Water Wars, Water Cures
Gar Smith

Four disturbing facts: 1) All the Earth's drinkable water could fit inside a cube-shaped tank measuring only 95 miles on a side. 2) This reserve is shrinking because of pollution. 3) Some 1.2 billion people alive today lack ready access to clean water. 4) Earth's human population is expected to double in the next century.

"On the brink of the new millennium," BBC Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby observes, "the world has no more fresh water than it did 2,000 years ago, when the population was less than three percent of its present size."

Water is the one of world's most precious resources. Humans cannot survive much beyond three days without it. But as the population booms and as the planet warms, water tables around the world are falling at an average of three meters (9.8 feet) a year. The Worldwatch book, Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? [Winter/Spring 2000 EIJ] reports that the Earth's annual "water deficit" now stands at 160 billion cubic meters.

Noting that "40 percent of the world's food comes from irrigated cropland," Worldwatch predicts that water shortfalls may soon lead "not only to hunger but also to civil unrest and war."

United Nations Environment Program Chief Klaus Topfer is "completely convinced" that water wars may soon rock the planet. "Everybody knows that we have an increase in population, but we do not have a corresponding increase in drinking water, so the result . . . is conflict."

Oil-rich but water-poor Saudi Arabia purchases half of its water abroad. Israel imports 87 percent of its water and Jordan imports 91 percent. Some 31 countries--most in the Middle East and Africa--are now listed as "water-stressed." In another 25 years, 48 countries with more than one third of the world's population will suffer from water starvation.

Changing weather patterns have made drought commonplace in Britain. The BBC reports that groundwater in the Thames Valley has fallen to the lowest levels in a century. Meanwhile, domestic water consumption has doubled over the last 30 years.

Privatization of the water supply in 1989 has lead to a 44 percent increase in the average UK water bill. The private businesses now profiting off Britain's water have yet to repair thousands of miles of leaking pipes that lose 4.5 million liters (l.2 million gallons) of water each day.

With water in ever-decreasing supply, the forces of the marketplace are positioning themselves to profit from the demand. Because Canada's lakes and rivers hold approximately one-quarter of the Earth's fresh water, global entrepreneurs are vying to ship billions of liters of Canadian water to customers in California, Mexico, Japan and the Middle East.

Several US companies already have laid claim to Canada's water under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and they have threatened legal action through the World Trade Organization if their plans are blocked.

The International Joint Commission, a US-Canadian body that oversees protection of the Great Lakes, opposes plans to privatize Canada's liquid assets, noting that future rains and snows can replenish no more than one percent of this water.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy insists that NAFTA doesn't give US companies the right to grab Canada's water. "This is not a trade-related matter," Axworthy told the BBC. "It's an environmental matter."

Citing Chapter 11 of NAFTA, California-based Sun Belt Water has sued Canada for $10.5 billion to "compensate" the company for Canada's refusal to sell water to the firm. (Chapter 11 permits foreign firms to sue governments when national or local laws threaten to harm corporate profits.) Sun Belt Chairman Jack Lindsey is determined to win a license to buy and trade Canada's water. "Canadian courts cannot block me," Lindsey boasts.

It's not just businessfolk like Jack Lindsey that are preparing to profit from the coming global water shortage. Multinational corporations are also busy making plans to capitalize on catastrophe.

Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva has revealed that "The crisis of pollution and depletion of water resources is viewed by [US-based multinational] Monsanto as a business opportunity."

A Monsanto strategy paper obtained by Shiva states: "we believe that discontinuities . . . in resource quality or quantity . . . are likely, particularly in the area of water, and we will be well-positioned via these businesses [owned by Monsanto] to profit even more significantly when these discontinuities occur.

Joseph Jenkins, the author of Humanure Handbook [Spring '96 EIJ] divides societies into two categories: "Those who shit in their drinking water and those who don't. We, in the Western world, are in the former class."

In the US, water use "exceeds replacement rates by 21 billion gallons a day." The flush toilet accounts for nearly half of US domestic water consumption . According to EcoForum, the magazine of the Nairobi-based UN Environmental Program, standard flush toilets use 2,000 tons of fresh water to flush each ton of human waste.

A good first step toward solving the water crisis would be to replace flush toilets with stand-alone dry-composting toilets. Many clean, odor-free composting toilets are already on the market.

"Correctly managed, these provide cost-free, pathogen-free fertilizer," EcoForum reports. "Many Far Eastern societies have used dry toilets for centuries and . . . have been remarkably free of the fecal-borne epidemics that have plagued Western history."

Redesigning urban landscapes to incorporate rain-catchment areas could help, too. Harvesting rainwater flowing off rooftops provides another time-tested path to local water independence.

Water harvesting, long practiced in the underdeveloped world, is undergoing a renaissance in modern cities from Tokyo to Austin, Texas, where both the University of Texas and the National Wildflower Research Center have incorporated rain tanks.

"Everyone already is drinking rainwater," notes Austin resident Mike McElveen. "The difference is how far the raindrop travels before we drink it." McElveen collects his water pure and straight from the sky and stores it in a 10,700-gallon home-built tank.

A note of caution: In some parts of the world, agricultural and industrial pollution has poisoned the rain. National Wildlife Federation tests revealed that rain and snow falling over Chicago and other Midwest cities can contain mercury concentrations 42 to 65 times higher than the EPA's recommended safety levels. Coal-burning powerplants and municipal incinerators are responsible for most of this mercury pollution.

For more information on the fine points of water harvesting, download a detailed free guidebook from the website of the Texas Water Development Board

Gar Smith is editor-in-chief of the Earth Island Journal

© Earth Island Journal, spring 2000 issue