Thirsty Future

Water Supplies and Access
To Define Mankind Survival

Human Rights Now Include Access to Clean Water

The U.N. General Assembly has declared access to clean water and sanitation a human right last month, in a Bolivia-drafted resolution approved by 124 nations. The vote was considered unanimous, even though 41 countries, including Canada, abstained from voting. The fact that there even were abstentions at all is nothing short of surprising. For within or very near the Canadian borders, for example, sit some of the world’s greatest glaciers, but never mind about that for now.
It is an unrestricted victory for an increasing number of scientists who for years have been calling attention to the serious issue water, or its lack thereof, may represent to the future of this planet. In fact, it’s one of those threats that’s grave enough to end civilization, and it’s safe to say, it’s way more likely to happen than the catastrophic collision with an asteroid we all rightfully fear.
According to the UN, more than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion are without basic sanitation. Every eight seconds a child dies of a waterborne disease, in every case preventable if their parents had money to pay for water. In fact, more lives have been lost after World War II due to contaminated water than from all forms of violence and war. And a World Bank report says that by 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by more than 40%.
But let’s not get too wrapped up into grim statistics because no matter how horrific they may seem, they tend to desensitize the problem they’re supposed to underline. Lacking a comprehensive picture of the situation, they’re no more than a meaningless parade of numbers and graphs. After all, access to water and the imminent threat of a massive shortage in the near future have well identified causes.
Overpopulation is often mentioned as one of them, but it’s rather a consequence of diminishing water resources in the world today. Its unfair distribution is what causes the most damage, not the growing demand for it. The real threat here is the risk that few powerful interests reach complete control of the access to water. Which is not to say that the way modern societies waste water resources is not part of the problem too.
Another common misconception is to attribute to poor sanitation the contamination of groundwater throughout earth. Again, political, social and economical factors are what prevent 18th Century water treatment technology from reaching human populations living in the 21st Century, not the populations themselves and their sub-poverty living conditions.
That’s why international and local community groups have been fighting for water justice for so long, for no one should be denied water for life because of an inability to pay. Especially in the light of the water markets now being set up, allowing the wealthy to appropriate dwindling water supplies for private profit. The recent UN resolution is also crucial because the writers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights couldn’t possibly foresee in 1948 a day when water would be such a contested area.
And contested it indeed is. So it’s very positive to see scientists, human rights advocates, world leaders and so many others joining in the fray to increase global awareness over this issue. One of such people is Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader credited with helping establish a democratic regime in Russia and its now federation of republics.
“Water and sanitation are vital to everything from education to health to population control. As population growth and climate change increase the pressure for adequate water and food, water will increasingly become a security issue. As global temperatures rise, “water refugees” will increase.”
Others, such as Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project, are fighting big corporations’ aim at owning and privatizing water resources.
“When you add the for-profit motive into water supplies, some people are going to die. Water must be declared to be something that belongs to all of us, which is not that it’s a free-for-all, but that it must be equitably divided and shared – and only governments can do that.”
And Robert Kennedy Jr., founder of the International Waterkeeper Alliance and chief prosecutor of the New York-based Riverkeeper, who’s particularly focused on the issue of control over waterways. History has shown that control over them, as well as over other public assets, are effective forms of dominance by the powerful.
“The first thing that happens in a tyranny is the privatization of the public trust by powerful entities. So, when Roman law broke down in Europe, the local kings and feudal lords began privatizing public trust assets. For example, in England, King John said the deer—which were an important food source to the poor—could only be hunted by the wealthy; that’s what got him in trouble with Robin Hood. And he privatized all of the fisheries of the Thames and the other rivers of England. This caused the public to rise up and confront him at the Battle of Runnymede, where he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which includes chapters on free access to navigable waters and fisheries.”
In discussion too, is what possible role private enterprising should have in relation to the government’s intrinsic responsibility guaranteeing unrestricted access to water for everybody. Gerald Payen, head of the International Federation of Private Water Operators (Aquafed), says that purifying water and transporting it to each individual house has a cost.
“The government has to decide who should bear this cost. Should it be borne by taxpayers or by water users or by both, by a mix? In developing countries, for example, we provided in the last 10 years access to water for more than 25 million people.”
But Kennedy insists that what he calls “the commoditization of water supply” is morally wrong. “The law of the commons is that whether you’re rich or poor, everybody has the right to the public trust asset. Nobody has the right to use it in a way that will diminish or injure its use and enjoyment by others.”
A recent documentary, “Gasland,” by Josh Fox, established another beachhead in the fight to protect and prevent further pollution of ground water. It focuses on a gas drilling technique called fracking which uses an enormous amount of heavy chemicals to track potential underground gas wells.
The documentary is set mainly in upstate New York and shows the devastating pollution the process caused to the water there, so much so that it turned it into a combustible liquid, neither suitable for drinking nor for agriculture. It also shows how companies responsible for such damage are not liable to any actionable legal pursuit or compensation and are inflicting the same irreversible harm elsewhere in the U.S.
One of the greatest issues of our age is, of course, climate change. And water, which covers most of the earth’s surface, is where signs of global warming are most evident. “Water touches everything,” a point that Gorbachev made on his Op-Ed piece and, to underline it, it’s instructive to observe the progressive melting of glaciers scientists have been documenting with alarming frequency.
A recent photograph exhibit at New York’s Asia Society offered compelling evidence of the dramatic change in the Himalayas as a result of climate change. Mountaineer and cinematographer David Breashears and his team traveled the region to duplicate old photographs, some taken by Edmund Hillary, of the world’s highest peaks. To analyze the distressing results, the society put together a panel with leading experts.
Their main concern was with the impact that these melting glaciers would have on the more than a billion people who rely upon it. The rapid melting would provide more fresh water in the short run but is likely to have negative consequences down the line. It all has to do with agricultural irrigation, which in Asia is traditionally done in a very wasteful way, and increased demand for drinkable water.
Needless to say, their conclusions are not very optimistic. But let’s take into consideration too that such cutting edge view does give us a short but enough time to react. Scientists help us with their well-researched advice, but it’s still up to us to heed to their warnings. Of course, we’d better.
Hopefully, along with the increased awareness of the crucial issues surrounding the economics of water in contemporary society, there’s also the human ingenuity factor. There’s reason for some guarded optimism about the outlook for new inventions and technologies that may contribute for the necessary reversal of the current crisis. Alone, they’re definitely not the solution, for there’s no shortage of examples of great ideas winding up in history’s dustbin, either because of contrary interests, lack of practicality, too high a cost or a number of other mostly selfish reasons.
It’s interesting to note how a modern and very popular habit perfectly exemplifies what happens when such ingenuity turns into frivolity: bottled water. It serves powerful economic interests but satisfies only a superficial understanding of what means going green. In fact, its costs far surpass the cost of fossil fuels, its original recyclable format is now obsolete and inadequate, given current conditions of urban garbage disposal, its quality is often inferior to most cities’ tap water and its use is more about vanity than necessity.
But there are inventions and devices already in use that have proved their worth, here on earth and in space, and a quick look at their capabilities does make anyone paying attention to envision their further potential. Here are some of them.
The Watercone device can take salty water and turn it into fresh water using only the power of the sun. It can produce one liter of water per-day, it floats, so it can be placed over a small pool of salt water to collect fresh water, it’s cheap, recyclable and non-flammable.
The Slingshot turns dirty river water, ocean water and even raw sewage into pure drinking water through a “vapor compression distiller” that boils, distills and vaporizes the polluted source, on less electricity than it takes to run a hair dryer. Dean Kamen, known for his much celebrated but not very efficient previous creation, the Segway, invented it.
Two hundred and fifty miles above the earth, at the International Space Station, NASA’s Water Recovery System pure and simply transforms the astronauts’ urine into potable water. Along with water evaporated from showers, shaving, tooth brushing and hand washing, perspiration and water vapor that collects within the astronauts’ space suits, every liquid at the station can now be recycled and made it fit for consumption.
Back to old potatoes here on earth, Pennsylvania State University horticulturists have devised a method to use plant roots to purify dirty washing machine water. It’s still a work in progress and, oh my, whoever has a washing machine in the developed world is now most likely focused on getting a dryer next. But one glance beyond that view, and the potential uses for agriculture, for example, are obvious.
There must be other ingenious contraptions being put together in some guy’s garage, as we speak. Perhaps a combination of all above or a new concept altogether. The end result could be the size of an IPhone, but cheaper. It could happen and it could work, as long as whatever it’d be, it’d be given directly to those who need most, no warlord middle men. But I’m afraid time to wait for that to happen is already up.
So, given such present and clear threat of complete exhaustion and with it, life, as we know it on earth, it’s disheartening to see that access to clear water for everyone is still up for discussion. And that efforts to protect and preserve what’s left of it are regarded with public derision, while behind the scenes the powers that be engage in an all out war for its control.
Since, unlike oil, our bodies truly depend on water to survive, it’s nothing far from incomprehensible that we spend billions daily to burn crude, and close to nothing protecting our waterways. The ground contamination in upstate New York, documented on “Gasland,” or the rapidly receding glacial coast lines at the poles and thousands of miles of their surrounding areas, seen at the Asia Society exhibit, are unequivocal proof that one of our most vital natural resources is indeed dwindling.
Thus, either when you stare at a crystalline glass of water in the comfort of your kitchen, or when a submarine robot spots a massive underwater river (it sounds like it but it’s not an oxymoron) at the bottom of the Black Sea, with rapids and waterfalls, the fact remains that such a precious asset is as vital and limited as a bolt of lightening. It’s powerful and life giving when striking, but it doesn’t last more than a few seconds. Just try to recreate it in a bottle.

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