Friday, August 19, 2011

Water Rights

Science & Society

Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.
The United Nations Committee
on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights

More than eighty countries, with forty percent of the world’s population, are already facing water shortages, while by year 2020 the world’s population will double. The costs of water infrastructure have risen dramatically. The quality of water in rivers and underground has deteriorated, due to pollution by waste and contaminants from cities, industry and agriculture. Ecosystems are being destroyed, sometimes permanently. Over one billion people lack safe water, and three billion lack sanitation; eighty per cent of infectious diseases are waterborne, killing millions of children each year.
—World Bank, 1999

Whoever stops up his ears at the cry of the poor will himself cry, but not be answered. 
Proverbs 21:13, Jewish Bible 

View of the Earth: A shot taken from Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972. Water covers 71% of the Earth's surface; the oceans contain 97.5% of the Earth's water. The Antarctic ice sheet, which contains 61% of all fresh water on Earth, is visible at the bottom.
Photo Credit: NASA. Photo taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans (of the Apollo 17 crew).
Source: NASA

I reside in a suburb of Montreal on the western side of the island that this summer has restricted water use, namely, the watering of lawns. The reason for the ban is that the current demand for water exceeds supply, so the municipality is doubling the capacity of its water plant, a $75-million project that is expected to be complete by June 2012. That's the only restriction—no lawn watering. Some of my neighbours are quite upset about it and have voiced their displeasure to the mayor, to no avail.

Undoubtedly, sprinklers going full tilt is a common site, notably in suburbia, where lush emerald-green lawns are a testimony to the homeowner's status. Quite honestly, it has no effect on our family's well-being, since we usually allow nature to water our lawn. It might also be that in comparison to some of the large "monster homes" in my neighborhood, our house is modest, as is the parcel of land of about 3,500 square feet (325 square metres) on which our house sits. It is, however, sufficient for our needs.

I raise this issue for a reason. While suburbanites in North America worry about brown lawns, many others worldwide worry whether they will get any quality water to drink. Some people say that there is not enough drinking water for all the earth's inhabitants. numbering almost seven billion people. Recent scientific estimates say that almost one billion people, one in seven persons, do not have access to quality drinking water. There are equally a number of sobering statistics of the consequences of this: poverty, sickness and death.

Note that humans require, on average, 2.4 litres per day of drinking water and between 20 and 50 litres per day for basic needs such as cooking, bathing and cleaning. A person can survive up to 30 days without food, but only up to seven days without water (A full set of interesting statistics can be found here and here for those interested.)

Drought and famine are an all-too common occurrence, notably in sub-Sahara Africa. For example, there is currently a famine, brought out partly by drought, in the Horn of Africa, with Somalia bearing the brunt of it. The photos of emaciated children are hard to ignore and rich nations pledge money. Some of it trickles its way to the persons affected; most doesn't. The cycle continues as does the cynicism. But yet we hope that things will change one day for the poorest of the poor. We feel helpless in the face of such overwhelming poverty, asking if it must always be this way. Some of the problems are man-made, but not all. It has everything to do with how much water we have access to and how it is distributed.

The Water Cycle:
The water cycle is the only way that Earth can be continually supplied with fresh water. The heat from the sun is the most important part of renewing our water supply. This heat soaks up water from the oceans, lakes, rivers, trees and plants in a process called evaporation. As the water mixes with the air it forms water vapor. As the air cools, the water vapor forms clouds. This is called condensation. Most of the water is immediately returned to the seas by rain (precipitation). The rest of the water vapor is carried inside clouds by wind over land where it rains or snows. Rain and melted snow is brought back to the oceans by rivers, streams, and run-off from glaciers and water underground.
Credit: US Geological Survey
Source: Wikipedia

Less than One Per Cent of the World's Water is Drinkable

Although, about two-thirds of the earth is covered with water, 97.5 per cent of it in the oceans and is salty and thus not drinkable or usable for our consumption. That leaves 2.5 per cent for freshwater use. But two-thirds of that amount, or 1.7 per cent, is locked in permanent snow and glaciers. So, less than one percent of the world's water is easily accessible and drinkable. Even so, UN-Water reports that we have yet to access all the world's water resources: "The world's six billion people are appropriating 54 percent of all the accessible freshwater contained in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers."

For some nations it makes perfect sense to tap into the world's oceans and it huge saltwater reserves. Desalination technology is available, but expensive to operate on a wide scale, at least for now, since it uses a lot of energy in the form of steam to to produce clean drinkable water.  There are, of course, environmental concerns of using such technologies. "According to International Desalination Association 2009, there are 14,451 desalination plants in operation worldwide, producing 59.9 million cubic meters per day (15.8 billion gallons a day)," Wikipedia says.

Most are, not surprisingly, in the Middle East, where in the desert groundwater is scarce. Costs are coming down, however, as technology gets better, more efficient. For example, in Israel, the cost is US$0.53 per cubic meter. Costs in other parts of the world are comparable. It is expected that costs will eventually come down with technological improvements. (For a technical look at the desalination process see "The ABCs of Desalting," put out by the International Desalination Association.) The consumer costs of bottled water are comparably much higher.

Water has to be managed, even in the industrialized west, or else we'll run out of it. Large concerns are taking care of the water supply and management, since they argue, they are best suited for such matters. That is the simple truth that some scientists say we will have to contend with shortly.

Science and technology might eventually solve the technical problems. Technical and technological consideration aside, there are other things to think about. Here's another simple truth from Jon Luoma, in “The privatisation of water," published in The Ecologist (March 1 2004):
Multinational companies now run water systems for 7 per cent of the world's population, and analysts say that figure could grow to 17 per cent by 2015. Private water management is estimated to be a $200 billion business, and the World Bank, which has encouraged governments to sell off their utilities to reduce public debt, projects it could be worth $1 trillion by 2021. The potential for profits is staggering: in May 2000 Fortune magazine predicted that water is about to become 'one of the world's great business opportunities', and that "it promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th."
Some of the language is alarmist. While I don't agree that the comparison to oil is necessarily valid, the article does raise a few questions on how water will be managed in the fairest way possible. Corporations operate with the intention of making a profit, and such is understandable. But when it comes to a basic resource like water, corporations ought to rethink and reconsider how they operate, if they wish to be good corporate citizens.

The Practical Choice/The Moral Choice

Even so, this scenario raises a few questions. If this is happening, why is it so? Why has water, which no one really should own, become a commodity, possibly controlled by the few. The short answer is that it takes huge investments to set up a water network, and companies have the right to not only recoup their investment but make a profit. Is this a morally defensible position? The problem is not greed, per se, a vital force that can be harnessed for good, if directed in the right fashion, such as making new technologies for profit.

It's the greed that is selfish and unchecked by opposing forces of goodness and goodwill for the less fortunate that is problematic. It's true that individuals can come together at conferences, such as the UN and FAO, Unicef and others, to work out some ethical framework of a personal or corporate nature and do good. Pledge money, Deliver aid. It's all good and well. It works, somewhat, at least for now, even in the face of thugs and thieves who steal from their own people. Yet, the cycle seems never-ending: drought, aid, theft, poverty, death.

Because it is logical, rational and utilitarian, it serves the needs of the situation. Thus, on a grander scale of humanity and for its betterment, it will likely fail and fail in a miserable way, bringing with it misery to many. The reasons are the ones that have always plagued us. A lack of long-term good will to help those who need help the most, chiefly because there is no real benefit other than doing good.

In the end, we might solve the technical problems, but the human problems are much more difficult. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin, ultimately leading to defeat of the spirit,  This approach, the moral one, will happen  when we believe it is the only possible solution. Until then, it's likely business as usual.

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