Water - some inconvenient truths.
Forget the wrangling over Washinton's $700 billion bail out of Western capitalism.
This is World Water Month, a story highlighted by NowPublic but ignored by the rest of the world's media. My bet is that, in ten years time, we will have forgotten about the banks. But our water problems will still be top news.We delight in bubbling brooks and springs that gurgle. There is nothing quite like drinking water fresh from the mountain spring, dipping our face down into the stream, and tossing our heads back; refreshed and laughing with joy! We marvel at cascading rivers that flow down mountains and then turn into raging torrents before they reach the oceans.
Water nourishes us. It cleanses, and purifies us. Water delights us. People even say that rivers like the Ganges are sacred.
But then people pollute the river with tons of human and industrial waste and the detritus of their cities. Other rivers get abused through over-use. The river is reduced to little more than a trickle before it reaches the sea. It seems to be OK if we all just take as much water as we want and ignore the impact! No one is going to complain if we diss these resources! That's just how it is.
So here are the inconvenient truths.One: we use water wantonly. In fact, we are using it faster than it is being replenished. Lester Brown, of The Earth Policy Institute, says: “Water scarcity may be the most under-estimated resource issue facing the world today”. The scarcity problem is slowing becoming massive. In India, although food output through the Green Revolution doubled, it took three times as much water to produce that increase. Two hundred million small farmers use 21 million pumps to suck India's aquifers dry. In Tamil Nadu State 95 per cent of all the wells have now dried up. More water gets taken out of aquifers each year in China and the US too. Together, India, China and the US account for half the world grain harvest. The irrigated southern Great Plains in the US, as well as the south west, have shrunk by 24 percent since 1980. Punjabi farmers in Pakistan (who grow 90 percent of the country’s wheat), pump 30 percent more water than gets recharged, so that the water tables fall by one or two metres a year. Also food supplies are falling because rivers are drying up. China’s wheat harvest peaked in 1997 and has since been falling steadily by 27 percent. The Colorado River, in the US, the Yellow River in China, the Nile in Africa, the Indus in Pakistan, and the Ganges in India – are all reduced to a trickle as they enter the sea. Part of the reason for this is that no one is in control enough to take collective action among all the users. Yes, there are lots of water committees talking about the issues but often they don’t get very far. Too much blah, blah, blah. Not enough serious action.
Two: Much of our water (in the West at least) goes straight down the toilet! We take this so much for granted, it never occurs to us how strange this is. People from another planet would probably regard us as stupid savages to spoil such an important resource! As President Roosevelt said in 1910, ‘Civilised people ought to know how to dispose of sewage in some other way than putting it into drinking water’. This system is completely unsustainable. Lester Brown calls it the 'flush and forget' system since often the sewage flows directly into rivers; forgotten by the users. Yet water engineers continue to regard this approach as the only realistic option. They must indeed be crazy! Sanitation always gets a low priority. It is embarassing to talk about and difficult to deal with. How do you plan to provide a shanty-town like Dharavi, with over a million inhabitants, with adequate water and sanitation?
When the Millenium Development Goals were originally negotiated in 1999, no one thought to include anything about water provision! It was only after some tough negotiating that they got added two years later, like an afterthought.Somehow water provision never really makes the headlines. Even today, the fulfilment of the targets for halving the number of people without toilets, will take 100 years to achieve at the current rate of progress. To meet the MD-goals would mean that 95,000 toilets need to be installed every day; that is one toilet every second, working twenty four hours until 2015. The irony is that more people die as a result of not having clean drinking water or decent toilets conditions than die from TB, malaria and HIV combined, each year. Yet the issue is kind of ignored (and TB, malaria and HIV diseases have their own separate MD-goal!).
Three: As a result, these water shortages often cause serious conflicts. This occurred in Darfur, Rwanda, and Nigeria, usually between the itinerant camel herders and the settled farmers, fighting over the dwindling grazing areas. It occurs daily between Palestinians and Israelis. The same could easily occur in the Mekong Delta over sharing the water supplies between China, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. The irony is that often people talk about the conflicts, warning of big trouble to come Yet no one acts. Then we get the terrible TV pictures of brutal murders. Most of us don't get told about the underlying conflicts and we draw our own (erroneous) conclusions. (For example, I never knew that the water shortage was the initial cause of Darfur's fighting until I began reading about this issue!).
Four: Our consumption patterns vary enormously. The supply of water is finite - evaporation, precipitation, rainfall - it will never increase. Yet we are using it as if there is no tomorrow! For example, in the year 2000, we consumed twice as much water as we did in 1960. Americans consume about 1,400 litres per person per day. That cannot continue. And we tend to use 150 gallons of top grade drinking water quality each day in the West, to flush our toilets and wash ourselves. Two billion people, on the other hand, have no water for their toilet needs. Of course part of the problem is that water is not readily transportable. Much of it is in the wrong place compared with the demands for it. Canada, Russia and Brazil have more than they need. People in Gaza, the world’s poorest, has only 140 litres of poor quality brackish water each day.
Five: Unclean water causes widespread disease. One gram of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1000 parasites, and 100 worm eggs. Most of that is dangerous. Small faecal particles can contaminate water, food, cutlery and shoes. It can be drunk or unwittingly eaten. It doesn’t take much: a small child, maybe, who plays in soil where people have been shiting, then dips its fingers in the family rice pot. A sanitation expert suggests that ten grams of faecal matter can get absorbed by people without adequate clean sanitation, every day. This causes about one in ten of the world’s illnesses. At least 50 communicable diseases — cholera, meningitis, typhoid, etc — travel from host to host in human excrement. In fact more people die as a result of this food and water contamination than all those who die through malaria, TB, and HIV each year (which is another of the MD-goals).
Six: Suppliers are often corrupt. Transparency International’s 2008 Report on Corruption In Water Supplies pointed out that in 2004 there were a billion people without safe, drinking water in the world, and two billion people had no basic toilet provision. By 2025 there will be three billion people living in water stressed countries. In Africa since 1990 the number of people without basic sanitation has fallen merely from 68% to 63%. There are now 20 percent more people without water access in Africa now than there were ten years ago. This state of affairs is aggravated by corruption. Corrupt practices are everywhere, especially in large water supply projects and irrigation canals. The TI Report reckons that ten percent of the money given to create better water facilities gets siphoned off through corrupt practices; in fact, it could be as large as thirty percent. This means that the costs of implementing the water MD-goals could be increased by $48 billions for 10 years.
Seven: According to Lester Brown, the President of the Earth Policy Institute, the costs of doing something about our water shortages are pretty small when compared to the costs of the world’s military budgets. $10 billion could stabilize the water tables of the world, and a further $6 billion needs to be spent on planting trees to prevent flooding and conserve soil. This compares with $560 billion spent by the US on the military (in 2006) out of a total for world spending of $1,235 billions. Tell that to George Bush next time you meet him! Tell him that 'freedom' includes adequate water supplies! Ask him how he regards shanty-town dwellers' toilet needs.
Eight: Solutions are often made out to be expensive. The World Bank, the UN, the development banks across the world all employ high powered economists and water engineers who tend to think big and assume that the solutions must be big! (Then there are the well paid consultants to add to the bills). They estimate the total costs to get clean water and sanitation to those who don’t have it to be about $180 billions. That is about $100 per head. They are of course thinking like westerners and assuming that this is the only way to do it. This kind of thinking needs to be challenged. NEPAD, the development agency formed with businesses in Africa, a few years ago, has huge plans for an irrigation/canal system for the whole of Africa, that will be enormously costly. The boffins need to develop a completely new mindset. Let them develop a more sophisticated analysis of water productivity and measure water efficiencies for different forms of transporting, storing and using it. And there are many imaginative practices for conserving water that African small farmers use, that could be copied elsewhere across the continent. But these small farmers don't get a hearing by 'world class consultants'! The kind of money these experts suggest in their plans will never be found. That kind of thinking makes the problem insoluble.
Nine: An American hydrologist put it clearly: ‘The problem facing mankind is not a lack of fresh water but a lack of efficient regimes for using the water that is available.’ For example, in London where I live, the water supplier wastes thirty percent of the supplies through leakages and has only just begun to rectify this! Even so, Thames Water wants to build another reservoir before it tackles these leakages, even though the reservoir will be more expensive. There are so many examples of such profligate spending plans. And still no one routinely measures 'water-use efficiency'.
Ten: Top down solutions generally produce wastages, since local people have no stake in looking after these projects. The priority should be containment and co-operation. That’s not as fancy as it sounds: In Myanmar, for example, during the recent typhoon, aid workers needed to create toilet systems out of the rubble. But, with the water table only 20 centimeters below the surface in Myanmar, it was of little use to dig pit latrines, so buckets or tanks for human waste were needed instead. Providing such things was made harder by the refusal of Myanmar’s government to accept help.
These solutions get hampered by our unwillingness to even talk about it. Bottom up solutions are usually more efficient than top down. Yes, they take more time to winkle out solutions because experts need to travel to many villages, talk to many people, listen to farmers whose views are often ignored by the experts. Experts have to go out during the monsoon rains, and in the raging dry days to find out what really goes on. Consultants don't usually do monsoons! They have to dig around the local solutions that villagers take for granted but few others know about. And they have to rediscover the ancient water systems that are hidden from view, but sometimes still in use.
There are solutions! But first, we need to give far greater publicity to the issues involved. Some of these inconvenient truths will surprise readers, not because they don't believe them. Rather, they have not heard about them before. No wonder few people are working out solutions. World Water Month is an excellent time to publicise the issues!
There are some excellent books on all this. Rose George's book, just published The Big Necessity. Lester Brown: Outgrowing The Earth - short and very interesting (he treats the Earth as an inter-related system in this book and looks at the effects of different parts on other parts of the system) . Fred Pearce: "Asian farmers sucking the continent dry" New Scientist Aug 25, 2004, and also two books -forgotten their titles but I will add this info.
Please note: The photo of Mendocino Lake in drought was contributed by petuniaparkhurst of flickr. It is not my work!