Will there be enough to go around in tomorrow’s world? How to have adequate water for all who need it on the global scale has become as urgent and compelling an environmental issue as how to avoid too much atmospheric carbon dioxide.
But unlike the invisible, tasteless, odorless greenhouse gas whose levels are near or past the tipping point, water touches us tangibly every day. Thirst tells when we there’s not enough of it in our bodies and drought shows us the same dependence for our crops and livestock and forests. In a matter of hours or days without it, our absolute reliance on the liquid is not in question.
Even so, it’s hard to fully comprehend the pending water crisis beyond the boundaries of our Floyd County kitchen sinks, wells and watersheds. If we’re not thirsty, if our gardens and woods are green and the creeks are full now, where’s the problem?
It lies in the fact that soon there will likely be nine billion cups held under the spigot, even as the global water use per person in the developed world continues to rise.
Add to this the fact that the volume of existing potable water for those who need it is reduced by contamination with heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and pathogens, though there are far too many who must drink whatever they can get in whatever state it’s in. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 billion people still lack access to clean water and 2.3 billion people suffer from water-borne diseases each year.
Fresh water melts from the snowpack of warming mountain glaciers in Nepal to rush past thirsty millions on its way to the salt seas. It becomes unreachable by excessive draw-down of sources underground to water lawns, fill swimming pools or grow biocrops to fuel our cars.
The supply diminishes, the demand increases, and waters above and under ground cross all kinds of high-tension state and national borders. The term “water wars” is more thinkable than ever.
When it comes to this essential “right” regarded over our short human history as an “all you can eat” entitlement from the commons like air, it is not easy for us to see it any other way into the future. And yet, we must.
Here are just a few issues that demand a new attitude about and relationship with water:
Bottling the Tap ~ Who owns the water under in our bedrock? Water is becoming increasingly “owned” by companies like Nestle who just lost an attempt in Michigan to mine without restrictions a community’s groundwater at 400 gallons per minute, paying less than local residents do, then selling it bottled all over the world at thousands of times the water’s value. They’re restricted now to 200 gallons. Per minute. Twenty-four/seven. For years. Search Food and Water Watch for more.
Public versus Private ~ The World Bank and other international financial institutions and governments have been promoting private control and ownership of developing countries’ water services. Costs for the thirsty poor rise, and a small group of shareholders prosper even as water-borne diseases remain a chief cause of illness and death worldwide. Consider that those who own the water, own the food; those who own the water and the food, own the people. Market forces alone can’t be the guiding principle in allocating water equitably.
Virtual Water and water footprint ~ The water I’ve required for my morning routine didn’t all come from our well. The cup of coffee I just enjoyed took 37 gallons of water from some distant place to grow, process, package and ship. The typical hamburger requires more than 500 gallons of water. In the same way there are invisible, externalized costs in fossil fuel for eating foods imported from a great distance, there is a water cost as well. Somebody somewhere pays with their water.
And When it Falls ~ Philadelphia’s 1.6 billion dollar project may serve as a national model. Instead of sending storm water and municipal waste down the same often-overwhelmed pipes, they’ll store rainfall on green rooftops, and send it to recharge aquifers beneath the city through pervious pavers and in rain gardens.
Scarcity, pollution and misallocation are problems with solutions. The time to talk our way through them is now.
Join the conversation about Floyd County’s unique water situation on December 10 at the Floyd Country Store at 3:00 and again at 6:00. The Virginia Rural Water Association will offer a brief presentation on source-water protection plans and will explain our county’s unique geology, groundwater structure and water resource storage and quality issues. More about that meeting here
This essay appeared in the Floyd Press on December 3, 2009. I strongly recommend seeing Blue Gold: World Water Wars available by disk or Instant Play on Netflix. More here.
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