Rivers of Gold: An Examination of the Water Crisis

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REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

With nearly 80% of the world covered in water, why do so many people lack it?

Facts:

- Nearly 1 billion people lack reliable access to clean water

- Almost half of the people living in developing nations suffer at any time from health problems related to unclean water, such as cholera, hepatitis, and malaria.

- People in New York pay less for water than people in some of the world’s poorest nations. 

- Millions of women and girls spend several hours every day fetching water.

- Together, unclean water and poor sanitation are the world’s second biggest killer of children (pneumonia is first).

Researchers featured in the film FLOW: For the Love of Water believe the access and contamination problems will lead to another massive extinction.

Disease’s Best Friend

In rural communities with insufficient water distribution and sanitation systems, people must rely on rivers, streams, and other possibly contaminated sources.  As a home for bacteria, toxins, and other detrimental microbes, water is a fast and efficient spreader of diseases. Ingesting unclean water is one of the easiest ways for humans to contract disease.

Contaminants come in the form of pesticides, fecal matter, toxic waste, and factory waste.

A particularly hazardous pesticide, atrazine, has been banned in the EU, but is approved in the U.S.  The chemical is linked to interference with brain and sex organ development and has appeared in 75 percent of stream water and 40 percent of groundwater samples taken from various agricultural sites across the U.S.

Unclean water further endangers communities that lack proper medical care and are already at risk for various illnesses. 

Women and Children First

In 2006, the U.N. focused its annual Human Development Report on the water crisis and in particular addressed its link to gender roles.  In some communities, women spend up to 30 hours per week collecting water for their homes, hours subtracted from educational or entrepreneurial endeavors.  The chore particularly impairs young girls’ ability to receive education.  One ten-year-old Bolivian girl says: “Of course I wish I were in school. I want to learn to read and to write—and I want to be there with my friends. But how can I? My mother needs me to get water, and the standpipe here is only open from ten to twelve. You have to get in line early because so many people come here.”

Children are also victimized by the link between diarrheal diseases and water contamination.  Ninety percent of all diarrheal deaths occur in children under the age of five.  Overall, diarrhea caused by unclean water claims five times as many children as HIV/AIDS.  Purifying and expanding access to water is critical to the reduction of the world’s child mortality rate.

The Poorer You Are, The More You Pay

As we have learned about food, water has become a lucrative industry featuring some of the world’s largest corporations.  Both governments and bottled water corporations vie for the privatization of this commodity, nicknamed “blue gold” by one filmmaker. By charging into desperate nations, privatization causes the prices of water to soar in communities that need it most and can least afford it.

In 1997, the World Bank took control of Bolivia’s water system. The acquisition came without the permission of the country:

That choice was forced on them, as it has been in many poor nations around the world, when the World Bank made privatization an explicit condition of aid in the mid-1990s.  Poor countries such as Bolivia, which rely heavily on foreign assistance for survival, are not in much of a position to say no to such pressures.

Major federations offer to assist developing nations under the stipulation of gaining control of water systems.  Then water prices are raised, ultimately leaving citizens (in Bolivia’s case, thousands) without access to even their previous limited supply of contaminated water.  A massive public protest in 2005 convinced the Bolivian president to cancel the water concession.

Another reason poor communities pay high prices is their dependence on intermediary sources.  People not connected to public systems may get water from intermediaries that collect tariffs.  The farther out a person lives, the more intermediaries required to deliver the water, and the more the delivery costs. This system accounts for why people in Colombia pay more for water than people in New York (which boasts some of America’s best tap water). 

To drive out mega-conglomerations that place chokeholds on countries by limiting their water access, these areas must develop sustainable resources.

Bottled Water Companies

Water is a $400 billion global industry; the third largest behind electricity and oil.  Take a look at the advisors on the World Bank, the IMF, and other global coalitions, and you will find them in bed with the world’s largest bottled water companies.  Suez, Vivendi, and Thames Water, the three biggest, have a history of entering developing nations with promises of improving water distribution, like the World Bank did in Bolivia.  Instead of expanding access, the result is massive displacement of communities and spikes in water prices.  Suez was ranked #96 on the Global Fortune 500 list in 2006.  Vivendi held spot 270 in 2007.  

Bottled giant Nestle owns more than 40 water brands, including Poland Springs, Perrier, Pellegrino, Ice Mountain, and Deer Park.  In 2000, Nestle built a factory in Mecosta County, Michigan, on the edge of Osprey Lake, which ultimately feeds into Lake Michigan.  The plant initially pumped up to 262 million gallons per year, which damaged surrounding property, according to Mecosta citizens featured in the film Flow.  The Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation was launched and took Nestle to court. Nestle was granted the right to pump water on a “reasonable use” basis.  Nestle appealed and a few years later tried to pump from additional sources. Last summer, the court ruled that Nestle was not allowed to expand its pumping and must reduce its current pumping rate from more than 400 gallons per minute to approximately 200 gallons per minute.  The residents felt victorious, but cautioned that an enormous project lies ahead to ensure water remains public owned.

Take Back the Tap

The popularity of bottled water might seem baffling in America, a country blessed with tap water so delicious that one cheeky entrepreneur decided to bottle New York tap water and sell it nationwide.  And guess what: it worked.  Some consumers may find it refreshing that this guy never tries to hide the true source of his water—unlike some competitors.

Next time you stare at the beverage display in the deli, consider that more than 25% of bottled water comes from “a municipal source.”

People buy bottled water because it is convenient and because they believe it is cleaner and healthier, thanks to advertisers. However, studies show that bottled water is not cleaner than tap.  In New York, a microbiologist found no difference between the bottled water and tap water samples he evaluated. Additionally, the FDA does not have even one full-time person dedicated to monitoring the quality of bottled water. Hundreds of federal staff work to regulate the quality of tap water, which is tested several times per year.

To reclaim the tap, Take Back the Tap was formed and encourages restaurants, college campuses, and individuals to sign a petition declaring their boycott of bottled water.  The campaign explains the environmental harm and the impact of the industry on local communities, whose local water sources are diminished when a large bottling company comes into town. Sign the petition and see a full list of participating restaurants on their site.   

World Water Day: March 22, 2010

In 1992, the U.N. launched World Water Day for international observance of the water plight.  A theme is established for each year, and 2010's is “Clean Water for a Healthy World,” addressing ways to improve water quality around the globe. 

Cities from several nations are launching initiatives to celebrate. From concerts, relay races, video art, kayaking, and more, you’ll be sure to discover an entertaining activity nearby.

Complain and Conserve

You can help protest water privatization and corporate exploitation.  Don’t buy bottled water.  Request tap when dining out.  Conserve your usage at home by turning off the shower while shampooing, washing your dishes together rather than separately, and setting out jars to collect rainwater for the houseplants. This site lists many other ways.

We can work toward a system of universal access to clean water.  Water should not be a privilege; it’s a basic necessity.  Let’s reverse the plastic trend, send a message to corporations, and help others gain access to this natural element.  Who owns water?  Essentially, no one.  Who needs water?  Everyone.  Let’s work until these principles are reflected in the world.


Quick Study: Clean Water | Plastic Consumption


Related stories: Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It


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