Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Water-a Right or a Commodity?

Like so many things, my recent interest in water issues springs from my children; in this case my oldest son, who became interested in water issues in relation to a science project.

I am one of those people, who despite living in the Great Lakes region, where the world's largest supply of fresh water exists, and the tap water is treated and reliable, filtered my drinking water before consuming, even before the Walkerton incident.

While living on Lake Ontario, our family began to buy RO water from a local store. Even now, we have installed an RO system in our house for drinking water. This system uses a huge amount of water to backwash the filter, but that water can be captured and used for laundry and such. Still, it is a luxury, especially as we have ready access to what is arguably the best drinking water on the planet.

So I admit that I feel a little (though not a lot) guilty when I pass judgment on those I see with grocery carts loaded with crates of bottled water in individual-sized plastic bottles. Do those people understand how much waste they are generating with all that plastic? Even if it were all recycled successfully (which is rare, even if you do put it all in your blue box), do they understand that much of it is tap water (at best), and that none of it is regulated with the rigorous testing standards that our municipal tap water requires? Some, if not all of those plastic bottles also contain BPA, which has been shown to be toxic. Do consumers not understand how much less waste they would create by using their own reusable water bottle, in terms of energy, materials, health and money?

But others have addressed this issue, so I will move on now.

In Kenya and several other African countries, the World Bank's policy of putting exports first has meant that areas that are drought-prone are being used to produce frivolous water-intense products, such as cut flowers for the European market, despite their own population's desperate need for water to meet their own basic needs. The wealthy prosper while the general population pays with their health, and sometimes their lives.

What would change were water to be added to the list of human rights? To be honest, I really don't know. There are other rights that did make the list that are largely ignored in many countries. Still, I suspect that governments and multi-national institutions would feel a greater pressure to ensure the availability of water to the people. This doesn't mean it would change much, but it might provide a starting point for discussion, negotiations, legislation, etc.

I've heard the argument over and over--"we have the same amount of water we have always had--it's a demand issue". Well, this is true, to a point. Rising ocean levels and aridation of land mean that while the planetary water level remains static, the amount of fresh water available is decreasing. Add to this the problems of shrinking glaciers and pollution, and you can see that while population is definitely a mitigating factor, there is much more to this than a simple demand issue. We live in a world in which more people have access to a cell phone than have access to a toilet. This is not a healthy situation, particularly in areas that have high population density. Outbreaks of cholera are becoming more common. The health of a population is dependent on the availability of a reliable source of clean water.

Yes, we need to run factories, refineries, industry, etc. We need to farm in order to feed the planet, but we need to do it in a manner that protects our waterways. Gone are the days when we can carelessly heap on tonnes of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers without experiencing the consequences within our own lifetimes. We need to care for the soil in order to preserve the land for future crops as well as regain the health of our waterways. We need industry, but we also need to find a balance that allows us to meet our own more basic needs.

Other threats to our water that I've read about recently include natural gas "fracking", over-use of large capacity wells that can cause water table imbalances leading to arsenic contamination (geologist types might be able to explain this better than I), nano particles which may cause problems we have yet to discover, GMO-based agriculture, factory farming (mono-culture farms, lack of soil maintenance/crop rotation, reliance on agro chemicals, poor livestock rearing practices, etc.), and invasive species. And that's before I've actually started any dedicated reading or research into the subject!

My own country's government recently voted against declaring water a human right. Since we have the largest amount of fresh water of any nation on the planet, and our country's economy has always been "resource-focused", it is perhaps understandable that some might be inclined to treat it as such. However, I do not need to consume a tree or an ingot of nickel in order to survive. None of us does. These are secondary needs; water is a primary need without which none of us can survive. It is my assertion that it needs to be treated as such.