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Who controls water controls life

One billion people – a seventh of the world’s population – are without reliable supplies of water, and each day 3,900 children die because of water deprivation. Even the wealthy United States cannot provide citizens secure access to water.  

Cholera is spreading through Niger and Sierra Leone, caused by polluted drinking water. Fragile water and sanitation systems were damaged by unprecedented floods that left 94,000 people homeless.

At the other end of the scale India’s poor monsoon means the country is facing a drinking water crisis, with reservoirs at 20% of expected supply for the time of year. A new UN publication to mark World Water Week, says:

Our presence and our actions and their consequences have altered the very composition of the atmosphere in which precipitation forms and from which rain falls. Humans have altered how much land cover exists to capture, store, purify and release water from the sky. Human behaviour is affecting rain and snowfall patterns, how much water flows in rivers, and whether the rivers even make it to the sea.

Add to this the serious groundwater overdraft, accelerating soil loss in many of the world’s most important food production areas, the widespread contamination of water, and rapidly expanding desertification globally, and the causes and dimensions of the global water crisis suddenly become apparent.

The UN’s report tends to the view that humanity as a whole, by its existence, is the cause of the problem, and that population growth is the key factor in the growing water crisis.

But this is contradicted by the facts. In the 40 years to 2000, 45,000 large dams and hundreds of thousands of smaller structures quadrupled water storage. What happens to the water then is the question.

The water supply has been stretched to the limit not by the existence of human society per se, but by the predominant economic form of that society. Water is a crucial input in commodity production, which has accelerated under corporate-driven globalisation.

Total industrial water use in the world is about 22%, with high-income countries using 59%, and low-income countries using just 8%. That doesn’t include what agri-business uses.

When a country is subjected to “market reforms” and rapid growth, governments put their populations into competition for water against the corporations. State utilities are privatised and prices driven up.

A Greenpeace report says that at least 10 billion cubic metres of water – equivalent to about one sixth of the annual total water volume of the Yellow River – will be consumed by 16 new coal power bases in China in 2015. This will trigger severe water crises in the country’s arid north west. China is “trading water rights of millions for energy,” it concludes.

Farming crops for direct consumption such as vegetables, grains and pulses makes best use of water, but is losing out to bio-fuels and high-value livestock farming.  

The UN report points out that “alternative” fuels – biofuels, oil shales, oil sands, coal-to-liquids, and hydrogen – can be anywhere from three to ten times more water use intensive than even oil and coal. Rapid growth in these will “intensify competition for already limited freshwater resources in many regions of the world.”

A whole section in the UN report is devoted to looking at whether the next wars will be water wars. Many developed economies are now classifying water supply as a factor in national security. Capitalism in crisis goes to war over resources – whether colonies, or diamonds or oil.

Only removing every crucial resource for life from private ownership and moving to co-operative management for mutual, cross-border benefit, can prevent the water wars so gloomily predicted.

Penny Cole
Environment editor  
14 September 2012

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