Water water everywhere, but not for long
Maude Barlow calls for a blue covenant
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.”