“We are faced with … rising rates of
consumption that nature can’t match.
Increasingly, we are also threatened by the wave
of privatization that is sweeping across the
world, turning water from a precious public
resource into a commodity for economic gain.”

“The case gained international attention when it
was featured in the film and book Thirst:
Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water. The
public finally won out in July, when the city
council voted to get rid of the 20-year contract
and send the corporation packing.”

The late, great Corbin Harney-spiritual leader of the
Western Shoshone People of the dry Great Basin region
of the U.S.-dedicated his life to spreading this very

Our Drinkable Water Supply Is Vanishing

By Tara Lohan, AlterNet
Posted on October 11, 2007, Printed on October 11, 2007

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Hungarian biochemist
and Nobel Prize winner for medicine once said,
“Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and
medium. There is no life without water.”

We depend on water for survival. It circulates
through our bodies and the land, replenishing
nutrients and carrying away waste. It is passed
down like stories over generations — from
ice-capped mountains to rivers to oceans.

Historically water has been a facet of ritual, a
place of gathering and the backbone of community.

But times have changed. “In an age when man has
forgotten his origins and is blind even to his
most essential needs for survival, water has
become the victim of his indifference,” Rachel
Carson wrote.

As a result, today, 35 years since the passage of
the Clean Water Act, we find ourselves are
teetering on the edge of a global crisis that is
being exacerbated by climate change, which is
shrinking glaciers and raising sea levels.

We are faced with thoughtless development that
paves flood plains and destroys wetlands; dams
that displace native people and scar watersheds;
unchecked industrial growth that pollutes water
sources; and rising rates of consumption that
nature can’t match. Increasingly, we are also
threatened by the wave of privatization that is
sweeping across the world, turning water from a
precious public resource into a commodity for
economic gain.

The problems extend from the global north to the
south and are as pervasive as water itself.
Equally encompassing are the politics of water.
Discussions about our water crisis include issues
like poverty, trade, community and privatization.
In talking about water, we must also talk about
indigenous rights, environmental justice,
education, corporate accountability, and
democracy. In this mix of terms are not only the
causes of our crisis but also the solutions.

What’s gone wrong?

As our world heats up, as pollution increases, as
population grows and as our globe’s resources of
fresh water are tapped, we are faced with an
environmental and humanitarian problem of mammoth

Demand for water is doubling every 20 years,
outpacing population growth twice as fast.
Currently 1.3 billion people don’t have access to
clean water and 2.5 billion lack proper sewage
and sanitation. In less than 20 years, it is
estimated that demand for fresh water will exceed
the world’s supply by over 50 percent.

The biggest drain on our water sources is
agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of the
water used worldwide — much of which is
subsidized in the industrial world, providing
little incentive for agribusiness to use
conservation measures or less water-intensive

This number is also likely to increase as we
struggle to feed a growing world. Population is
expected to rise from 6 billion to 8 billion by

Water scarcity is not just an issue of the
developing world. “Twenty-one percent of
irrigation in the United States is achieved by
pumping groundwater at rates that exceed the
water’s ability to recharge,” wrote water experts
Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute and Maude
Barlow of the Council of Canadians in their
landmark water book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop
the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water.

The Ogallala aquifer — the largest in the North
America and a major source for agriculture
stretching from Texas to South Dakota — is
currently being pumped at a rate 14 times greater
than it can be replenished, they wrote. And,
across the country, “California’s Department of
Water Resources predicts that, by 2020, if more
supplies are not found, the state will face a
shortfall of fresh water nearly as great as the
amount that all of its cities and towns together
are consuming today,” add Clarke and Barlow.

Demand is outstripping supply from the rainy
Seattle area to desert cities like Tucson and
Albuquerque. And from Midwest farming regions to
East Coast cities.

The crisis is also worldwide, most noticeable in
Mexico, the Middle East, China and Africa.

As population growth, development, consumption
and pollution take its toll on our water
resources, the ability to fight this problem has
been further complicated by the spread of
neoliberalism. The same ideas that have resulted
in the booty of private contracts being doled out
in Iraq also have contributed greatly to our
water crisis. Neoliberalism is the belief in
“economic liberalism,” which espoused that
government control over the economy was bad. It
opened up the commons to commodification and let
corporations privatize what once belonged to the

In 2000 Fortune magazine printed this telling
statement: “Water promises to be to the 21st
century what oil was to the 20th century; the
precious commodity that determines the wealth of

It has oft been expressed that the next resource
wars will not be over oil — or energy at all —
but over water. As the idea of neoliberalism,
proliferated by institutions like the World Bank
and the IMF, spread, the public sector has become
dangerously privatized. And it may not be the
wealth of nations on the line — but the wealth
of corporations.

A senior executive at a subsidiary of Vivendi,
the world’s largest water controller summed it
up, “Water is a critical and necessary ingredient
to the daily life of every human being, and it is
an equally powerful ingredient for profitable
manufacturing companies.”

But when private companies control water
resources, people’s needs for survival are pushed
aside in place of the bottom line. In Africa, an
estimated 5 million people die each year for lack
of safe drinking water. And yet Africa, with its
many cash-strapped countries, is targeted by
multinationals that force governments to turn
over their public water systems in exchange for
promises of debt relief.

When corporations control water, rates go up,
services go down, and those who can’t afford to
pay are forced to drink unsafe water, risking
their lives. This has happened across the world
— in South Africa, in Bolivia, in the United

This same philosophy of corporate control drives
the construction of dams, which have displaced an
estimated 80 million people worldwide. In India
alone, over 4,000 dams have submerged 37,500
square kilometers of land and forced 42 million
people from their homes.

Multinationals looking to cash in on the water
business have also made giant inroads in selling
bottled water in richer countries. Expensive
marketing campaigns convince people that their
tap water is unsafe to drink. Then, companies
like Coke and Pepsi bottle municipal tap water
and others like Nestle pilfer spring water from
rural communities and resell it at huge profits.

The water crisis may be growing, but so is
resistance to privatization as communities are
fighting back against the corporate control of
the world’s most vital resource.

How we can fix it

We need water to survive, not just as
individuals, but as communities. Author John
Thorson put it perfectly when he said, “Water
links us to our neighbor in a way more profound
and complex than any other.”

Just ask the people of the Klamath Basin of
Southern Oregon and Northern California. They’ve
experienced water wars for the last hundred years
that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and
tribal member against farmer.

Native American tribes in the region — the
Klamath, Hoopa, Karuk, and Yaruk — with priority
rights to water, have struggled with farmers over
limited water resources. Nature has been unable
to deliver as much water as the government has
promised to farmers and tribal members, as well
as downstream fishermen. With not enough water in
the river, either crops have failed or fish have
died, creating community strife and economic

But in the last year, things have begun to
change. These groups have formed a coalition to
save the river they all depend on for survival.
They are sitting at the same table and finally
beginning to hear from each other about the needs
of farmers, the value of subsistence economies,
the history of families on the river, the
ceremony that comes with the salmon runs, the
rights of nature.

Together, this unlikely alliance is taking on
PacifiCorp, one of the largest multinational
power companies, whose out-of-date dams are
threatening the ecosystem and the economy of the

And just over the peak of Mount Shasta another
community and tribe are battling to save their
spring water from Nestle, which hopes to tap the
community’s greatest asset for its own wealth.

The people of the small town of McCloud and the
Winnemem Wintu tribe are fighting back, and they
are not alone. Across the country a backlash to
the bottled-water business is gaining steam.
Fancy restaurants like California’s Chez Panisse,
Incanto, and Poggio and New York’s Del Posto have
gotten on board. San Francisco has also led the
way among municipalities that are beginning to
cancel their bottled water contracts,
understanding the great harm the industry does to
the environment and communities.

It is not just bottled water that has posed a
problem, but private companies buying out
municipal water systems and then raising rates
and lowering services. One the best examples is
Stockton, Calif., which went private in the
largest “public-private partnership” in the West.
Since 2001 the people of Stockton have been
fighting for control of their water against a
multinational consortium.

The case gained international attention when it
was featured in the film and book Thirst:
Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water. The
public finally won out in July, when the city
council voted to get rid of the 20-year contract
and send the corporation packing.

The citizen groups that have been working to
defend their communities are being supported by
many national and international groups pushing
back against corporate control and empowering
people — groups like Tony Clarke’s Polaris
Institute in Canada, which has focused on public
education and research around issues like the
privatization of water services, bulk water
exports, water security and bottled water.

In the United States, Corporate Accountability
International is encouraging people to drink tap
water over bottled water with their “Think
Outside the Bottle Campaign.” They are working to
educate the public, as well as city governments
and businesses, with great success.

And today, on the 35th anniversary of the Clean
Water Act, Food & Water Watch, is sponsoring a
National Call-In Day for action on clean water to
urge representatives to support the creation of a
clean water trust fund, “which is a long-term,
sustainable, and reliable source of funding to
upgrade and improve our public water systems.”
The organization has been working to protect
public water systems from private takeover and to
help fund municipal water so that all residents
have clean, safe and affordable water.

The movement extends across the country and the
world as people are also rebelling against the
corporate takeover of their municipal water
systems — in California, in Ghana, in Brazil, in
Canada, in France, in Indonesia — and the list
goes on.

Opposition to corporate control is rooted in the
belief that water is part of the commons.
Everyone should have access to clean water,
regardless of their level of income or their
country’s international standing.

In order to ensure that all people have access to
clean, affordable water, we need to make some

Some see technology as the necessary fix — or at
least a step in the right direction. As the BBC

New technology can help, however, especially
by cleaning up pollution and so making more water
useable, and in agriculture, where water use can
be made far more efficient. Drought-resistant
plants can also help.

Drip irrigation drastically cuts the amount
of water needed, low-pressure sprinklers are an
improvement, and even building simple earth walls
to trap rainfall is helpful.

Some countries are now treating waste water
so that it can be used — and drunk — several
times over.

Desalinization makes sea water available, but
takes huge quantities of energy and leaves vast
amounts of brine.

But many warn against relying on a “techno-fix” to solve our problems.

Water experts argue that we need to reduce
consumption on individual and community levels.
Author Tony Clarke advises working with those
closest to the problems, such as helping farmers
to develop a more sustainable agriculture system.
And the same goes for industry. Looking to the
folks who have been on the land longest, like
indigenous and traditional cultures, will also
help us learn how an ecosystem works.

And experts say that we also need to start
developing a comprehensive water policy that goes
from the regional to international level. The
World Bank and United Nations have the capability
to change the designation of water from a human
need to a human right, ensuring that corporations
can’t exploit this resource for economic gain, as
Clarke and Barlow advocate for in Blue Gold.

Governments should be investing in their people,
in conservation and in the infrastructure that we
depend on to access clean, affordable water.

It ultimately comes down to an issue of
democracy. “We came to see that the conflicts
over water are really about fundamental questions
of democracy itself: Who will make the decisions
that affect our future, and who will be
excluded?” wrote Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman and
Michael Fox in their recent book Thirst. “And if
citizens no longer control their most basic
resource, their water, do they really control
anything at all?”

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.
© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/64948/


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