We Can't Solve Our Food Crisis if We Don't Talk About Water


The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Protecting the Water Commons

Water is a precious and dwindling resource that desperately needs protection. Agriculture accounts for the majority of the water humans use. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 70 percent of water usage worldwide is agricultural, mostly for irrigation. Using "conventional" input-intensive methods, it takes as much as 250 gallons of water to produce a pound of corn and 8,500 gallons to produce a pound of grain-fed beef. Irrigation systems are often inefficient, with the majority of the water evaporating or running off the field, carrying with it agricultural chemicals into surface water supplies. Irrigation also alters soil conditions, eroding precious topsoil and depositing salts, which accumulate and eventually render the land inhospitable to plant life.

Agriculture doesn't have to use so much water. Traditional, locally bred plant varieties and animal breeds have been adapted to local water patterns through selection over time, exhibiting qualities such as drought tolerance, which enable them to produce even without regular watering. However, high yields from "improved" hybrid seeds depend upon a considerable and consistent supply of water.

In many regions, water demand is met by pumping underground water supplies (known as groundwater, in contrast to surface supplies, such as water from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs). Most of the food produced in the Great Plains of the United States is irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, a single vast underground system spanning eight states. The problem is that the aquifer is being drained much faster than it's being replenished. In the past fifty years the aquifer has lost over a third of its volume, and each year another foot and half of water is pumped from it, though the recharge rate from surface water seepage is just half an inch per year. Food produced using water from such a slowly renewing source is doubly unsustainable, using up not only fossil fuel for agricultural chemicals and transportation but also water supplies that have accumulated over millennia and that will take many generations to replenish.

As underground water levels are depleted, surface lakes and riversoften disappear. In coastal areas, excessive groundwater pumping can lead to seawater seeping into drinking water supplies. UNESCO warns that drawing on groundwater supplies "unavoidably results in depleting the storage and has unfavourable consequences." Nevertheless, it is common practice. Groundwater is the source of about 25 percent of the water supply, both in the United States and globally.

"The world is incurring a vast water deficit, one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast," summarizes the Earth Policy Institute's Lester R. Brown. In our property system, any scarce resource becomes a commodity. Water is "one of the great business opportunities," states Fortune magazine. "The dollars at stake are huge. . . Water promises to be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth." Indeed, speculators have begun to trade in water "futures" just as they do any other commodity.

Policymakers proclaim that market forces will lead to more rational use of water. The World Bank, as part of its overall program of encouraging governments to divest themselves of services and industries, has aggressively promoted privatization of public water infrastructure since the 1990s, promising better water services through market efficiency and private investment. Yet those water systems that have been privatized have consistently seen higher consumer prices and disappointing levels of infrastructure investment. "What has now become clear is that the major multinational water corporations have no intention of making a significant contribution to the capital needed to ensure access to clean and affordable water," concludes a study by the U.S. consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. "The rhetoric of private sector financing is a myth."

Atlanta, Georgia, is the biggest American city to have privatized its water system. In 1998 the city signed a twenty-year, $428 million contract with a subsidiary of Suez, one of the global giants of the water services industry, to operate its water system. Once Suez took over, the company realized that it had underestimated the amount of work needed to maintain the system and demanded an additional $80 million from the city.

Atlanta's mayor refused, because the whole reason the city had contracted out water services was to save money. Suez laid off half the water system's employees and tried to get extra money out of the city, for example by billing routine maintenance work to the city as "capital repairs." Maintenance was neglected, while water and sewer rates increased. Worst of all, water quality suffered, with frequent discolorations and boil-water advisories. Though the water services industry had hoped the Atlanta experience would open up the U.S. market to them, in 2003 Atlanta officials terminated the contract. Chris New, Atlanta's deputy water commissioner, said, "My biggest concern is a lot of people have lost confidence in the water itself.

The government of Bolivia, in debt and heavily dependent upon World Bank loans, heeded the bank's advice to privatize water; in 1999 Bolivia awarded a forty-year contract to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation for water services to Cochabamba, a city of more than six hundred thousand people. In this case, to meet the budget shortfall, water price increases went into effect immediately, with rates as much as tripling. The people of Cochabamba were shocked and angered by the dramatic rate increase. There was a four-day general strike, followed by escalating street protests. The Bolivian military took over the city and banned demonstrations. In the ensuing protests military forces injured 175 people and killed an unarmed seventeen-year-old. Government officials offered to roll back the rate increases, but the opposition leaders demanded that the contract be terminated. The Bolivian president did so, just six months into the contract. Bechtel responded by filing (but later withdrew) a $25 million lawsuit against Bolivia to compensate for "lost future profits."

Another whole realm of water privatization is bottled water. In the United States bottled water sales more than tripled in the 1990s and continue to climb. In 2005 sales of bottled water in the United States approached $10 billion. Global bottled-water sales were $100 billion in 2004, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

One problem with this trend is that if the people who can afford to buy bottled water are drinking primarily that, the constituency for tap water is reduced, and by extension, for public investment in water systems. If the $100 billion being spent worldwide each year on bottled water were being invested in public water-supply systems, water quality and access would improve markedly. "A major shift to bottled watercould undermine funding for tap water protection, raising serious equity issues for the poor," warns the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The long-term solution to our water woes is to fix our tap water so it is safe for everyone, and tastes and smells good."

Another big problem with bottled water is the plastic packaging. The 6 billion gallons of bottled water that were sold in the United States in 2002 required 1.5 million tons of plastic. And around thirty million plastic water bottles are discarded each day, piling up on landfills. Obtaining the essential daily sustenance of water from disposable plastic containers is totally unsustainable behavior.

However, it is sustainable as a business opportunity. The corporations that dominate this rapidly growing industry are all household names from the food industry: Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Danone (the French-based manufacturer of Dannon yogurt). The water these corporations bottle as well as use in other beverages all comes from somewhere, and communities around the world are engaged in battles with water bottlers to keep them from extracting this precious resource.

Nestlé's niche is springwater, and the company has been buying up springs around the United States. Wisconsin activists succeeded in legal efforts to prevent Nestlé from pumping water at two different springs in that state. In Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee (where my friend Jeff Poppen, the CSA farmer featured in chapter 1, lives), Nestlé started pumping and bottling local water in 2003, with the help of a $1 million job-creation grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The promised local jobs never materialized, but the water extraction did.

In Maine Nestlé acquired Poland Springs and other nearby sources, then sharply increased the volume of water being extracted. A local group has proposed that the state impose a water extraction fee of three cents per 20-ounce water container to fund a "Maine Water Dividend Trust." The activists' initial effort to place the proposal on the ballot as a voter referendum failed, but they continue working to build grassroots support for the initiative.

Not all bottled water flows from springs. Sometimes it is taken directly from municipal taps or from polluted groundwater supplies. The NRDC analyzed 103 brands of bottled water in 1999 and found that a third of them had "significant" bacterial or chemical contamination. The NRDC's legal analysis found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regulation of bottled water is minimal and full of loopholes, "weaker in many ways than [Environmental Protection Agency] rules that apply to big city tap water. . . . While much tap water is indeed risky, having compared available data we conclude that there is no assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water."

In some cases, particularly in dry regions, the pumping of water from underground aquifers has dried up wells and other traditional water sources. Residents of several different towns in India have risen up against Coca-Cola bottling plants for their draining of local aquifers and polluting of local waters and land. In Kala Dera, Rajasthan, Coke's state-of-the-art groundwater extraction resulted in a dramatic reduction of the water table. After only six years of the plant's operation, fifty nearby villages reported water shortages as wells dried up. Many of these villages formed "struggle committees," and together they brought together two thousand people to march on the plant in 2004 to demand that the water extraction stop. "Drive away Coca-Cola, save the water!" is their rallying cry. An Indian government hydrogeologist warns that continued extraction will lead to deterioration of water quality and ecological repercussions such as rising surface temperatures and an increased likelihood of earthquakes, caused by the earth's upper crust drying up.

The people around Kala Dera move forward with their struggle inspired by the success of activists in Plachimada, in the Indian state of Kerala. Residents there have maintained a constant vigil at the gates of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant since April 2002, protesting similar water shortages there resulting from groundwater pumping. The state government shut down the bottling plant, on a temporary basis, during a drought emergency in March 2004, but the local village council, or panchayat, has refused to allow the plant to reopen, and Kerala state pollution officials have ordered Coke to pipe water to communities where water supplies have been lost. In addition to depleting water resources, this plant was distributing its solid waste to local farmers as "fertilizer." Testing revealed cadmium and lead in the fertilizer, meaning that the land it had been spread on was contaminated with heavy metals; the state has since ordered Coke to stop distributing its toxic waste to farmers.

These water and waste struggles in India have been bolstered by international solidarity. In the United States and Europe, college students are boycotting Coke and organizing campaigns to kick Coke off campuses. I believe that a boycott of Coca-Cola is a fine idea, but I think that boycott should extend to all global corporate food. It's not like drinking Pepsi is a more sustainable alternative.

Wherever we live, we must acknowledge our dependence on the flow of water and honor and protect the sources that sustain us. Those sources are the source of all life, a common heritage that must remain in the public domain. Water is a biological necessity, recycling endlessly, and our bodies are part of its cycle. Water transcends commodification, just as the earth does. We are of it, so how can it be our property?

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