Wa­ter wa­ter ev­ery­where, but not for long

Maude Bar­low calls for a blue covenant

Pasatiempo - - Heart-warming Gifts - Su­san Mead­ows For The New Mex­i­can

El agua es la vida. This tra­di­tional say­ing in New Mex­ico rec­og­nizes the fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance of wa­ter: wa­ter is life. Yet we may have less than a 10-year sup­ply of fresh wa­ter left, ac­cord­ing to Maude Bar­low, au­thor of 2007’s Blue Covenant: The Global Wa­ter Cri­sis and the Com­ing Bat­tle for the Right to Wa­ter and the se­nior ad­viser on wa­ter to the pres­i­dent of the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly from 2008 to 2009. Bar­low is also chair­woman of the Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans, a pub­lic ad­vo­cacy group fight­ing for an in­ter­na­tional dec­la­ra­tion that wa­ter is a hu­man right. She speaks in Santa Fe with jour­nal­ist Laura Flan­ders onWed­nes­day, Feb. 17, as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s Read­ings and Con­ser­va­tions se­ries.

In an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo in Jan­uary, Bar­low cited a 2003 sur­vey by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ing Of­fice that showed that 36 states es­ti­mated they would ex­pe­ri­ence some form of wa­ter short­age in five to 10 years. (Three states didn’t re­spond to the sur­vey, New Mex­ico in­cluded.) A Jan. 8, 2010, on­line CBS News ar­ti­cle, ti­tled “Amer­ica’s Dwin­dlingWater Sup­ply,” cites the same statis­tics and pre­dicts those short­ages will hap­pen in the next three years. “Ev­ery day Ari­zona and New Mex­ico use 300 mil­lion gal­lons more than they get back in re­new­able sup­ply,” ac­cord­ing to the CBS News re­port.

The prob­lem is global. Peo­ple all over the world are min­ing wa­ter and drain­ing aquifers faster than they can recharge, Bar­low said. Ma­jor rivers and lakes are dry­ing up, with dev­as­tat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences; th­ese rivers in­clude the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, which no longer reach the sea. Deserts are en­croach­ing on arable land. As for the in­creas­ing preva­lence and fre­quency of droughts, Bar­low said, “We are not talk­ing about cycli­cal drought. [Call­ing it a drought] makes peo­ple think it will end. The re­al­ity is we are us­ing up the avail­able wa­ter faster than it can be re­plen­ished. The World Bank es­ti­mates that by 2030 the world de­mand for wa­ter will ex­ceed sup­ply by 40 per­cent.”

Mean­while, ac­cord­ing to theWorldWater Coun­cil, an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion formed to raise aware­ness of crit­i­cal wa­ter con­cerns, the av­er­age daily wa­ter use of Amer­i­cans and Ja­panese is more than twice that of Euro­peans and 10 times that of the av­er­age sub-Sa­ha­ran African. Pol­lu­tion is con­tam­i­nat­ing sur­face wa­ter and ground­wa­ter, com­pound­ing the prob­lems of drought and de­ple­tion. De­for­esta­tion, the ex­pan­sion of cities, and the loss of green spa­ces in­crease runoff and pre­vent rain­wa­ter ab­sorp­tion, chan­nel­ing fresh wa­ter into the sea.

The old no­tion we learned in school about the hy­dro­log­i­cal cy­cle is mis­lead­ing, Bar­low said. “We learned that the wa­ter cy­cle has a fixed amount of wa­ter and it goes around and can’t go any­where. It is still in the earth, but if it is in the oceans [from] dump­ing through cities,

or if you use it to wa­ter desert— for cot­ton, for ex­am­ple, in Chad— if you used up the wa­ter or pol­luted it, it is no longer in a form we can ac­cess.”

Bar­low is a leader in the world­wide move­ment that fo­cuses on three re­lated wa­ter con­cerns: the dwin­dling sup­ply of fresh wa­ter, un­equal ac­cess to wa­ter, and what ac­tivists call “wa­ter democ­racy.” Vi­o­lent con­flicts are in­creas­ingly the re­sult of the deep­en­ing di­vide over wa­ter, she said. For ex­am­ple, in Dar­fur, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion pitched no­mads against farm­ers, then farm­ers against the gov­ern­ment, spi­ral­ing down­ward into one of the big­gest on­go­ing refugee crises of our time.

Pri­vate com­pa­nies treat wa­ter as a com­mod­ity to be ex­tracted, traded, and sold to the high­est bid­der. Ac­cord­ing to Kat­sumi Mat­suoka, a pro­fes­sor of law at Fuji Uni­ver­sity, wa­ter likely falls un­der the WTO Gen­eral Agree­ment on Trades and Tar­iffs, an in­ter­na­tional treaty that cod­i­fies trade agree­ments be­tween mem­ber na­tions.

Pri­vate com­pa­nies are con­tract­ing to run wa­ter sys­tems and de­liver wa­ter to pay­ing cus­tomers in coun­tries around the world, es­pe­cially in what Bar­low calls “the global south.” The profit mo­tive is touted by sup­port­ers as speed­ing in­vest­ment to com­mu­ni­ties in need of wa­ter ser­vices and in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency, but Bar­low dis­putes th­ese claims. Re­ports of pri­vate wa­ter util­i­ties im­pos­ing ex­ces­sive rate hikes, dump­ing raw sewage into lo­cal wa­ters, and even de­liv­er­ing con­tam­i­nated wa­ter have occurred in poor coun­tries around the world, in­clud­ing Bo­livia, Ar­gentina, and the Philip­pines. At­lanta, Ge­or­gia, ended its ex­per­i­ment with pri­va­tized wa­ter af­ter only four years fol­low­ing com­plaints of poor de­liv­ery, de­layed re­pairs, and brown tap wa­ter.

Bar­low stressed that she isn’t op­posed to cost re­cov­ery — through pro­gres­sive taxes or fees that en­cour­age con­ser­va­tion— for wa­ter ser­vices. Though pric­ing can mo­ti­vate peo­ple to con­serve, the profit mo­tive ul­ti­mately runs counter to pre­serv­ing wa­ter as a pre­cious re­source, hu­man-rights ad­vo­cates ar­gue, be­cause if peo­ple use less, prof­its fall for the wa­ter provider. Un­like most other nat­u­ral re­sources, there is no sub­sti­tute for wa­ter. Yet pri­vate com­pa­nies are buy­ing up rights to wa­ter re­sources world­wide to pro­duce ex­pen­sive bot­tled wa­ter, sug­ary bev­er­ages, and other ex­port prod­ucts. Prod­ucts whose pro­duc­tion is wa­ter-in­ten­sive re­sult in the vir­tual ex­port of wa­ter— a fact not al­ways ob­vi­ous to the con­sumer — but the ac­tual and vir­tual ex­port of wa­ter is drain­ing im­por­tant ecosys­tems around the world (such as Lake Naivasha in Kenya— see side­bar, Page 44).

If wa­ter is a hu­man right, as Bar­low be­lieves it is, then gov­ern­ments not only have an obli­ga­tion to pro­vide wa­ter

to their cit­i­zens as a pub­lic ser­vice but also to rec­og­nize the rights of neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. The U.N. covenant sought by Bar­low and oth­ers (see side­bar, Page 43) is un­en­force­able, but sig­na­to­ries would re­view the covenant, rat­ify it, and have an eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion to de­velop an action plan to im­ple­ment it. Some coun­tries, such as Canada, the United States, and France, are re­sis­tant to the idea, but Ger­many, Spain, the Nether­lands, and many na­tions of Latin Amer­ica are sup­port­ers of such a covenant.

While progress is slow, wa­ter ad­vo­cates are work­ing with in­di­vid­ual coun­tries to go fur­ther. Uruguay and Bo­livia have added amend­ments to their con­sti­tu­tions mak­ing wa­ter a pub­lic trust and pub­lic ser­vice. Chile’s Cham­ber of Deputies is con­sid­er­ing a con­sti­tu­tional re­form to rec­og­nize fresh wa­ter as a mat­ter of na­tional se­cu­rity, ac­cord­ing to a Jan. 28, 2010, news re­port from the In­ter Press Ser­vice that caught even Bar­low by sur­prise (fresh wa­ter was pri­va­tized un­der Gen. Au­gusto Pinochet, who led the mil­i­tary junta that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990).

Closer to home, Ver­mont has de­clared ground­wa­ter a pub­lic trust, with homes and farms hav­ing first pri­or­ity in times of short­age, ac­cord­ing to a 2008 ar­ti­cle in The New York Times that noted that sev­eral other states, mostly in the East, have sim­i­lar statutes.

The long his­tory of pri­vate ex­ploita­tion of re­sources in the Amer­i­canWest has led to a sys­tem of wa­ter rights that pits North­ern New Mex­ico’s small farm­ers against In­dian casino re­sorts and golf-course de­vel­op­ers, cities against coun­ties, and pri­vate res­i­den­tial and in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment against ev­ery­body else. Wa­ter rights come with an anti-con­ser­va­tion le­gal prece­dent: “use it or lose it.” In this race for pa­per rights, who wins when the wa­ter runs out, whether it is in three, five, or 10 years?

The wa­ter cri­sis is, Bar­low said, “five years be­hind cli­mate change. It took Al Gore’s film… to bring [cli­mate change] into the mass con­scious­ness.” The two crises are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, she said. De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion; the heatre­flect­ing, non­ab­sorp­tive qual­i­ties of cities; ir­ri­ga­tion of deserts for agri­cul­ture; de­for­esta­tion; the drain­ing of lakes and rivers; and the dump­ing of fresh wa­ter into oceans as waste are all con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change— some ac­tivists be­lieve th­ese fac­tors are mak­ing as big an im­pact as car­bon emis­sions are. But Bar­low found hope in the U.N. Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Copen­hagen: “We were there to put wa­ter on the agenda,” she said. And if it didn’t get on the of­fi­cial agenda, it did mat­ter to groups fight­ing for cli­mate jus­tice. “The street protests… the re­ju­ve­na­tion of a move­ment, gave me huge hope.”

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