body. What could be more inalienable than this, which so many call ‘the stuff of life?’ The United Nations General Assembly recently mandated that all Member States and international organizations hasten to provide the financial resources that will enable access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water for all. However, this is much easier said than done. With two-thirds of the world population expected to run short of fresh drinking water by 2025, water is being referred to as “the oil of the 21st century.” It is because of this scarcity, that there are forces moving to wrench control of this most basic necessity from the commons and secure every last drop in private hands, for the sake of profit.

Matt Wignall for Charity Water in Africa
Photo by: Matt Wignall

The history of water privatization is rather complex and varies by nation. In short, private utilities were quite common in Europe and the United States in the 19th century and largely existed peacefully alongside public utilities or in public-private partnership. These utilities were granted concessions or leases to manage individual municipalities, and charged a fair rate for the service of delivery, expansion of access and improvements in the quality of infrastructure. Over time, as these companies began to swell with profit, the proportion of privately held water companies shrank mostly in response to the massive failure to deliver on contractual agreements. In other words, these companies got rich and went soft. As this trend continued, by the late 20th century water utilities returned mostly to the hands of the public (with the exception of France, which has a checkered past in regards to water rights dating to the time of Napoleon III). How- ever, the tide turned in 1989 when the English government led by the conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fully privatized all water and sanitation companies in England and Wales, thereby creating a complete monopoly. This bold and decisive move set a precedent that is quickly becoming the gold standard for water conglomerates worldwide.

One might wonder about what happened to England and Wales because of this shift to a completely privatized system. Ruthless capitalist instincts of new ownership took hold and quickly raised the tariffs (46 percent increase in the first nine years) thereby contributing to a 142 percent rise in profits during the same period. Sadly, despite the drastically increased cash flow, investments in infrastructure were reduced and public health was jeopardized through cut-offs for non-payment. This same story is continuing to become a reality in many nations, with the developing world suffering more profoundly. The relative cost increase, while burdensome to Londoners, may in fact be impossible to overcome by the citizens of Khartoum or Caracas. In the developing world, access to water in newly privatized systems is often purchased via token systems, therefore, if one is without the funds to purchase tokens, then there is no access to water for drinking or cleaning. The only alternative is the polluted stream 10,000 steps away. In a tragic story described in the insightful documentary Blue Gold, an interviewee recounts the story of her home igniting while she was at work, leaving her children helpless within. Desperate neighbors were without even the paltry resources to draw water from the well to douse the flames, because access requires a prepaid token. Both children were needlessly killed.

It is under the guise of progress that massive multinationals Suez, Veolia Environnement and Thames Water benefit from seizing control of these water resources but many may question their motives considering that fortunes are made with the sale of water access and bottled water. All the while, 2 million people die each year from waterborne illness and it is mostly children who are the unfortunate victims. Beyond bacterial pollutants alone, scientists are discovering that the same chemical compounds used to manufacture jet fuel are found in drinking water around the world. As much as 10 percent of children under five die from poor drinking water; in fact, waterborne illness is more deadly than war worldwide. This is startling. There are inexpensive solutions to this epidemic. For instance, the filtration system UV Water- works pioneered by Ashok Gadgil is an effective disinfection system. With proper funding, this system that uses ultraviolet light to quickly purify water and can be connected to a small 60-watt solar cell, could provide for the 884 million people without adequate access to safe drinking water for just $2 billion. Ironically, over $10 billion was spent in the United States alone in 2009 on bottled drinking water and approximately $100 billion was spent worldwide that year as well. Even the most conservative estimates by the United Nations state that $30 billion would provide the world with clean water for drinking and sanitation. Is this not ignorance of the highest order?

However, despite a seemingly apocalyptic scenario, there is glimmer of hope. Companies like Charity : Water, based in New York City, are taking the problem head-on. By utilizing crowd-sourcing through the web, this organization manages to bring together like-minded individuals to raise funds to construct wells for the neediest and then bequeath this new infrastructure to the people themselves. According to their research, women spend over 40 billion hours annually transporting water in Africa alone. These hours are needlessly wasted and could be spent on efforts to bring about empowerment and education. Positive movements like ‘Take Back the Tap,’ sponsored by Food & Water Watch, have been helpful in educating the public about the social and environ- mental benefits of simply turning on the faucet when seeking a refreshing drink. It is easy to be tempted to consume water from the springs of Maine or from a source nestled in the islands of Fiji, though some may be shocked to discover that arsenic and other toxic chemicals have been found in over one-third of bottled water products currently at market. It is this final note that is most important, because it is only the act of choosing that gives us influence in this calamity. At the most basic level, we choose with our purchasing power–and our system of supply and demand will respond. If we select wisely, perhaps the profitability of water will ebb and the spring will return to public hands where it belongs.

text by: Nick Cope

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