THE WELLSPRING OF LIFE
by Gloria D.M. Ong
Who would have thought this time will come when we would speak of global water wars, water warriors/activists, water apartheid, water privatization, even water corruption and water justice movement, alongside with virtual and digital waters?
Or, for that matter, that an airline would now charge its coach passengers $2 for bottled water (could be the brand that when spelled backwards reads naive)? But as a modern-day pundit said, "Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations."
Water covers two-thirds of the earth's surface and forms 80% of our bodies. Second only to the air we breathe, it is one of our basic requirements for continuing existence. Water is health, water is culture. A sacred symbol of purification and rebirth, it is at the heart of many a religious ritual--the Hindu puja, the Muslim ablution, the Christian baptism, the Buddhist bathing. As the poet W. H. Auden wrote in First Things First, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." Truly, water is life itself.
Yet the world has taken water for granted. Many assume they may consume water as much as they use air--without question, in quantities, that at least for their individual selves, are limited only by the satisfaction of their needs. Even the study of water has been left to a highly specialized group of experts.
With the reality, however, that our planet's potable water is finite and small and our demand for it outpaces its availability, even Pope Benedict XVI intoned, "Today, water is considered an asset that must be specially protected and used according to reasonable criteria of solidarity and responsibility." In a message relayed by the Vatican to the visitors at the Zaragoza (Spain) Expo themed Water and Sustainable Development, on the occasion of the “Day of the Holy See” (14 July 2008), the Pontiff continued, “The use of water – which is considered a universal, inalienable right – is related to the increasing and peremptory needs of destitute people. ”
He reiterated what had been stated by the Papal Council for Justice and Peace that “limited access to drinkable water affects the wellbeing of a huge number of people and often causes disease, suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death”. As to the right of an individual to water, he further emphasized it “is a right based on the dignity of the human being” and warned that one must look askance at people who consider and treat water merely as a commodity.
At the Zaragoza Expo, the precious liquid is right there in its element as it continues to fascinate, making waves, lending itself to modern technology and coming up in protean forms.The Digital Water Pavilion is a collaboration between Arup and Carlo Ratti, head of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) SENSEable City Laboratory. The walls of the pavilion are curtains of water controlled by software which, in turn, controls valves that allow the water to make gaps at specific locations. Sensors detect the approach of people and part the water for them to enter a la Moses. MIT brainiacs take pride in saying that the pavilion "subverts fundamental architectural rules in illustrating the potential of digital water as a medium."
As for virtual water, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1993 when such concept was introduced by Prof. John Anthony Allan from King's College, University of London. He demonstrated that people do not only consume water when they drink it or take a shower, but also consume much more water when they eat food and drink coffee. Allan garnered the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize for a concept that has had a major impact on global trade policy and research, especially in water-scarce regions. Further, the concept has "redefined the discourse in water policy and management."
While water is reusable in that it is constantly recirculated in the hydrological cycle, it is for all practical purposes a fixed quantity and there is no way of increasing its total amount available on the earth. Absolutely, water has no substitute. It pays to review then the hydrological cycle so that we may become better stewards of it..
Part of the water is stored in the oceans from which it is easily transferred to the atmosphere. The atmosphere holds water in the form of water vapor, either in small quantities which are not visible, or in sufficiently large quantities for condensation to occur and for clouds to form. Water is precipitated from the atmosphere as rain, hail or snow, whenever the air mass holding it is cooled.
On reaching the ground surface, the precipitated water is disposed of in a number of ways. Some will find its way relatively rapidly into streams and rivers, perhaps passing over the soil or thru its upper layers. This will return to the ocean directly, possibly being used by people on its way. Some of the water will be evaporated from the ground surface or from the leaves of vegetation soon after the rain stops, a process that may continue until the soil is so dry that no more moisture can be drawn to the surface. Some will be held in the soil and eventually used by plants, being returned to the atmosphere by the process of transpiration.
Water that finds its way into the deeper levels of the soil may be temporarily held as ground water. It provides a reservoir that may be used by plants, but part at least will probably find its way by subsurface flow to feed springs and rivers. Some of this ground water may travel long distances and can become a valuable source of water for people and their animals in areas a long way from those in which the rain fell.
Precipitation in the form of snow may remain on the surface for weeks or months before it joins the rivers. Sometimes, it may become part of a glacier and be stored as ice for years, but eventually any water that falls onto the earth's surface will find its way back into the oceans. This is the hydrologic cycle, the same principle and cycle of water operating on a global scale.
Today even as the United Nations acknowledges that more than 30 countries and over a billion people lack access to clean water, the scenario will become murkier if we do not drastically change our ways. Sounding the alarm are the voices of human rights and environmental groups, think tanks and research organizations, official international agencies and thousands of community groups around the world.
Which is the way it should be. Every year the global population increases by 85 million people and it is estimated that by 2025 two-thirds of the world will be living with severe freshwater shortages. Indeed, global freshwater crisis looms as one of the greatest threats ever to our survival. Still we have set up Milennium Development Goals which aim come 2015 to reduce by half the 2.6 billion people who do not have basic sanitation.
State planners are already seeing ground water availability as an increasingly crucial factor in long-term development , along with the traditional infrastructure components of roads, schools, waste disposal and utilities. Many people get their drinking water from aquifers--natural underground reservoirs which are saturated layers of sand or rock.With the spiraling growth of development, the levels of aquifer-fed wells may be dropping. Rain that falls on pavement or flows into storm drains is prevented from seeping into the ground and recharging aquifers.
Aside from storing water and redistributing it for crops and animals, we need water for our own domestic purposes--drinking, washing, cleaning the car, watering the garden, maintaining a swimming pool and sanitation. We also need water in manufacturing and industry, in public swimming pools, golf courses and in providing power. All these activities give rise to the problem of agricultural, domestic and industrial kinds of pollution. Residues of agricultural poisons and wastes from various kinds of chemical plants will result in the death of fishes and other animal life or even plant life. In Ohio, a river has been known to catch fire--so large were the amounts of flammable materials that had been put into it.
In the Philippines, we are familiar with some lakes that with an increase in their nutrient supply may produce an algal bloom on the surface. Such can be toxic not only to fishes but to animals drinking the water as the algae may also seriously reduce the oxygen content of the water. Last year environment protection advocate, Greenpeace, launched “Project: Clean Water” to make Filipinos keenly aware that the quality of freshwater in our country has drastically declined. The project also highlighted the scarcity of potable water and how pollutants in household and industrial wastes threaten the remaining clean fresh water sources. Each year "around 6,000 Filipinos die prematurely from waterborne, or water-related diseases such as diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of morbidity."
Not many people would associate water with corruption but Transparency International reported just recently that the lack of access to a connection forces the poor to tap the services of "informal providers" who charge much more. The report said the poor in Manila, Jakarta, Lima and Nairobi pay five to 10 times more for water than their wealthy counterparts.
"Residents of Manila without water service rely on kiosks, pushcart vendors and tankers to meet their needs. At a cost of $10-20 per month, it is more than what people living in New York, London and Rome pay for water," TI said.
Such set-up — lack of access to a formal and legal water connection, limited choice and voice, powerlessness, and a heavy dependence on informal and illicit providers — make the poor "extremely vulnerable to corruption."
Ironic that a country that abounds in fresh water resources ranks second lowest among Southeast Asian countries in terms of fresh water availability. A recent special report in the Manila Times stated that the Philippines may have passed the 1995 Water Crisis Act, the 2004 Clean Water Act and other laws but " they are among the most blatantly abused environmental laws because of poor enforcement..... Our constant exposure to polluted fresh water sources—clogged, or foul smelling river and lakes, and contaminated groundwater—has made water pollution a given in our lives, a reality we have learned to accept."
Pollution affects not only rivers and lakes but seas as well. The pollutant such as mercury, may accumulate in the body of fishes. Once a body of water has become polluted, it can be very difficult to restore it to its original state. The situation might be improved but over considerable time and cost.
Altogether, a legacy of factory farming, flood irrigation, construction of massive dams, toxic dumping, wetlands and forest destruction, and urban and industrial pollution has damaged the Earth's surface water so badly that we are now mining the underground water reserves faster than nature can replenish them. Areas where water reserves are disappearing include the Middle East, Northern China, Mexico, California and almost two dozen countries in Africa.
While there are "hot spots," there are still outstanding bodies of water even underneath our side of paradise. Recently, perhaps unknown to many, U.S. scientists have discovered that "Sulu-Sulawesi Triangle has its center at the Isla Verde Passage and that Batangas seas host more than half of the world's species of coral reefs. Such is its marine diversity being home to the dolphins, to the whale shark or butanding, which is the world's biggest fish, and to the marine turtle or pawikan." Since bodies of water are fluid (no pun intended), having no boundaries, one can only imagine the extent of the fluvial and alluvial wealth that lie below. And the interest shown by other countries over our such resources. This angle is being parlayed at the Zaragoza Expo by our government thru the Department of Tourism.
It becomes a ticklish situation when the source of a river lies in one country, while the greater part of its course and an area that could benefit greatly from irrigation may lie in a second. A good example is in North America, where many rivers that flow through the United States and may be used there for irrigation and hydroelectricity may have their origin in Canada. This has led the Canadians now to look very closely at what are described as water export proposals.
Water-related conflicts have sprung up around the globe. Through the years, Turkey and Syria have been sharply at odds over water rights involving the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. And Syria is also embroiled with Israel, the balance of power between them involving not only security but Israel's access to the water at Golan Heights from which it gets one-third of its needs. Not only social and political factors of water scarcity become destabilizing forces but economic impact as well.
Even banks such as Inter-American Development Bank dribble at water privatization as an excellent investment opportunity. Large water transnationals drool in anticipation of the profits to be made from such shortages as they commodify and sell water on the open market for profit. They are now trading water rights electronically in the firm belief that knowing the true market price for water will lead to better decisions in moving water to the highest value uses.
Before its free trade dalliance, Canada was tagged by the United Nations as the "best" country to live in. Now, among industrialized countries, Canada reputedly has the highest rise in child poverty at 60 % and counting. It continued to oppose attempts to enshrine the right to water at the World Water Forum at The Hague in 2000, in Kyoto in 2003 and in Mexico City in 2006. Six years ago, it was the only country that voted against a resolution by the UN Committee on Human Rights to appoint a Special Rapporteur to promote the right to water stating, "Canada does not accept that there is a right to drinking water and sanitation." This was what that first free trade agreement with the United States brought Canada to.
Because of, and despite, such an embarrassing stance of their government, and with Canada's water increasingly in demand, Canadians took the lead in the global fight for water justice. Thus was born the Blue Planet Project. It is an international civil society movement begun by The Council of Canadians to protect the world’s fresh water from the growing threats of trade and privatization. Canadian water warriors formed an international partnership with the governments of Norway and Bolivia to help further the fight for water as a right. In Latin America, partners of the Canadian activists ramped up the campaign for a South American Convention on the Right to Water. The Blue Planet Project strongly supported this initiative and found vibrant, kindred spirits in Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela to come up with the following declaration:
Water is part of the commons, a public trust to be managed
by communities on behalf of nature, all life and all generations to come.
A respectful relationship with water can be a source of hope,
but continued abuse of water will be our greatest challenge.
Even the United Kingdom succumbed to the siren call of water privatization. In what was one of the biggest initiatives in history, redoubtable Margaret Thatcher privatized Britain's water system in the 1980s. Perhaps it was not her forte since after five years the cost of privatized water rose by 50%. While more than 18,000 households' supply of water got cut off, the salaries of Anglian Water directors increased between 50% and 200%. Privatization became a total fiasco and water companies found themselves in hot water tagged as U.K.'s worst polluters in 2005. Despite such notoriety, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board was even inveigled to invest $ 1 billion of Canadian pension money in Anglian Water.
On the same side of the fence, where the grass must be ever green, the World Bank and World Trade Organization had a similar vision, becoming instruments to setting the stage for the privatization of water. In Africa, more than 10 million residents had their water cut off when the government implemented a World Bank-inspired "cost recovery" program--something that never happened even during the worst days of apartheid.
Access to water has become a deeply political issue in South Africa. Its population is growing four times faster than the water supply and "women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back 16 times a day to fetch water for their families." The reality that 600,000 white farmers consume 60 percent of South Africa's water supplies for irrigation while 15 million blacks have no direct access is just too much to bear.
No wonder then that South Africa is the only country in the world where people's right to water is actually written into the Constitution. In its fight for survival, the country has become the birthplace of one of the nucleus groups that form the heart of a new global civil society movement dedicated to saving the world's water as part of the global commons.
As for the World Trade Organization, it would appear that the developed countries under the WTO aegis, whichever venue they would use as their playground--Seattle, Doha, HongKong, Cancun, Geneva, Potsdam--would shepherd the developing nations into joining with the averred goal of expanding international trade. As it would invariably turn out, despite enticements or sweeteners, the developing countries would find themselves on the losing end, facing formidable subsidies of the U.S. or EU or Japan while these nations gain access to the developing countries' markets.
Corporate leaders and politicians around the world may have managed to corporatize some countries' food system, including water, thus creating the wide divide between rich and poor in living memory. But somehow the developing countries have learned to stick it out together.
Walden Bello and Mary Lou Malig recently reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, "Completely underestimating developing country concerns that food imports had undermined food self sufficiency at a time of rising food prices owing to global food shortages, the US brought on another WTO disaster with its single-minded focus on dumping its subsidized surpluses on foreign agricultural markets. Not helpful in bringing about a deal was Pascal Lamy’s maneuver of limiting the decision-making to seven countries, which drew sharp criticism from many among the already circumscribed number of 35 countries that had been invited to the mini-ministerial, including from host country Switzerland. If ever there was a global meeting that was dead on arrival, this was it..............
"In retrospect, the US and EU, used to getting their own way in global trade negotiations, went a bridge too far in the Doha talks. Instead of being open to real compromise, their intransigence and drive to expand their control of global markets brought about the organizing for self-defense of the developing countries at the WTO. Greed backfired, instigating instead a change in the equation of global economics."
A number of countries, including the British government, have now realized that for-profit water has failed and are taking steps to recognize the right to water. The United Nations has taken note that access to clean fresh water is essential for people and nature. Since 1993, every 22 March, awareness of the importance of water has been the theme of the UN-initiated annual celebration of World Day of Water.
On 29 November 2006 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) adopted a resolution requesting the OHCHR to undertake a study on the relation between human rights and access to water.
But greed just could not be stopped. Despite the disastrous record of failed water privatization schemes in Africa, international aid donors and governments continued to promote “private sector participation” and commercialization as the solution to Africa’s water crisis.
Thus, a common front of environmentalists, human rights and antipoverty activists, public sector workers, peasants, indigenous peoples and many others from every part of the world banded together to fight for a water-secure future based on the notion that water is part of the public commons. The spring of 2007 saw the launching of a new African Water Network at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya.
In their own words, the international water warriors stated, "We coordinated strategy at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. We were in South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development and also in Kyoto, Japan, when the World Bank and the UN brought 8,000 people to the Third World Water Forum. There, we opposed water privatization and promoted our own World Water Vision as an alternative to that adopted by the World Bank at the Second World Water Forum in The Hague. We stood with local people fighting water privatization in Bolivia, or the construction of a mega-dam in India, or water takings by Perrier in Michigan.
"Now all of these local struggles form part of an emerging international movement with a common political vision. The antidote to water commodification is its decommodification. Water must be declared and understood for all time to be the common property of all. In a world where everything is being privatized, citizens must establish clear perimeters around those areas that are sacred to life and necessary for the survival of the planet. Simply, governments must declare that water belongs to the earth and all species and is a fundamental human right.
"No one has the right to appropriate it for profit. Water must be declared a public trust, and all governments must enact legislation to protect the freshwater resources in their territory. An international legal framework is also desperately needed. It is strikingly clear that neither governments nor their official global institutions are going to rise to this challenge. This is where civil society comes in. There is no more vital area of concern for our international movement than the world's freshwater crisis. Our entry point is the political question of the ownership of water; we must come together to form a clear and present opposition to the commodification and cartelization of the world's freshwater resources. "
The water warriors certainly know where they were going and what they still needed to do as they continued:
"Steps needed for a water-secure future include the adoption of a Treaty Initiative to Share and Protect the Global Water Commons;
a guaranteed 'water lifeline'--free clean water every day for every person
as an inalienable political and social right;
national water protection acts to reclaim and preserve freshwater systems;
exemptions for water from international trade and investment regimes;
an end to World Bank and International Monetary Fund-enforced
and a Global Water Convention that would create an international body of laws to protect the world's water heritage based on the twin cornerstones of conservation and equity."
Tough challenges? You bet.
With the stakes involved, the world had better be up to them. -gdmo 15 aug 2008