THE BLOG

Where is the Water?

05/22/2012 09:23 am ET | Updated Jul 22, 2012

Ten steps. That's probably about how long it would take most of us in America to find the nearest faucet. However, millions of women and children begin their daily trek with a 10,000-mile walk to the nearest source of clean water. In fact, 7 billion humans vie for their share of the more than 30 billion gallons of water that are consumed daily in a global system of increasing interdependent human and ecological activities.

Consequently, terms like "blue gold" and "water wars" have become associated with these activities because of water's precious nature but inevitable demand. Together, these characteristics of the life-giving covalent bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms have brought tensions between families, societies, governments, and capitalist interests.

In third grade, we all learned about the planet's water and fact that there are 326 million cubic miles of water on our planet, but only three percent of it is freshwater and only one percent of freshwater is accessible. Just as in third grade, it still seems unreal how much water is here on our planet, but what may seem even more unreal is the possibility of it all going away. Yes, there was truth to how we learned in third grade that water will always be here and the same water we drink today is the same water that T-Rex and his mighty Mesozoic friends splashed in. However, if humans pollute all of our water or even displace the water of today, we become monumental catalysts in changing our water systems.

Just within the last century, humans have fueled and witnessed how water has become a commodity that could be bought and sold without considerations of our natural environment and public health. Trade agreements influenced by NAFTA, the World Bank and the UN have all helped privatize water sources in both the industrialized and developing world, thereby ushering in a sense of proprietary dominion over a natural resource that once could not be owned. Today, we now see the world's largest freshwater water holdings are in the hands of corporate companies and out of the public's control.

For example, the bottling of water poses a 21st-century threat to global water systems. Water can be bought and sold in the United States either for $0.0005 for a pint of tap water or $2 or more for a pint of bottled water. Water bottling companies tell and sell stories that their water is healthy and convenient. Moreover, United States water bottlers do not have to abide by the same public health regulations required that water municipalities must meet as defined by the United States' Safe Drinking Water Act because once processed by the bottler, the water is branded as that bottler's "invention" and "product." In fact, bottling water in plastics can be linked to leaching numerous carcinogens, as seen in the case of bisphenol-A.

Bottling companies come into communities and drain their water sources and take the water elsewhere. Citizens fearing a collapse of local water systems like the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation are fighting to oust bottlers like Nestlé from their communities.

"It has been seven years since the residents of Mecosta County, Michigan were made aware of Nestlé's plans to pump over 210 million gallons of spring water per year from a private hunting preserve, divert it through a 12 mile pipeline that crosses streams and wetlands to its plant, bottle it, and then truck it outside the Muskegon River Watershed and Great Lakes Basin under the brand name Ice Mountain. As Nestlé moved into Michigan to privatize our water for its own profit, it announced there would be no adverse resource impact to the natural resources," Terrill Sweir said in a public testimony against Nestle's bottling operations in Mecosta County the United States Congress's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Sweir went on to claim that Nestle's bottling operations have led to severe lake and stream drainage of waters that used to provide recreational opportunities for locals and habitats for native wildlife.

Wherever there is water, there seems to be some corporate interests taking advantage of our planet's natural resources without regard to public health. In 1998, the water in Sydney was contaminated with high levels of giardia and cryptosporidium shortly after it was overtaken by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, a water powerhouse based in France. Without an explanation, the sheer name of these two microorganisms sends a message that they do not belong in on our water. Moreover, water became inaccessible, unaffordable, and unsafe after the water supply was privatized by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux in Johannesburg. Cholera infections became widespread and thousands of people were disconnected from their supply of water.

Commercial interests have indeed found their way into the more vulnerable developing world.
Cochabamba lies in a semidesert region of Bolivia, making water a scarce and precious resource. However, in 1999, the World Bank released recommendations calling for privatization of Cochambamba's municipal water supply company. World Bank officials directly threatened to withhold $600 million in international debt relief if Bolivia didn't privatize Cochabamba's public water system. Thereafter, International Water took over the water services in Cochabamba, and the monthly water bill reached $20 in a city where the minimum wage is less than $100 a month. These increases forced some of the poorest families to literally choose between food and water. Consequently, an alliance of the citizens of Cochabamba called La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (The Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) was formed in January 2000.

La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida is a shining example of citizen-activists overcoming the far-reaching influential power of global water capitalists. Through mass mobilization, the alliance shut down the city for four days. Within a month of this, millions of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba and held a general strike, stopping all transportation. The protesters then issued the Cochabamba Declaration, which called for the protection of universal water rights for all citizens.

Consumers also can tip the scale on these matters. Think of how each product assembled or grown today has a water footprint. The average car takes 350,000 gallons of water to create, a microchip take 32 liters, and one barrel of oil takes seven to 10 barrels of water. Nonetheless, most apples in the United States are grown in China, a nation where water is low and so are public health standards. Consider these factors when making purchasing decisions.

Simply put, the answer to the water wars is to keep as much water in the ground, keep waters publicly held by the citizens who depend on them, and restrict transporting water outside of local communities. Some argue that perhaps we should start looking to desalination of our oceans. However, there is so much more salt water available on our planet, desalination does not solve the root problem. Instead, it offers another opportunity for companies to claim their desalinated water is a "product."

The planet's dynamic and global-reaching food systems show the industrialized world that water problems are more than just a local and regional issue. "It truly does not have to be this way," said Stephanie Watson, Greening Forward vice-president, who has led the international organization's youth-driven water quality and conservation efforts. "Everyday choices such as choosing a reusable bottle filled with tap water versus bottled water with a fancy label allow citizens to become heroes for water conservation around the world," Watson added.

Additionally, the rise of suburbia has given a claim to fame for the homeowners that can produce the greenest grass. "If citizens asked themselves whether they want the green grass, or be a part of the problematic puzzle that drains their limited regional water resources, hopefully they would choose the latter," Watson continued. In fact, other simple changes to how we use water, such as installing low-flow fixtures and low-flow toilets, can reduce the United States' water consumption by 20-30 percent easily, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In all optimism, Watson believes in the best of individuals and believes that the stories of blue gold's consequential deaths, corporate vs. citizen feuds and global connectedness leave individuals with a reminder that we all can either change this system for the better or for the worse every time we use water.

Charles invites readers to connect with Greening Forward on Facebook and with him personally on Twitter @corgbon.