Our Political Leaders Are to Blame in World Water Crisis

As Barlow's new book shows, the world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will.
This piece originally appears in Maude Barlow's Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water and is published here with the permission of The New Press. Available now at good book stores everywhere. © 2007 by Maude Barlow.

So here, then, is the answer to the question, Can we run out of freshwater? Yes, there is a fixed amount of water on Earth. Yes, it is still here somewhere. But we humans have depleted, polluted and diverted it to such an extent that we can now actually say the planet is running out of accessible, clean water. Fast. The freshwater crisis is easily as great a threat to the Earth and humans as climate change (to which it is deeply linked) but has had very little attention paid to it in comparison.

The world is running out of available, clean freshwater at an exponentially dangerous rate just as the population of the world is set to increase again. It is like a comet poised to hit the Earth. If a comet really did threaten the entire world, it is likely that our politicians would suddenly find that religious and ethnic differences had lost much of their meaning. Political leaders would quickly come together to find a solution to this common threat.

However, with rare exceptions, average people do not know that the world is facing a comet called the global water crisis. And they are not being served by their political leaders, who are in some kind of inexplicable denial. The crisis is not reported enough in the mainstream media, and when it is, it is usually reported as a regional or local problem, not an international one. Water policy is raised as a major issue in very few national elections, even in water-stressed countries. In fact, in many countries, denial is the political response to the global water crisis.

In November 2006, former Australian prime minister John Howard hosted a high-level summit in Sydney to deal with what one scientist called "the worst drought in Australia in 1,000 years." Howard's answer? Allow farmers to "trade" country water to the city, thereby draining already thirsty rivers of yet more water; drain the wetlands to supply the cities; ship in tankers full of water from Tasmania; and look to technology such as desalination plants. The government uttered not a word about conservation, protecting watersheds and replenishing water systems, cleaning up toxic dumps or stopping the massive export of Australia's water stock-in-trade with China.

Under two terms of the Bush administration, environmental stewardship has been dealt a terrible blow. In his passionate book Crimes Against Nature, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reports that the Bush White House has rolled back more than four hundred pieces of environmental legislation and taken the United States back to a time before environmental consciousness. Not only has George W. Bush not taken his country's water crisis seriously, he has cut funding for clean water and safe drinking programs and allowed once-banned chemicals and toxins back into circulation, gutting the Clean Water Act. He has allowed logging and mining in national parks, resulting in the destruction of pristine rivers and lakes. Funding for water research in the United States has been stagnant for thirty years, and the portion dedicated to water quality has actually been reduced in the last decade.

Canada has no national water act and no inventory of its groundwater resources. A 2005 report from Environment Canada said that a national water crisis was looming and that no one in government seemed to be listening. The report gave a blunt assessment of pollution and overextraction of Canada's water systems and noted a total lack of leadership on the issue by both federal and provincial governments. Canada is allowing the destruction of huge amounts of water in the Alberta tar sands, where water is actually being lost to the hydrologic cycle in order to mine the heavy oil from the ground.

To its credit, Europe has taken some more serious action. In 2000, the European Commission launched the Water Framework Initiative, a European Union-wide plan for water conservation, clean up and administration based on the joint management of river basins. All European waters must achieve "Good Status" by 2015.

All people in the European region must have access to clean drinking water (there are currently 120 million without), and the environment must be protected as well. The initiative requires cross-border cooperation on all areas of watershed protection. While this program is among the most progressive in the world, the powerful countries of Europe have been responsible for practices in the Third World that have denied clean water to millions. Europe's record must include this fuller picture.

In the developing world, all that most governments can do is desperately try to provide water for their citizens. There is little attempt to address the environmental crisis that has polluted water in the first place. Most have bought into the tenets of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and are attempting to export their way to prosperity, creating more environmental damage in the process. And most are helpless to police the big transnational oil, forestry and mining corporations fouling their water systems; some are in collusion with these companies to repress their own people. Most First World governments refuse to even consider legislation that would hold their corporations accountable for polluting the water systems of poor countries.

The United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank have devised a water rescue plan for the developing world totally devoid of plans to deal with the growing rivers of sewage killing whole watersheds and coastlines. Ninety percent of the raw sewage in poor (and some not so poor) countries is still discharged untreated. Most of the megacities in the Third World also lose massive amounts of water from leaky infrastructure. In the global South, more than 50 percent of municipal water is lost because of faulty systems.

Nor are most rich countries prepared to cancel or at least renegotiate the debt owed by the global South to the global North to allow governments in poor countries to address these issues themselves. Every year, more money flows to the global North to pay the debt than flows to the global South in aid and trade together. No serious plan to alleviate the water crisis can ignore the poverty of the global South and the role of debt repayment in that cycle.

In addition, few countries in the world are confronting the pervasive and harmful agricultural practices that are dramatically exacerbating the crisis. Large-scale factory farms create a staggering amount of manure and depend on intensive use of antibiotics, nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, all of which eventually end up in the water supply. Flood irrigation, used in many parts of the world, wastes enormous amounts of water. (In China, close to 80 percent of water used in flood irrigation -- the main form of irrigation in that country -- is lost to evaporation.) Flood irrigation also leads to desertification, as it overtills the soil, which then is carried away by the wind. Yet not only are wealthy countries wedded to industrial agriculture, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization promote this model in the developing world.

Nor have these international institutions and the powerful countries behind them, blinded by their unquestioning faith in market economics, begun seriously to question the abuse and overuse of water by industry. While it is commonly understood that agriculture is the biggest user of water in the world, this is changing. In industrialized countries, industry now accounts for 59 percent of total water withdrawals, and industry is fast gaining as a water abuser in developing countries as well. India, for instance, will triple its use of water for industry in the next decade. As countries such as China, India, Malaysia and Brazil undergo industrialization at an unprecedented rate, water use and misuse is growing exponentially. Yet few political leaders have the courage or foresight to question this model of development.

Every day, the failure of our political leaders to address the global water crisis becomes more evident. Every day, the need for a comprehensive water crisis plan becomes more urgent. If ever there was a moment for all governments and international institutions to come together to find a collective solution to this emergency, now is that moment. If ever there was a time for a plan of conservation and water justice to deal with the twin water crises of scarcity and inequity, now is that time. The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will.

But not only are our political leaders following the false promises of a quick technological fix, they are abdicating the real decision-making about the future of the world's depleting water supplies to a group of private interests and transnational corporations that view the crisis as an opportunity to make money and gain power. As we'll see, these big players know where the water is. They simply follow the money.

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Maude Barlow is a recipient of Sweden's Right Livelihood Award and a Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship. She is head of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project. She is the author of sixteen books, including Blue Gold.