Features | Coming to terms with the water crisis

A look into the growing misallocation of the global water supply

Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and geological evidence suggests that water has flowed on Earth for the past 3.8 billion years – most of Earth’s existence. For the majority of us, turning on a tap, flushing a toilet, or swimming in a pool do not strike us as anything miraculous, nor do they cause us to question the way water is treated.
The reality is that we live in a world where there are more water refugees than war refugees, where glaciers as old as the Earth itself are disappearing before our eyes, and where we seldom hear about these problems. For the average North American, taking a five minute shower uses more water than a typical person in a developing country slum uses in an entire day. It is obvious that things cannot continue as they are.

Of the 1.39 billion cubic kilometres of water on Earth, only 2.5 per cent of it is drinkable. Of this drinkable water, 68.9 per cent is trapped in glaciers and 30.8 per cent is in groundwater aquifers.
For years, humans and other animals have drawn their drinking water from the scant 0.3 per cent that remains in lakes and rivers. However, recent human activities have destroyed these resources through overuse and pollution. The pollution of surface water has forced us to bore into the Earth and extract ground water stored in aquifers. Fifty years ago the technology to extract ground water on a large scale did not exist. Now, however, drawing water from these subterranean reservoirs has resulted in their depletion on a massive scale.
Not only does this decrease crucial reserves of ground water – it also causes an influx of salty ocean water where there was once potable ground water. In addition, much of the water we take from aquifers is often dumped into the ocean, further decreasing the amount of potable water we have as well as contributing to rising ocean levels.
Many of these aquifers have taken thousands of years to develop, and do not replenish themselves on an ongoing basis. Even aquifers that can be replenished do so at a very slow rate. For example, the Ogallala Aquifer – which extends from Texas to South Dakota – contains mainly “fossil water” and is being depleted rapidly at a rate ten times greater than the rate at which it is replenished. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that the water table in the region has dropped by over 30 metres since extraction began, and some farmers have seen their private wells dry up. The depletion of the Ogallala has a direct impacts on all eight states which rest on top of the aquifer and depend on it for their water supply. That region is also one of the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, and livestock; the depletion of the Ogallala means new infrastructure for other sources of water must be built in order to avert an economic crisis.
Climate change also threatens to exacerbate the water crisis. Global warming augments patterns of precipitation and evaporation, in addition to destroying glaciers – the largest source of drinking water. All in all, the answer is yes; we are running out of water.

The scarcity of water raises important questions about how we should treat this valuable resource. If we take a moment to think about how something as inconsequential as diamonds are coveted and treated, then our almost unbridled consumption of water, which is essential to life, looks ridiculous.
We need not look far for a reminder of what can happen if we neglect to put proper water laws in place. Two years ago, a pulp and paper company called AbitibiBowater shut down its operations in Newfoundland, leaving factories and jobs behind. After the province began tapping into the river that AbitibiBowater had used at its former site, the company sued the Canadian government for $500 million in direct compensation and damages under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The claim alleged that the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador had expropriated the company’s hydro-electric, timber, and water rights. Premier Danny Williams tried to fight this claim, arguing that the company had been allowed to use the water, but did not own it. However, on August 24, 2010 the Harper government made an announcement that it would pay AbitibiBowater $130 million to withdraw its lawsuit, unwilling to even force the case to go to a NAFTA panel.
“Is water a commodity to be put on the open market for sale like running shoes and Coca-Cola? Or is it a commons that belongs to everyone as part of our collective human heritage? Does it belong to the Earth and to other species? Does it belong to the future?” asks Maude Barlow. Barlow is National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, chair of the board of Food and Water Watch, executive member of the International Forum on Globalization, and Councillor with World Future Council. She devotes much of her time to fighting the commodification of water.
Currently, water rights vary around the world and even within countries. Some places go even further and treat surface and ground water differently. Many places with common law heritage, like Canada and parts of the eastern United States, follow a system of riparian rights wherein water is allocated to those who own the land around it. In these places anyone who buys the land can have unlimited access to the water, draining it and other places in its vicinity.
Other places, like Finland, disconnect water from the land, allowing direct ownership of water. In Australia, water was separated from land in order to privatize and sell it. Some farmers have wound up treating water as a cash crop and began selling water rather than growing food.
Barlow advocates disconnecting water from land to preclude the possibility that a single entity can buy a piece of land and drain all the water in, under, and around it. She adds that this separated water must be treated as a common public trust to further ensure that it cannot be monopolized. Already, places like Quebec and Vermont have been moving toward this public trust model in their treatment of water, Barlow says.
It is easy to see how the privatization and commodification of water has already taken the place of a unified global treatment of water as a human right. In much of the world, water is already treated like a commodity. Some forms of water commodification are obvious – such as bottled water – while others are more subtle. According to Barlow, “One of these forms is the privatization of the utility itself. If you want drinking water or waste water treatment it’s run by a for-profit company, and those who can’t pay don’t get the service.”
Other forms of water privatization, she says, can be even less obvious but equally nefarious. “It takes the form of water trading where you convert a license to water to a private trading right or a property right that you can buy and sell. That’s very common in California and Texas. Alberta is moving toward it, and B.C. is beginning to talk about it. It also takes the form of large land grabs, where big hedge funds or wealthy countries who are worried about running out of water, and therefore production capacity. So they buy up huge plots of land and water in third world countries and just hold onto them, grow food for their people on them, or sell the water out from under them.”

However, many people are in support of water commodification, especially in a “water-rich” country such as ours. Given the United States’ growing need for water, there has been talk about bulk water exportation from Canada to the United States on both sides of the border. As Brian Milner, a senior economics writer at the Globe and Mail, has said in an interview, “Frankly the fact is if we say absolutely no to all exports it’s a pretty strange position to take in a world where water is treated like a commodity. The fact is there are shortages and there are surpluses that Canada does have. Despite what Maude would have us believe, we do have surpluses in water. We have enough water to sell at a reasonable level. We can’t sell tonnes and tonnes of the stuff, we have to keep enough to protect the watershed, but it is marketable.” He went on to say, “There’s sort of a myth that if we sell our water it’s all going to go to golf courses in Arizona. In fact, most of the water that is brought into the south-western or Midwest U.S. is used for agriculture that grows food, which we import. … So essentially if we did export water to the U.S. we’d be the beneficiary.”
Milner raises an important point. Too often we are quick to blame others for wasting water when we are no better. Though it is easy to accuse the United States of using too much water, we condone this usage with every food import we buy from them. It is equally easy to blame Alberta for destroying the environment in its production of oil and natural gas, all the while forgetting that that oil is used in cars across all over Canada.
A 2006 Statistics Canada report shows that Quebec homes and business use 35 per cent more water than the Canadian average and almost twice as much as the Albertan average. Also, while only 16.5 per cent of resident clients and 36.6 per cent of business clients are metered in Quebec, almost 90 per cent of business and residential clients are metered in Alberta. Additionally, residential water usage exceeds the combined commercial, institutional, industrial, and system loss water usage.

Much of this is a result of the myth many of us believe in, that Canada is a “water rich” country, with 20 per cent of the world’s water. However, Barlow states that “The only way that we would have twenty per cent of the world’s water is if we drained every lake and every river in Canada and then we would be a big desert.” She goes on to explain that Canada can only be said to contain about 2.5 per cent of the world’s available fresh water.
Despite this scarcity of water and our exorbitant use of it at home, bulk exportation of water to the U.S. remains a likely possibility. Water is already listed as a commodity under NAFTA. The fact that water exportation would currently be an unprofitable venture should not be a source of comfort, but rather another cause for concern. All it means is that the cost of water does not reflect its true economic value, which will invariably lead to further abuse and degradation of our water.
In many cases where there are large governmental subsidies – as in agriculture – water is completely free. Even when water is not free, it remains senselessly cheap. In Ontario the price for industrial water is $3.71 for 1 million litres. If a bottled water company buys this and sells a 500-millilitre bottle for at least $1… well you can do the math. If the price of water is increased to reflect its true value, then there will be many more people who cannot afford the basic human right of water. None of these say anything of the fact that water is necessary for all forms of life on Earth, not just humans.
It is becoming increasingly clear that our current treatment of water as a commodity must be reformed. If the current state of affairs is left as is, water will continue to be appropriated and abused in ways that will not benefit anyone, even the abusers. If the world continues to remain divided in its treatment of water rights, those who want to own water and use it beyond the limits of our planet will always be able to find willing hosts in different parts of the world.
So now the question is: where do we go from here? How do we move forward in a sustainable, just, and equitable way? Barlow gives us her three main suggestions of how we should establish water plans.
“First, protect water where it belongs. We have to leave it as much as humanly possible where nature put it, […] where it’s needed for the healthy functioning of a hydrologic cycle. […]We have to protect, respect, and rebuild water sheds. […] We’ve got to learn to live inside nature in a different way than we have been,” she says.
“Secondly, we need to declare water as a well-managed common, not a free-for-all common, and a public trust. It must be considered common property of the people who live there. It must be their local responsibility that is protected by law and higher levels of government so you can’t decide in your community to destroy the water for money.” Barlow realizes the necessity of water for commercial use and profit but states that we must set our priorities straight. Communities must come together and decide how water will be used for agriculture and by companies. She stresses the importance of ensuring that private interest groups are not allowed to own water; they should only be allowed to access it.
Finally, she says, “We need to declare it to be a human right, so that no one is denied water or sanitation because of a lack of ability to pay while others appropriate it for profit. And in my mind if we can have those three fundamental concepts in place, then we start to build water plans and water law.” She goes on to state, “We have the water; we don’t have the will yet. We still have that myth of abundance in our minds, that we can just take, take, take, take. But when that changes – and it will change – we will approach this water issue differently.”

While the AbitibiBowater case demonstrates clear cause for concern, we also do not need to look far for hope. The United Nations has recently recognized water and sanitation as a human right. Already there are many communities adopting local ordinances, laws, or constitutional changes that treat water as a fundamental human right and even protect nature. These communities are demanding more local control and reclaiming their water.
Still, many challenges remain. Where do those people who do not live in a local community with water go? How do we ensure a kind of unity amongst all these different water communities? How can we adopt local water policies in a world where the effects of globalization are so pervasive and continually expanding? “There is no easy answer to the situation of our world with a growing population and growing consumer demand as the population gets more urban,” Barlow says. “I won’t pretend have an easy answer because I don’t think there is one. But whatever answer there is, it is going to be based on coming back to more local sustainable living. We’ve got to stop the notion of unlimited growth.”

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