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new internationalist
issue 207 - May 1990

Thirsty for life: The power of water.

Water is a political issue
and has always been so.
Maggie Black explains why.

WATER means life. Now there's a stock phrase, a cliché that only gains drama when it's attached to a dying explorer in a burning desert. Yet it refers to fundamental earth forces, to survival on the planet.

Those of us who live in water-rich lands take it too much for granted, this fluid as physiologically vital as blood, this substance that disobeys all chemical rules and without which nothing on earth could live or grow. The loss of our water supply, a crash in the hydrological cycle, would wipe us out more thoroughly than the explosion of any nuclear arsenal.

Water powers our bodies and our minds more elementally than food. An adult may survive weeks without eating, but without water the metabolism falters in hours. Water's cleansing and health-giving properties have always been revered, in the traditional world by priests and pilgrims, in the modern by the agents of public health and sanitary engineering.

Water falling as rain from the sky, water running through the intricate network of veins and arteries in the earth's body, fuels the growth of all plant life. It sculpts the landscape, taking soil from one place to another, distributing swamps and deserts between peoples and countries. No wonder taming rivers and damming lakes was long a pursuit of kings and maharajahs, even a US President or two. As a means of transport and a source of power, water commanded respect through the ages, making and breaking dynasties from the Nile to the Euphrates, from the Ganges to the Po, from the Thames to the Zambezi.

Concepts of power have changed down the years. Science and technology have stepped in where primeval forces used to rule. The exercise of power in the modern world is a cerebral affair, a manipulation of economic and political forces which has little in common with the ancient battles against the elements. We have become so used to the taming of earth, fire and flood that we tend to overlook the potency the waters still exercise within our lives. But pressures are at work to bring humankind face to face with water's limits and rid us of our complacency.

In the modern world we have actually expanded the use of water, allowing it an even more pervasive influence in our lives. It has become an essential solvent and coolant in industrial and chemical processes, flowing and dripping through mining equipment and manufacturing plant to mould, blend, and wash most of the things we handle in our daily lives. It takes 100,000 gallons to produce a motor car, 1,000 to put a pound of beef on the table. Our domestic thirst has grown too. Apart from what we swallow, each Western household flushes around 100 gallons of water down the drain every day.

Our profligacy is not shared in developing countries, where over half of all households - or rather their womenfolk - must carry every drop of water home in a container. The load is heavy and water spilt is water lost. Where the stream is miles away, consumption per person is often close to the biological minimum of three litres a day. In those homes, 'water means life' is not a cliché but something dealt with as a back-breaking everyday reality.

The fundamental contrast between the way water is seen in the developed and the developing world is the contrast between quantity and quality. In most parts of Asia and Africa, it threatens either absence or over-abundance, and sometimes one after the other with bewildering rapidity. In the West, it's the contents of the tumbler we bother with. We don't seriously picture the tap running dry.

But wherever we are, water makes involuntary neighbours of us all. What happens upstream affects those who live down, whether they are thousands of miles away or in shouting distance. And because water keeps moving and will not stay still, it cannot be marked out and laid claim to like land.

Water has to be a communal asset. For thousands of years, legal systems have accepted that there can be no ownership of running water.¹ Nonetheless, because access to water is precious, it has to have custodians. Some individuals may claim certain privileges because their land abuts the lake or stream. Government must say what those privileges may be and regulate rights to use water or to interfere with it. As pressure both on water's quality and its quantity builds up, the bargaining over water's role in economic and political life will likewise become more vociferous.

War and peace
The problem is explicit already in areas of the world which are water-poor.² Egypt's 55 million people depend entirely on agriculture irrigated by the Nile, none of whose waters originate within its borders. Food and drinking-water needs are rising along with population growth, while hungry Ethiopia, controlling the headwaters, is planning to divert more water for its own crop production.

Conflicts between nations over water are multiplying. Bitter wrangles have developed between India and Bangladesh over the flow of the two Himalayan rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, in the alluvial plains of their confluence above the Bay of Bengal. In the Middle East, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank all face a 'water gap' between needs and resources by the mid-1990s. Some observers postulate that war or peace in the Middle East will be governed by access to water.

Water holds another, hidden, threat: contaminants. One of water's most extraordinary qualities is its changeability. It dissolves, absorbs, dilutes, concentrates, taking in a profusion of boarders. The stream passing my door may come past yours and in between there may be a flood, an epidemic, a pig farm, a factory. All these can change the make-up of the water, releasing pollutants into its biological net.

In the Western world, we expect engineers to tame and treat our waters into uniformity. About 150 years ago, when industrialization first produced immense urban squalor, medical scientists identified water as the carrier of deadly disease. From then on, the role of water as the world's inbuilt laundry and washing-up apparatus became formalized and engineered. The architects of public health set about tunnelling and flushing, creating an underworld full of drains, sewers, pipes and faucets. By the late nineteenth century it had become accepted that both potable water and waste disposal had to be laid on in the towns as an essential public service.

The achievements of the sanitary engineers warrant heroic descriptions in the history books. But today the waterways they diverted and sanitized are again under pressure because of the increasingly complex uses to which they are put. Discharges of effluent push their self-cleansing properties to the limit, threatening not only human health but the life systems of plants, birds and aquatic creatures which depend on the natural regime. As the waters are yearly buffeted by more outflows, more detritus, the technicians are having a hard time keeping up.

They argue about the 'maximum admissible concentration' (MAC) of toxic substances such as nitrates, aluminium and lead in water, how to test for them, and whether the 'cocktail' of toxicity is more important than the individual microgram count per litre. At one level, the hazards seem infinitesimal, and we are always being told not to worry about the quality of our water; but at another level the hazards are very real. As the World Health Organization (WHO) points out³, chemical contaminants in the drinking-water supply, undetectable by the senses and only present as very low levels, may build up over a lifetime, accumulating toxicity in the body. As we intensify the use of fertilizers and pesticides so as to grow more food, what risks are we storing in our tissues?

Third World thirst
Meanwhile, people in the Third World can only envy the levels of health risk faced by those of us who can turn on a tap or flush a toilet. Most cities in Africa and many in Asia - Dakar, Kinshasa and Chittagong, for example - have no sewerage of any kind.4 Streams, gullies and ditches are where most human excrement and household waste end up.

People draw their drinking water from a sandpipe which only operates for a few hours each day. Women still wash clothes and bathe their children in a muddy stream. In Nairobi, Jakarta, Bangkok and elsewhere, families are forced to purchase water from a vendor, paying ten times the rate charged to houses with mains connections (in Khartoum it is 18 times more expensive). In some parts of Sudan, half of household income is spent on water.5

As city populations rapidly expand, water and sanitation services are put under pressures unimaginable to those who built them. But at least fear of epidemic - repeating the terrible ravages of cholera in nineteenth-century Europe - encourages action in city halls. Lagos, for example, used to be a watchword for urban filth. Now there is a monthly 'sanitation day' on which moving around the city is banned: everyone must pick up a shovel and clean their neighbourhood.

But until very recently, the sanitary environment inhabited by more than 60 per cent of Third World people - the countryside - was left to take care of itself. The woman carrying her container to the well, washing her laundry in the stream, leaving her toddlers to squat in the compound, had never seen a pipeline nor a drain; no faucet graced her village square, let alone her own backyard. At the end of the 1970s, 1.2 billion people in the Third World were without a safe supply of drinking water and 1.6 billion without any proper means of waste disposal

The Water Decade
In 1977, at a UN Conference summoned in Mar del Plata, Argentina, the need to provide water and sanitation to those denied this fundamental service was given international recognition. An 'International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade' was declared with the aim of providing 'Water and Sanitation for All by 1990'. International organizations - UNICEF, WHO, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank - and governments as well as voluntary agencies in both developed and developing countries all responded warmly.

Without the resources available to bring about the engineered model familiar in the Western world, those responsible for this new phase in the worldwide public-health revolution had to depend on the simplest, cheapest and least sophisticated of technical solutions: handpumps and pit latrines instead of sewers and treatment plants. In so doing, they pioneered a whole new approach.

The essence of this new approach was that is involved ordinary people. Local communities were invited to contribute first in labour, later in management, to the construction and operation of modestly scaled water enterprises. Managers and engineers went back to the drawing board to find solutions which were appropriate from not only a technical, but also a social and economic point of view.

After many a false start, they are now sponsoring a model which, at its best, is driven by the consumers. This has replaced the old-style grand construction which was imposed from outside and only served to put money in contractors' pockets. But for all its cost-cutting and its modesty, the new model still requires construction and engineering.

Even if the falling rain and the water swirling in the stream cannot be owned, once water is engineered it cannot be free. Every sluice gate, every treatment plant, every pipe and pump, has a price. And as pressure on the finite supply of fresh water intensifies, that price is mounting.

As the water table sinks in India or Bangladesh, a more powerful drilling rig is needed to cut through the rock, a better pump is needed to lift water from the lower depth. Even at the bottom of the technological range, water asserts an economic muscle. Nowadays, no programme for Third World water supplies is without a plan for the community to levy itself to cover maintenance. This is a necessary provision, since scheme after scheme has fallen into disrepair because people feel no sense of ownership. Now that equipment installed is simple and low-cost the amounts involved are usually very small - the price of a replacement washer, for example. Usually the community is willing to pay provided it knows what the money is going on. Water is simply too essential for people to go without.

Elsewhere, people are becoming much more aware of clean water as a scarce resource with a visible price tag. Nowhere is this more true than in Britain, where the privatizasion of the water industry in late 1989 caused widespread uproar. Why such a universally unpopular measure had to be driven onto the statute book is still an open question. But one factor has to be the unwillingness of Margaret Thatcher's government to finance from public sources the investment needed to bring Britain's water supply up to the quality required by WHO standards and European Community regulations.

Meanwhile British sales of bottled drinking water have been soaring. At roughly 1,500 times the price of tapwater, the economists say this shows consumers are prepared to pay a high price for drinking water. It may also show that consumers, like those in the Third World paying a levy for repairing the pump, will pay for what they feel they control. Consumers in Britain no longer control the water utilities; when prices of tapwater rise and shareholders and corporations are the ones to benefit, the political uproar will surely begin again.

A new era
From far off, the sound of the waterfall plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge below is the sound of muted thunder. Raw, naked power cascading in a boiling white spume, boring its way downstream, spreading out into stillness and narrowing into rage again. For too long, many of those whose lives depend on the power, the productivity and the health-giving properties of the waters have behaved cavalierly towards them.

Now, the water-affected are awakening and their voices are gradually being heard. People are protesting against the dams which destroy ecological systems; they are fighting the chemical pollutants which poison waterways; they are asserting control over the installations in their villages; they are outraged at the privatization of a vital service which should never be used for profiteering.

All of these protests have the same background message: water must remain a common asset, regulated between and within societies for the benefit of all. With muted thunder, a new era in water power may just be dawning.

1 Troubled Water: Rivers, Pollution and Politics. David Kinnersley (Hilary Shipman 1988).
Water Rethinking management in an age of scarcity. Sandra Postal (Worldwatch Institute 1984).
Drinking Water Quality and Health-related Risks, WHO Regional Office, Copenhagen.
Squatter Citizen, Jorge E Hardoy and David Satterthwaite (Earthscan 1989)
Khartoum squatter costs counted, article in World Water, November 1987, based on a report by the London School Of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine.
6 UNICEF and the 1990s:The Water and Sanitation Sector Workplan for 1990-95, UNICEF New York, November 1989.


Worth reading on... WATER

Water and waste are normally the preserve of technicians - doctors, sanitary engineers, the occasional geologist - whose literary prowess is not typically directed at the lay audience. The Water Decade added to the literature: try Water and Sanitation: Economic and Sociological Perspectives ed Peter Bourne (Academic Press 1984), Those more interested in nuts and bolts will prefer Community Water Development, ed Charles Kerr (Intermediate Technology 1989). On British water politics, David Kinnersley's Troubled Water: Rivers, Pollution and Politics (Hilary Shipman 1988), is circumspect in its analysis, highly illuminating in its broader perspectives; Dirty Water, Judith Cook (Unwin 1989) is a readable cry of rage. Sandra Postel's Worldwatch Reports tell all on global water scarcity. The dire need to clean up Third World cities is covered in Squatter Citizen, Jorge E Hardoy and David Satterthwaite (Earthscan 1989) and In the Shadow of the City, ed Trudy Harpham, Tim Lusty and Patrick Vaughan (OUP 1988). Good community development project examples appear in Building Community, ed Bertha Turner (Community Books 1988) and Against all Odds (Panos 1989). On dams, the seminal work is by Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard: Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams (Wadebridge Ecological Centre 1984). And also on dams but easier to handle is the campaigning newsletter, World Rivers Review, put out by the International Rivers Network in San Francisco.

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New Internationalist issue 207 magazine cover This article is from the May 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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