New Internationalist

Precious fluid

Issue 354

Dinyar Godrej on the challenge posed by the world’s freshwater crisis.

The city doesn’t sleep easy.

It sleeps with an ear cocked to the fully opened taps with buckets dangling from them. At the first spluttering sounds of the water ration’s arrival through the pipes in the pre-dawn dark, bodies spring from beds to fill buckets and pots. In larger houses tanks are monitored whilst the taps run. In the slums they have been awake before the first drops arrived. Queuing listlessly, half-asleep, with their pots by the communal tap, waiting. Sometimes the water runs for an hour, sometimes just a few minutes. Sometimes the water company skips a day or two, sometimes more. Sometimes it places a discreet notice, after the event, in the local papers. It usually takes the telephone receiver off the hook on such days. Rumours fly… another burst supply pipe? Everyone’s in a fever, repeatedly babbling their fears about when the water might return.

My mother reminds everyone who will listen to use less water. Several trips are made through the day to inspect the level of the tanks – one on the roof, one in the ground.

The city’s poor, with limited means of storage at their disposal, are forced to buy exorbitantly priced water brought in by tanker. Fights erupt. There have even been murders.

The city is Indore, a bustling hub of 1.5 million inhabitants located atop central India’s Deccan plateau. It’s where I grew up. There has been a ‘water problem’ here as far back as I can remember. Today it is estimated that water supply to the city is half of what is actually required. A rise in population and a steady decline in rainfall are usually blamed. But there are other culprits too.

Ironically, chief among them is the Government’s vision originally intended to quell the shortfall. ‘Modernity’ and ‘development’ have been its burnished aims. They brought forth grandiose schemes to engineer water supplies to India’s thirsty cities, complete with political rhetoric about delivering piped water to the rural poor. In Indore’s case a project to suck up water from the Narmada River lay unfinished for years. It then failed to meet ever-increasing demand. Meanwhile Indore’s own streams, an historical source of water, were neglected and turned into stagnant drains. Ecologists argue that the promise of a ‘modern’ tap in every home turns people into passive consumers of state-provided water and erodes the traditional role of communities in maintaining local water supply.

Water shortage is accompanied by a glorious inequality in supply. A street where the bureaucratic top brass live is conspicuous for its lush gardens even during the season of dust that is the central Indian summer. An industrialist’s mansion down the road from my parents’ house has an indoor swimming pool. And then there are whole localities with either a very tenuous supply or none at all.

Running low

Trygve Bolstad / Panos Pictures
Trygve Bolstad / Panos Pictures

It’s the kind of crisis that is mirrored in cities right across the so-called developing world – with no end in sight. Today, for the first time in history, as many people live in urban concentrations as in rural areas. As cities swell unplanned and the newly dispossessed crowd into shantytowns and slums, their collective thirst grows. Old and leaky water infrastructure – an estimated 70 per cent of the water supply is lost as a consequence – combined with listless, cash-strapped and often corrupt administrations result in a situation that rarely improves. In grand development terms, to bring a reasonable supply to the billion people worldwide who lack a clean source of drinking water, the tab would run to the amount currently being spent on the deployment of troops against Iraq. But these aren’t the kinds of priorities that political bigwigs juggle.

If we consider that somewhere in the logic of bombs, regime change and Iraq, oil plays a significant part, then what should we make of the business magazine Fortune’s assertion (in May 2000) that ‘Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century.’ It implies both that water has a commercial value and that it is scarce. That it is invaluable to life cannot be questioned – humans can last for a maximum of three days without water. The Turks have a saying: ‘Iraq has oil, we have water. Let them drink their oil.’

Once aquifers are poisoned, start praying.

But water scarce? Surely there’s so much of it… Sadly only 0.01 per cent of our planet’s water is available for our use. Even this would be sufficient for our needs, were it not for its uneven distribution: the amount of water available depends on the location of water bodies and the amount of rainfall. On the one side are nations like Brazil, the former Soviet states and Canada with an abundant natural supply; and on the other there are the arid zones of the Middle East and numerous African nations where nature is less generous. Some countries, like China, have plentiful water but experience stress due to mismanagement, pollution and the increasing demands of a large population.

Crisis and challenge

Today in almost every area of the world one chooses to look at there is a water problem – scarcity, depletion, pollution, lack of sanitation, failing rains due to global warming, big dam projects blocking up rivers, privatization, inequities of distribution, cross-border conflict, profligate use and mismanagement. Take your pick. But let’s start with overuse.

We learn at school that freshwater on earth follows a cycle: it is constantly being replenished, some of it soaking into the ground and into vegetation, some of it meandering through streams and rivers on its way back to the sea. But at what stage of our lives do we forget this important lesson? The moment one starts using freshwater beyond the rate at which it can be replenished, the hydrological cycle is endangered.

The crisis is particularly acute in relation to our groundwater reserves, lying deep under the surface in aquifers, upon which a third of the world’s population depends. Water can take thousands of years to percolate into aquifers (some contain water from the last ice age). Some have since sealed up, allowing little possibility of recharge. Because the reserves of water they hold are large, humans have been tapping them like there is no tomorrow. Currently we are pumping out about 200 billion cubic metres (1 cubic metre = 908 litres) more than can be recharged, steadily using up our water capital.1

Take California with its manicured lawns and 560,000 swimming pools. Having taxed the Colorado River to the limit, the region’s aquifers are being guzzled up. By 2020 officials predict a water shortfall nearly equivalent to what the state is currently using. Another more distant water source needs to be found to gulp down. Consumption is the operative word for US water use.2

Monomania is perhaps the chief reason why Libya’s Colonel Qadhafi has embarked on a grandiose project to draw water from an aquifer beneath the Sahara desert and transfer it 3,500 kilometres by a network of giant pipelines to irrigate his country. The cost of this Great Man-made River [sic] is reaching $32 billion. Its water will be so dear – at about $10,000 to irrigate a hectare, that they’d better start growing gold. But the promise of abundance is political capital that Qadhafi is only too keen to exploit, even if it were far cheaper for Libya to import food instead. The aquifer can never be renewed, as hardly any rain falls in the Sahara. How long would the water last? Recent estimates hover between a mere 15 to 50 years. What would the results be? Apart from huge subsidence in the Sahara, there is the prospect of the Nile seeping into the emptying aquifer thus plunging Egypt into crisis.3

We have painfully learned that large-scale projects to divert water great distances do serious environmental damage and mostly benefit the well-heeled.

 Photo: Gisele Wulfsohn / Panos Pictures
Photo: Gisele Wulfsohn / Panos Pictures

We compound shortages and profligacy by persistently poisoning our water. In India, where water is considered sacred, the notion that it will absorb all ills has probably not helped to stop the pollution of the country’s major – and holy – rivers. Much of Eastern Europe has filthy rivers; in Poland the problem is so bad that the water of the majority of its rivers cannot even be put to industrial use.2 But whereas polluted rivers can be rejuvenated through concerted action, as in the case of the Hudson river in the US or the Funan in China (as reported in NI 352), once aquifers are poisoned, start praying. Today groundwater around major cities, near industrial developments or beneath industrial farms inevitably contains contaminants. Hardly surprising as fully 85 per cent of pesticides don’t reach their targets and nitrogen fertilizers are notorious for seeping into ground water. We produce industrial contaminants so toxic that they can only be diluted to safe levels by millions of times their quantity of water. Yet 60 per cent of the liquid industrial waste in the US is injected straight into deep groundwater in the fond hope that none of it will ever bubble up into the water people actually use.1 We dump our rubbish in landfills from where it begins its slow leak into the ground. We overpump our coastal aquifers to the point that seawater rushes in to kill them. It is in combination a deadly form of short-sightedness.

Shifting gear

Our environment just can’t afford another spendthrift century. During the 20th century the world’s population tripled. Water consumption grew sevenfold. One of the major reasons for this surge has not been domestic consumption, although this has undoubtedly grown more lavish, but a wasteful model of agriculture that has turned food-growing into an industrial process (see last month’s NI). The scale is no longer human and sustainable, but gigantic and destructive. And it demands intensive irrigation. Today farming accounts for 70 per cent of our water use with the lion’s share taken by irrigation. But the crops promoted are often inappropriate, the lands used marginal and the returns diminishing. There is a widespread salinization of soils caused either by irrigation which draws salts to the surface in dry areas or else the evaporation of irrigation water that leaves salt in its stead. Poor management has led to the salinization of a full 20 per cent of the world’s irrigated land.4 One estimate suggests that up to 10 per cent of the world’s grain is being produced by water that will not be renewed.5
It is clear that we need a rapid gear change in the way we think about water. We need the widespread adoption of sustainable farming methods, the promotion of industries that recycle their water (Germany is doing it) and a link in industrial processes that allows one to reuse another’s waste water. This much we know – that current technologies can save 50 per cent of agricultural water and 90 per cent of industrial, to say nothing of domestic use.2 We also know that desalinization is expensive and will cause marine pollution when the hot, briny residue is dumped back in the sea. We have painfully learned that large-scale projects to divert water great distances do serious environmental damage and mostly benefit the well-heeled. And then there are the wealthy nations who not only use their natural endowment of water more wastefully but consume water invisibly in industrial production. It takes 400,000 litres of water to make a car.2 If you take this into account each Australian, living on the driest continent on earth, consumes more than a million litres of freshwater annually.6

So it is a bit surprising to find Western environmentalists blaming population pressures in some of the poorest countries for the freshwater crisis. The world’s poor are the most frugal consumers of water. In regions of absolute water poverty, population may become the determining factor, but almost everywhere sound management of the local environment remains the key to freshwater sustainability.

Turning water to profit

But this doesn’t seem to be a view that finds favour with the IMF and World Bank. After destroying public-service provision and infrastructure through years of structural- adjustment programmes, they now push deregulation and privatization as solutions to the world’s water problems. And they have clout – the World Bank and IMF insist on the privatization of water services as a precondition for their funding. Salivating behind them and lobbying hard are a handful of European water transnationals led by the French giants Suez and Vivendi Universal.7 There’s a killing to be made here. With only 5 per cent of water services in private hands, expansion opportunities are estimated at a trillion dollars. Gérard Mestrallet, CEO of Suez, put the industry position succinctly: ‘Water is an efficient product. It is a product which normally would be free, and our job is to sell it. But it is a product which is absolutely necessary to life.’ The thought that water privatization might actually work must withstand a raging torrent of ‘ifs’. If there is a guarantee of free minimum water provision to the poor… if pricing and performance are strictly regulated… if environmental stewardship is strong… and if there can be swift re-nationalization in case of mismanagement, there might be a chance. The reality is hugely different. It’s the private foot in the public door, according to the US campaigning group Public Citizen.

the World Bank and IMF insist on the privatization of water services as a precondition for their funding. Salivating behind them and lobbying hard are a handful of European water transnationals.

The transnationals cherry-pick the most profitable sectors (mostly upmarket areas), they demand upgrades of existing infrastructure from the public purse and tax cuts, they shed staff, they raise prices and cut off people unable to pay. Yet this is the model being pushed right across Africa where the need for public provision of safe water is greatest. (The wider public-private debate features in next month’s NI). Environmental activist Vandana Shiva is eloquent on the subject: ‘The water crisis is an ecological crisis with commercial causes but no market solutions. Market solutions destroy the earth and aggravate inequality. The solution to an ecological crisis is ecological, and the solution for injustice is democracy. Ending the water crisis requires rejuvenating ecological democracy.’8 A first step is being taken by popular movements right across the world resisting water privatization, from the US where the majority of water is still in public hands, to Ghana where few can afford to pay for private water. Privatization has been thwarted in numerous cities including Cochabamba in Bolivia, Toronto in Canada and Grenoble in France. Nicaragua and Uruguay have passed legislation against it. However, the IMF is squeezing Nicaragua to accept privatization.

A second step is the growing popularity of conservation movements that aim to put the stewardship of this precious fluid in the hands of local communities. The message is clear – water belongs to us all.

To return briefly to Indore’s thirst. The biggest local newspaper is offering financial support to initiatives to catch rainwater and channel it underground to rejuvenate dry wells. Some local politicians are beginning to see that such small solutions actually work. And groups of ordinary residents are taking up the challenge. It’s a different kind of connection to water, don’t you think? A respectful kind that’s echoed in this verse from the ancient Hindu holy text, the Rig Veda:

‘O, waters of life! Full of noble virtues! You are the beacon of light, divine and pure, Envelop me in your majestic tides and hold me secure.’9

  1. Payal Sampat, ‘Uncovering groundwater pollution’ in Lester R Brown, State of the World 2001 (Earthscan 2001).
  2. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold (Earthscan 2002).
  3. Rose George, ‘A river runs through it’, The Independent on Sunday, 12 January 2003.
  4. UNEP Global Environment Outlook 3 (Earthscan 2002).
  5. Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (Norton 1999).
  7. Vivendi has announced its intention to withdraw from the water sector in 2004.
  8. Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (Pluto Press 2002).
  9. Translated by Aruna Mohan Rao.

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