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Stop Taking Water for Granted

by Karen Charman

Try to imagine life without running water: no flush toilets, no showers, and no convenient way to wash dishes, wipe the kitchen clean or water lawns. Most Americans probably can’t fathom this. But it bears thinking about because humanity is running out of clean water. Modern industrial society disregards the essential role naturally flowing waterways and wetlands serve to prevent flooding, filter runoff and maintain biodiversity. Instead, we use technology to transfer enormous quantities of water — either by diverting rivers and streams into huge reservoirs and other catchments, or by sucking it from the ground — primarily for industrial agriculture and development that otherwise would be impossible. We keep using more water when we should be figuring out ways to use less. Worldwide water use per person is doubling every 20 years, according to Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen. No country in the world uses more water per person than the United States. Agriculture is a huge offender. We often grow water-thirsty crops in dry regions better suited for grazing livestock. The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture reports that Texas County in Oklahoma’s Panhandle could not grow corn without nearly 60 billion gallons of irrigation water each year. One way we do this is to draw down, with frightening speed, groundwater collected over millions of years. The Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains, for example, loses 3 to 10 feet a year to agriculture, industry and cities. It naturally recharges at only about half an inch a year. In urban areas in dry states, we squander large quantities of water on decorative landscapes that normal rainfall will not support. Officials in California’s Santa Barbara County, for example, report that about half of the water used in its cities goes to lawns, gardens, parks and golf courses. Humanity not only wastes the world’s fresh water, we also foul it with sewage, agricultural runoff, crude oil and countless other contaminants. If this waste and abuse continue, two-thirds of the world’s population will lack adequate safe water by 2025, and half of those will have no safe water at all, says Maude Barlow, co-author of Blue Gold. Instead of conserving this basic resource for the common good, governments are handing control of water to multinational corporations, allowing them to exploit growing water scarcity for profit. Water may soon be so valuable that it will be transported globally in huge quantities as oil is today. The United States may see its water privatized as well. Today, 85 percent of U.S. municipal water is publicly owned. Corporations aim to control 70 percent in 10 years, says Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and also co-author of Blue Gold. This bodes ill for the public. Where water systems have been privatized, service and water quality often drop, as happened in Atlanta, or rates surge, as happened in Jacksonville, Fla., Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Soweto, South Africa. The World Bank, its affiliates and the International Monetary Fund are pressuring poor countries to privatize their water systems, or forgo badly needed loans or grants. International trade agreements further pave the way for corporate control. Under World Trade Organization rules, countries may not prohibit water exports for any reason once they start. The North American Free Trade Agreement and proposed trade pacts, like the Free Trade Area of the Americas now under negotiation, go one better. They contain investment clauses that allow a corporation from a member country to sue governments over any regulations the company claims will cut its future profits. Citing these clauses, California-based Sun Belt Water Inc. is suing British Columbia for $10 billion to challenge its ban on commercial water exports. Some water privatization advocates say access to water will determine the fate of nations — who is rich, poor, powerful or powerless. This outrageous and destructive scenario need not be inevitable. We can restore and manage wisely this precious resource for the common good — but only if we stop taking water for granted. The alternative is unfathomable. Karen Charman is an investigative journalist specializing in environmental, health and agricultural reporting. She is a member of the Land Institute‘s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan. She lives in New York state.