Water for Everyone

March 23, 2003

By Michael Jessen

What the world needs now is water, not war.

On the same weekend the United States began bombing Iraq in earnest, more than 12,000 delegates to the 3rd World Water Forum endorsed more than 100 urgent global commitments for easing clean water scarcity.

It is ironic that the initial amount of money likely to be spent battling Iraq is equal to a year's spending to fight the world's water crisis.

U.S. President George W. Bush has made a $74.7 billion first phase request to Congress for the funds to fight the war in Iraq. More than $60 billion of the amount Bush is seeking will go directly towards paying for the war. The request assumes it will take 30 days of combat to oust the Iraqi regime.

Most of the world's water crises can be resolved but require political will and spending from US$50 billion to $100 billion a year, according to Gordon Young, co-ordinator of the Paris-based United Nations World Water Assessment Program (www.unesco.org/water/wwap/index.shtml).

Young said the lives of tens of thousands of people are threatened daily by crises ranging from contaminated drinking water to polluted rivers and underground reserves.

According to U.N. statistics, more than 200 million people every year suffer from water-related diseases, and about 2.2 million of them -- mostly the poor -- die. The death toll includes 1.4 million children under the age of five.

More than 1.2 billion people worldwide currently lack access to safe clean water and 2.4 billion live without secure sanitation. See www.unesco.org/water/wwap/targets/facts_and_figures.pdf for more detailed facts and figures.

To reach the United Nations' goal of halving the number of people without access to water for nourishment and hygiene by 2015, every day 270,000 people would have to be provided with safe drinking water and 340,000 people would have to see improvements in sanitation, Young stated.

"If we were to take relatively small amounts of extra money, we could more or less solve most of the world's water problems," Young said. "The difficulty is having the political will to do it."

With every bomb dropped on Iraq, $1 million goes up in smoke. The first night of bombing Baghdad cost approximately $24 million. Tomahawk Cruise missiles are valued at $1.3 million each. The staggering costs of war may preclude the economic ability of the U.S. to participate in improving water quality and quantity in the world.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense (www.taxpayer.net/), a national budget watchdog organization that released a report March 24, the cost of the war with Iraq will exceed $110 billion for 2003 and could exceed $550 billion during the next 10 years. (See also www.lysistrataproject.org/costofwar.htm).

Those numbers echo the research of Professor William Nordhaus of Yale University, in a paper titled "The Economic Consequences of a War With Iraq." (See www.amacad.org/publications/monographs/War_with_Iraq.pdf). According to Nordhaus, the direct costs of waging this war are expected to be between $50 billion and $150 billion US. Then there is the cost of keeping the peace, humanitarian aid and reconstruction of Iraq -- $100 billion to $600 billion over the next decade. The third cost factor, according to Nordhaus, is the lost output to the world economy because of increased uncertainty -- $100 billion to $1.9 trillion over the next decade.

Will the world's superpower be financially able to develop a "water conscience" under the economic burdens brought on by war in Iraq? There is no doubt it -- and the rest of the world -- needs to find a way.

The year 2003 has been designated the International Year of Freshwater and March 22 was World Water Day. Water demand is increasing three times as fast as the world's population growth rate, World Water Council Vice President William J. Cosgrove told the 3rd World Water Forum (www.world.water-forum3.com/) on World Water Day. This will make the goal of cutting in half the number of poor people without safe water and sanitation all the more difficult to reach, Cosgrove added.

The forum was held March 16 to 23 in the three neighbouring Japanese cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Shiga. The gathering was also the occasion to release the United Nations World Water Development Report "Water for People, Water for Life" (www.unesco.org/water/wwap/wwdr/index.shtml). The report paints a dire picture of a precious resource growing increasingly scarce and sullied because of failed water management policies, including over-reliance on large dams and short-sighted efforts to over-privatize the fresh water market.

The 600-page report, the most comprehensive assessment of the planet's most essential natural resource, predicts that as many as 7 billion people in 60 countries could face water scarcity by 2050. In just 20 years, the report predicts, the average supply of water per person worldwide will have dropped by one-third, affecting almost every nation and especially those already on the economic edge.

"Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth," Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said when the report was released. UNESCO was the lead agency among the 23 U.N. groups that collaborated in the report's creation over a two-year period.

The report also points to the possibility of a happy hydrologic future in which all of the 9.3 billion people expected to inhabit the Earth a few decades from now would have reliable access to clean water for drinking and growing food.

The key, the report concludes, is a better understanding of water's pervasive importance, intelligent investment and a broader implementation of the U.N. dictum that access to clean water is a human right. Reliable access is defined as access to at least 20 litres per person per day from a source within one kilometre of the person's home.

"Globally, the challenge lies in raising the political will to implement water-related commitments," the report concludes. "Water professionals need a better understanding of the broader social, economic, and political context, while politicians need to be better informed about water resource issues."

The 3rd World Water Forum ended with over 100 new commitments from international organisations and countries to tackle some of the most urgent water challenges. These commitments included several global agreements such as better governance, increased capacity building, the creation of an International Water and Climate Alliance, a Virtual Water Conference website, a Global Water Initiative (by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the UN's Water and Care International). However, the final ministerial declaration remained vague and any reference to water as a basic human right (a demand from NGOs) was left out of the declaration.

The topic of water privatization became the most controversial issues of the 3rd World Water Conference. NGOs accused the World Water Council (one of the co-organisers of the Kyoto Forum) of being an instrument of the "water mafia". They blamed the privatization of water services for soaring water prices, which exclude poor people from of the access to safe water.

One of the agreements of the Kyoto Forum was the creation of an independent body that should help to solve local and trans-boundary conflict over water by UNESCO and the World Water Council. The recent World Water Development report pointed to the danger of wars over water access in the near future. On the other hand, a proposal by French President Jacques Chirac for a global watchdog to monitor progress on the UN Millennium goals was rejected.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) condemned the World Water Forum for its failure to commit to a sustainable approach to ensure adequate water supply and sanitation. "The public has been badly served by their governments at this Forum, who have adopted a ministerial declaration that is a backward step from previous commitments," said Jamie Pittock, Director of WWF's Living Waters Programme. "We have to ask how credible a Forum like this is when governments do not draw on the 12,000 water specialists gathered together to identify common sense solutions to water problems, but instead continue to promote massive infrastructure as the sole solution to the world's water crisis."

A counter-summit was held in Florence, Italy, drawing around 1,400 participants from environmentalist and development NGOs. In its final declaration, this First People's World Water Forum called for:

 A guaranteed minimum of 40 litres a day of water for each world inhabitant by 2020;  The withdrawal of water services from the ongoing WTO negotiation (GATS)  The creation of a parliamentarians' water network to promote recovery of parliamentary sovereignty over trade negotiations.

The conclusions of the World Water Forum in Kyoto will be on the agenda of the next G-8 meeting in June in Evian, France. The Fourth World Water Forum will be held in Montreal, Canada, in 2006.

Meeting the water crisis challenge will require a massive change in attitudes and behaviour, according to Don Hinrichsen, writing in the January/February issue of World Watch magazine (www.worldwatch.org). Humans already use 54 percent of all available freshwater from rivers, lakes, streams, and shallow aquifers. By 2025, the human share could rise to more than 70 percent.

During the 20th century water use increased at double the rate of population growth: while the global population tripled, water use per capita increased by six times, says Hinrichsen.

The author of the article "A Human Thirst", begins by detailing an incident that occurred March 20, 2000 when a group of monkeys, driven mad with thirst, clashed in a two-hour melee with villagers over drinking water in a small community in northern Kenya. Inter-species rivalry over water will become more commonplace in the near future, predicts Hinrichsen.

“When we ignore the water needs of wildlife, we not only undermine other species, but also threaten human prospects,” says Hinrichsen. “Unless we act quickly to reduce the demand for water, and manage the water we have better, we will pay a terrible price for plundering the Earth’s plumbing system.”

The human demand for water has been particularly devastating for wetlands and related habitats. Globally, the world has lost half of its wetlands, mostly in the last fifty years. One-fifth of the world’s freshwater fish --2,000 of the 10,000 species identified so far -- are endangered, vulnerable, or extinct. In North America, 67 percent of all mussels, 51 percent of crayfish, 40 percent of amphibians, 37 percent of fish, and 75 percent of all freshwater mollusks are rare, imperilled, or already gone.

Hinrichsen surveys the growing freshwater crisis around the world:

 China is draining some of its rivers dry and mining ancient aquifers that take thousands of years to recover.  The Aral Sea in Central Asia, once the fourth largest inland sea in the world, has contracted to half its size and has lost three-quarters of its volume since the 1960s, when two rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation.  Africa’s, Lake Chad, once the continent’s second-largest lake, has shrunk from a surface area of 25,000 square kilometres in 1960 to only 2,000 square kilometres, and the lake’s fisheries have collapsed. All large carnivores, such as lions and leopards, have been exterminated by hunting and habitat loss.

Privatizing state-run water utilities is producing massive grassroots protests from Bolivia to Ghana, reports Curtis Runyan in “Privatizing Water”, also in the January/February World Watch. Many countries and cities have embraced privatization in order to attract the private capital and expertise needed to build or expand expensive water systems and to expand service to the millions who currently make do without piped water.

The market is huge: private companies currently provide less than 10 percent of water services worldwide. But without strong government oversight, privatization has often backfired, producing drastic rate increases, job cuts, fewer environmental safeguards, and poorer service for remote communities. For these reasons, people are resisting privatization.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, a 35% rate hike and deteriorating service led to a general strike. One protestor was shot by the Bolivian army, but the protest forced executives of the newly privatized water utility to flee, and the city government then cancelled the contract.

The World Water Council (www.worldwatercouncil.org) has been compiling an inventory of almost 3,000 actions, documenting numerous water success stories. The database is available for consultation through the Internet. One of the most important actions is to involve all local people in the decisions made about water supplies. The council's report is entitled "World Water Actions: Making Water Flow for All." It is available on the council's web site.

In an address earlier this year, UNESCO director general Matsuura said: "Water can be an agent of peace, or it can be an agent of war and conflict. Fears over the diminishing resources of the Earth and their variable occurrence in time and space are on the increase and the mechanisms and institutions needed to manage disputes over water resources are often absent or inadequate."

It is time for the world community to act to bring clean safe water to everyone. Humans do not need another reason to fight with one another. We can live without war; we cannot live without water.

GREEN TIPS - On a global average, most freshwater withdrawals (69 percent) are used for food production, while industry accounts for 23 percent and municipal uses such as drinking water, bathing and cleaning, and watering plants and grass amount to only 8 percent. Diet is very important for water consumption. When you consume one kilo of grain, you are in effect also consuming the 1,000 litres of water needed to grow that grain. When you consume one kilo of beef, you are consuming the 13,000 litres of water needed to produce that amount of meat. This is the hidden or 'virtual' water says Daniel Zimmer, Director of the World Water Council and a speaker at the 3rd World Water Forum. "It is this unconscious behaviour that causes humans to consume so much water." The message for North Americans is clear: eat lower on the food chain more often. Eat less meat and more vegetables.

RESOURCES - Check this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation site www.cbc.ca/news/iraq/issues_analysis/reconstruction.html for more cost figures on fighting the war in Iraq and the eventual reconstruction costs. For a detailed breakdown of the almost $75 billion George Bush has requested from Congress, see www.clw.org/milspend/fy03supplemental.html and www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_04/warbudget_apr03.asp. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is one of America's highest-profile environmental crusaders and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org). In an interview with Maclean's magazine (www.macleans.ca), Kennedy says: "Water is a major issue in the next decade, particularly for Canada, which has the highest percentage of fresh water in the world. There will be huge demands made on Canada's water resources, not only from Canadian industry but from the U.S. and elsewhere. The U.S. would like to divert those water resources to obtain economic benefits outside of their watersheds in places like the Great Lakes and in Western Canada." Read this Boston Globe story www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/091/nation/Basic_utilities_return_to_war_torn_port_city+.shtml to understand the difficulties of obtaining water in war-torn Iraq and how U.S. military officials want Iraqis to pay for fresh water. British Broadcasting Corporation reporter Tim Franks (www.bbc.co.uk/reporters) says from southern Iraq: "In Safwan, people here say they're desperate for water. Their preoccupation isn't war, it's the fact that they haven't got enough water to drink … People have poured out of their houses, carrying metal buckets, plastic urns, anything they can, to get a supply of water from the black hosepipe that comes out of the back of a rusty white tanker. The message is repeated over and over by people here: 'We didn't want war, we didn't want the disruption to our lives.'" Maude Barlow's personal account of the 3rd World Water Forum is available on the International Forum on Globalization web site at www.ifg.org/programs/water/mbkyoto03.htm. A summary of her report "Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply" can be viewed at www.ifg.org/analysis/reports/bgsummary.htm.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by email at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.