Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

'The most precious mineral'

By Peter Snowdon

Why should there be such a fuss over water? After all, it is not as if there is any obvious shortage of the stuff. Even in the desert, when people have made their homes there, it was because they found mighty rivers whose banks were ideal arable land, or oases whose springs promised never to run dry. Throughout most of the world, water also falls from the sky with what strikes many as depressing regularity. Yet now this assumption of liquid wealth, which has been fundamental to human civilisation as we know it, is increasingly proving an illusion.

Perhaps, in some ways, it always was. Most of the world's water is to be found in the oceans and is thus full of salt. Of what freshwater there is, the majority is locked up in the polar ice caps. Of that which is neither frozen away, nor too highly-seasoned for human use, 90 per cent resides as groundwater in subterranean aquifers. As a result, only about 3 per cent of the planet's total water supply is actively part of the hydrological cycle upon which we humans depend for food and water. This restriction is further aggravated by the fact that much of the world's groundwater resides in areas where, due to secular shifts in climate patterns, it can never be replenished once it has been drawn down.

Over the last 50 years, technological innovation -- and in particular the industrialisation of agriculture -- have given us the power to pollute and exploit these once ample reserves in ways which were never previously feasible. It is an opportunity which policy-makers and captains of industry throughout the world have been only too happy to seize with both hands.

As a result, water scarcity is becoming an endemic -- if still far from universal -- problem. The World Water Council (WWC), which convened last week's Forum, has armfuls of figures to prove it. One billion people, they tell us -- one-sixth of the world's population -- have no adequate access to clean drinking water. Three times that number have no access to adequate sanitation services. Meanwhile, 800 million people go hungry in regions where there is either too little water to grow food, or too much, so that floods and storms regularly destroy crops.

Squeezing the tap dry: a young Ethiopian boy seeks relief from thirst and heat
Faced with such shocking figures, the world water establishment -- a group of slightly shady, somewhat ad hoc organisations, with more or less interchangeable names, behind which lurk the real agenda setters (international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, and the major multi-national water companies, such as Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux) -- have a set of ready answers. Their central proposal is devastatingly simple: there is not enough water, because we think of it as free. If a price were to be set on water, however, thus turning it into a tradable commodity, demand would be "rationalised" -- people would think twice before they turned on the tap -- while private capital would rush to fund "much-needed" new infrastructure and technology investment.

So the solution to the problem that most people don't have enough water, is to make everyone pay more for whatever water they do get, however little.

Why didn't you and I think of that first?

At The Hague, the World Water Council accordingly presented a "roadmap" which "proposes to unleash the power of the private sector". The other quangos and junkets that populate the international water scene concur. "The most important reform in water policy that we recommend is that pricing be adjusted to sustainable cost-recovery levels," Ismail Serageddin, chairperson of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, told the Forum. "Farmers, industry and consumers have become used to free or subsidised water in both rich and poor nations, which has skewered water use and led to the over-use and misuse of groundwater."

This attitude -- that, for lack of an appropriate pricing mechanism, we are all behaving like spendthrift wastrels, drinking ourselves out of house and home -- is pretty much universal among the water establishment. It is also highly misleading, not to use a stronger term. For the problem isn't that water is free -- it's hard to see, after all, how you could prevent anyone from building an earth tank beside their house or, in more remote areas, digging a well with their friends. The problem is that, increasingly, all the "free" water is in the hands of a few people, who can dispose of it as they see fit. Meanwhile, the water that is left -- and on which the majority of the world's population depends for life and livelihood -- is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to access. As Australian ecologist Bill Mollison put it, speaking almost 20 years ago, "No longer is there any way you can get cheap surface water. If there was, someone would already have sold it to Los Angeles."

To talk then of a world water crisis, when the extra water needed to ensure a minimum basic domestic supply for all the world's people in 2025 is only one per cent of current total water withdrawal levels, is ludicrous. The basic problem with water -- as with most of the essential resources for a contented human life -- is not that public ownership is encouraging us to be profligate in our use of it, but that most of it has already been privatised. As a result, there is an artificial scarcity of what little is left over for everyone else.

This fact, which is never openly acknowledged in any of the documents produced by the World Water Council and its cohorts, is nevertheless flagrantly obvious in their oft-repeated observation that agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of world freshwater consumption, and rising. Yet the agriculture that siphons off vast quantities of water is not, for the most part, the agriculture that feeds the 50 per cent of the world's population who still live on the land.

The family-owned mixed-crop small holdings, which were for several thousand years the backbone of the rural world, are essentially water-conserving. Their micro-ecosystems are grafted into the natural limits of a given watershed; the plants they grow are chosen not only for their food value, but also for their role in maintaining and managing the local water harvest. Rather, it is the large prairies sown with industrially-irrigated monocrops, grown essentially for export, using capital-intensive "Green Revolution" technology and inputs, which are sucking the larger national and trans-national water systems dry. In particular, it is these factory farms which provide the economic rationale for large-scale hydro-projects and dams, thus definitively and violently disrupting the local water economy, drying up millennial aquifers and lowering the level of the water table beyond the reach of small farmers with no independent access to capital.

Nor do the problems stop there -- for the water cycle is simply one dimension of any complex ecosystem. Thus, industrial agriculture directly degrades precious ground water reserves by polluting them with pesticides and nitrogen-rich fertilisers. But it also undermines water security more subtly, by encouraging widespread deforestation. Trees play a key role in the hydrological cycle: their roots are a central mechanism for preventing run-off, drawing water down instead into the earth; while different types of leaf serve to encourage condensation, and to release water into the atmosphere through evaporation. Clearfelling along ridges, to take just one common example, can reduce rainfall in the surrounding area by 20 per cent, with overall precipitation falling by up to 80 per cent in some extreme cases. With the world's forests disappearing at the present rate, there is little hope of achieving water security, or indeed any form of sustainable agriculture.

The problems of the countryside are, of course, the mirror image of the problems of the town. Just as industrial agriculture creates ecosystems which consume far more water than they can ever give back, so the urban areas this agriculture exists to serve are also a net drain on national water resources. As cities are often sited, for historical reasons, on the most fertile soils, their construction wipes out huge swathes of farmland, which are rapidly covered over with a largely impermeable outer skin of concrete and tarmac. The result is a double imposition. The land lost to buildings and roads must be replaced in order to feed the people who now live on it, and thus an even larger area of virgin forest must be cleared in "compensation". Meanwhile, the newly urbanised area's ability to slake its own thirst is rapidly undermined as the aquifers locked away beneath its streets are starved of rain.

The world water crisis, then, is best understood as just one aspect of the much larger ecological violence which is being visited upon our planet. Together, industrial agriculture and urbanisation are exhausting the self-sustaining productive capacity of the land. Without the near-universal empire of such practices, there would be quite enough water to go round; but to keep it cycling would mean reversing the two central impulses of what we casually refer to as "development". Don't hold your breath.

The World Water Council, for its part, remains fully committed to the agricultural status quo. Indeed, the sheer insistence throughout last week's proceedings on the population-water-agriculture nexus was plainly meant, not to call industrial agriculture into question, but to prepare the way for public acceptance of a new round of large-budget, technology-intensive pseudo-solutions.

At the same time, the Council's proposals seem sublimely oblivious of the threat posed to regional water security by global warming. Yet if one thing is certain about the future, it is that anthropogenic climate change will make sure it is quite different from the past. As Mark Maslin, Lecturer in Physical Geography at University College, London, told Al-Ahram Weekly: "The problem with global warming isn't the rise in temperature, but the complete unpredictability of where the rain will now fall. This is especially true of the monsoons in South America, India and South East Asia. With those regions, we're already talking about something that will impact half the population of the world."

As well as trying to polish up the tarnished star of biotechnology, with talk of synthetic grains which could survive on 10ml of rain a year, the WWF also banged the drum for that other great turn-of-the-century monster, the WTO/GATS agenda. If this programme were to be carried through, water companies would not simply have the right to cover their costs, and make a reasonable profit, they would also acquire the right to mine water from anywhere, and transport it to wherever they could sell it at the highest price. A green light for massive foreign direct investment, combined with existing schemes for the bulk export of water, could effectively deprive nations of their "water sovereignty", thus turning all the Forum's fine talk of ensuring "equitable access to water for all" into a joke in the poorest possible taste.

Exporting water is already a major political issue in Canada as a result of the NAFTA treaty. Water-stressed societies should be following the situation there with the keenest of interest. True, the monsoon lands which are likely to be hit the hardest in the short term may seem a long way from Cairo. But distance is a relative concept -- especially when there is a pipeline connecting the tap in your kitchen to a reservoir on another land mass, several thousand kilometers away.

That may seem an unlikely prospect -- but we already take it for granted when it comes to oil and gas. If water supplies do begin to dry up, and Vivendi and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux get their way and are allowed to charge a "reasonable" price for their new wonder product --well, then water may indeed turn out to be the "blue gold" of the 21st century.

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