If there is magic on this planet, it is in water. Loren Eiseley, in “The Flow of the River”, The Immense Journey.

Water is already a limiting resource in many areas of the world, and has been so throughout human history. The earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia such as Sumeria most likely crumbled due to water shortages, specifically salinization of irrigated fields that caused food shortages, and the armed conflicts that ensued (see “Water Conflict Chronology”, Gleick, 2008).

Little [1] gives an example that provides a clear contrast between the sustainable approach and “business as usual”. When farmers in Garden City, Kansas learned from state and federal geologists in the late 1960’s that the water they were pumping was geologic water and would soon run out, they responded in two distinct ways. Most purchased more pumps and began pumping faster. Others like Rodger Funk chose to change their farming methods in order to conserve water and keep their farms viable when the groundwater ran out. Funk started using methods like no-till agriculture, and planted crops like wheat and grain sorghum that required less water. The goal was to rely only on rainwater by capturing and using all rainfall, which averages 18 inches in southwestern Kansas.

In his article “How Much is Clean Water Worth”, Jim Morrison [2] makes clear that investments in water conservation and in preserving ecosystems that provide fresh water pay for themselves. In the field of ecological economics, ecosystems are capital assets because they provide services such as clean water. For example, New York City relies on the Catskill Mountains to the north to provide fresh water. It was cheaper for NYC to preserve that ecosystem by spending $1.3 billion on upstate sewage treatment plants than it would have been to build a filtration plant in the city for $6-8 billion and operate it for $350-400 million per year. Thus, the value of the water that the Catskills provides is easily hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars per year. The Catskills provide other ecosystem services such as flood control, food, and shelter, in addition to its scenic beauty and the recreation activities it provides such as trout fishing, both of which bring in lots of tourism dollars to the area. Another excellent example that Morrison [2] provides is the restoration of the Napa River in Napa, California to its original floodplain to reduce flooding. This project cost only $250 million, but it saved an estimated $1.6 billion in flood damage repair costs over the next century. And within one year of restoration, flood insurance rates dropped 20% and real estate prices rose 20%. There are many examples like this that illustrate that taking the soft path and relying on nature to provide ecosystem services is not only cost effective but preserves the beauty of nature.

The movie “Flow” [3] describes the problems of water exploitation by multinational corporations and the privatization of water supplies in developing countries. Since water-borne diseases are the leading killer of children less than 5 years old in the developing world, efforts to provide clean water in these countries should be a top priority. What is the best approach? Since water is essential for survival, we must consider access to clean drinking water a fundamental right. The chosen approach must therefore guarantee access to all. It is this one essential requirement that seems to have been overlooked in efforts to privatize water supply in countries like Bolivia. The World Bank pressured the government of Bolivia (which is deeply in debt to the World Bank) to privatize their water, which they did in 1999. Although the agreement was for the multinational corporation Suez to provide universal access to water, they neglected to provide water to the poorest citizens. Civil demonstrations turned into riots, and in 2007 the government rescinded their contract with Suez and returned the water to the people. In other countries like South Africa, even the poorest of the poor are required to pay for their water; when they cannot afford to pay, they are forced to steal water or drink unsafe water, which often leads to death.

Why didn’t privatization work in these countries? On the surface, it makes sense to contract a corporation with decades of experience to set up a water distribution system. This is a complicated, expensive task that many countries in developing countries are not prepared to execute. And when water is in short supply, it makes sense to treat it as a commodity, because charging for water encourages people to conserve it and not be wasteful. However, governments need to work with the corporations to ensure that they provide water even to the poorest. They should subsidize access to water so that the poorest do not have to pay. In the U.S. we subsidize food and water, heating oil, and telephone access, because these are essential needs (telephone access is necessary for emergencies). If private companies don’t build the water infrastructure in developing countries, who will? The government could oversee the planning and sub-contract the construction, but since it’s unlikely that anyone in the government has experience in developing water distribution systems, it’s doubtful that the process will be effective. Governments in developing countries need to work closely with multinational corporations to build their infrastructure. The goal is to build safe, reliable, and cost-effective water supply systems as quickly as possible to save as many lives as possible. The U.N. estimates that it would cost 30 billion U.S.D. to provide safe water to everyone in the world. This is a pittance; probably over 100 individuals in the world have that much money, and it could be used to save millions of lives each year. Ironically, 100 billion U.S.D. are spent each year globally for bottled water.

Another problem highlighted by the movie “Flow” [3] is the strong financial incentive for multinational corporations like Nestle and Coca-Cola to extract groundwater to bottle and sell. In most countries, including the U.S., you are allowed to pump as much groundwater as you please out of the ground, as long as you own the land. This is why smart people like T. Boone Pickens are extracting groundwater from their land for free and then selling it to cities. This policy is particularly unfair when multinational corporations like Coca-Cola buy land in developing countries, extract all of the water out of the ground at no charge, bottle and sell it for four dollars per bottle, and when the water dries up, pack up and leave the country. The indigenous people get no money from the sale of their most valuable resource, and they are left with no water. As long as people continue to pay outlandish prices for bottled water, there will be an incentive for corporations to exploit the developing world.

The movie "Flow" [3] and many other environmentally-themed movies and books paint a very bleak picture. That is because the authors are trying to motivate their audience and encourage them to take action to improve the situation. However, watching many of these movies or reading many of the papers may lead you to conclude that there are just too many problems and that we can never fix all of them. Just remember that you can always look at these problems in two ways: is the glass half empty, or half full? The reality is that several hundred years ago most human beings in towns and cities lacked access to clean drinking water, and a much higher percentage of humans died from water-borne diseases. In the developed world these diseases have been almost entirely wiped out, which was a huge accomplishment. What remains frustrating is that, although we know how to eliminate water-borne diseases, we haven’t done so in many countries of the world. So while the situation has improved, it hasn’t improved enough.

1. Little, J.B., The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source. Scientific American Earth 3.0, 2009.

2. Morrison, J., How Much is Clean Water Worth? National Wildlife, 2005: p. 24, 26-28.

3. Salina, I., Flow: For Love of Water. 2007, Oscilloscope. p. 84 min.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
This entry was posted in Environment, Future, Sustainability, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

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