By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.
Water is literally the stuff of life for living beings. All life began as single-celled organisms floating in water. In their earliest and simplest form, living things are organized bags of water capable of reproduction, whose “inside” water is held together by a permeable or semi-permeable membrane (“sack” or “skin”) through which nutrients borne by the “outside” water (the environment) pass in, and through which waste passes out.
The simplest organisms live like that today. Bags of water, floating in water, taking what they need from water, passing what they don’t need back to water.
What one organism doesn’t need, another does. Water is the soup, each life takes from other lives via the medium. Without water the planet is barren, a Moon, a Pluto.
Later, living things developed mouths — so much for the peaceful passing of nutrients through the outer membrane — and skin and shells. With skin and shells, the inner water could be retained even in non-water environments. With mouths, the nutrients didn’t need to be water-borne. To sustain itself, a being could simply ingest the nutrients and water in other “sacks of water” by ingesting the sacks themselves. So armed, life would eventually roam and inhabit the non-watery parts of the world.
But the basis of our life starts with our ability to contain and maintain our inner water environment. We began in water. We must remain in water — retain and maintain our inner water — or we die. In the physical world, water is the god that gave us birth and keeps us living.
So why, in a drought, are we allowing water to be ring-fenced by the few, “appropriately priced,” marketed and sold back to us by the only people capable of buying it in quantity? Or does “promote the general welfare” have no meaning?
I want to explore two aspects of the water discussion here. First, the drought itself — it’s not ending anytime soon. Second, the way to end one of the great squeezes on our remaining water supply — end the death grip of privatizers.
This report is from western Canada, but it applies to the western U.S. as well, especially California and the Southwest (my emphasis throughout):
In the dead of a Prairie winter, when cars won’t start and exposed skin freezes in 30 seconds, people pray for a searing hot summer. But across Western Canada this season, many may be recalling the old adage, “be careful what you wish for” as forest fires, drought and pestilence invite biblical comparisons.
More worrisome, though, than the sight of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia wilting under 30 degree [Celsius; 86°F] temperatures in June and July — and rationing scarce water supplies in some areas — is that this might just be the start of an even bigger problem.
Many meteorologists are chalking up today’s weird and wacky weather in the West to the fact that this is an El Nino year, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean phenomenon that disrupts global weather patterns.
The problem with that, according to Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips: “It’s not even arrived in Canada yet.”
“We don’t see the effects of El Nino until late fall, winter and early spring,” he says.
What that likely means is at least three more consecutive seasons of warmer, drier weather when farmers are already, quite literally, tapped out in the moisture department.
As for what that could mean for drought conditions next summer and beyond, Phillips says it’s “not looking good.”
So the drought will likely continue through next year at least. Again, not good. “Game over” for ranchers:
Canada’s Prairies have just experienced their driest winter and spring in 68 years of record keeping. “So they were behind the eight-ball before the summer season ever came,” says Phillips.
That, coupled with a record low snow pack in North America, and few of the traditional June rains needed to grow crops, has had a cumulative effect that’s hit some producers harder than others.
Says Phillips: “For ranchers it’s pretty much game over.”
The tinder dry land has kept pastures for grazing cattle from turning green and producing feed, forcing cattle ranchers to sell down their herds or ship the animals around looking for alternative feed sources.
“Our cereal fields, our oats, our wheat, our barley essentially baked in the field,” says Garett Broadbent, agricultural services director for Alberta’s Leduc County, just south of Edmonton.
The municipality voted unanimously this week to declare a local state of agricultural disaster as soil moisture and crop conditions continue to decline to the worst levels in half a century.
And here’s a NOAA scientist saying that there is a trend, and it will continue “as long as greenhouse gas levels continue to rise year after year”:
NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden says, in addition to the dwindling snow pack, “glaciers are melting, sea ice is melting, sea levels reached record highs last year, the ocean heat was record high last year, sea surface temperatures were record highs last year, so you put it all together and there’s a definite trend.”
It’s a trend Blunden expects to continue into 2015 and beyond as long as, she says, greenhouse gas levels continue to rise year after year.
I’m feeling more than a little confirmed for disagreeing with other NOAA scientists quoted in the ProPublica Colorado River report. It’s going to take at least a decade or more of better-than-normal rain and snowfall to bring us back to where we were before the drought began.
“We have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis; by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent”
There’s also an excellent piece in The Nation that gets to this issue, but also offers solutions. First, the drought analysis. The writer is Maude Barlow:
The California Drought Is Just the Beginning of Our National Water Emergency
For years, Americans dismissed dire water shortages as a problem of the Global South. Now the crisis is coming home.
The United Nations reports that we have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis and that, by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent. Five hundred renowned scientists brought together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that our collective abuse of water has caused the earth to enter a “new geologic age,” a “planetary transformation” akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Already, they reported, a majority of the world’s population lives within a 30-mile radius of water sources that are badly stressed or running out.
For a long time, we in the Global North, especially North America and Europe, have seen the growing water crisis as an issue of the Global South. Certainly, the grim UN statistics on those without access to water and sanitation have referred mostly to poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and large parts of Asia. Heartbreaking images of children dying of waterborne disease have always seemed to come from the slums of Nairobi, Kolkata, or La Paz. Similarly, the worst stories of water pollution and shortages have originated in the densely populated areas of the South.
But as this issue of The Nation shows us, the global water crisis is just that—global—in every sense of the word. A deadly combination of growing inequality, climate change, rising water prices, and mismanagement of water sources in the North has suddenly put the world on a more even footing.
There is now a Third World in the First World. Growing poverty in rich countries has created an underclass that cannot pay rising water rates. As reported by Circle of Blue, the price of water in 30 major US cities is rising faster than most other household staples—41 percent since 2010, with no end in sight. As a result, increasing numbers cannot pay their water bills, and cutoffs are growing across the country. Inner-city Detroit reminds me more of the slums of Bogotá than the North American cities of my childhood.
Historic poverty and unemployment in Europe have also put millions at risk. Caught between unaffordable rising water rates and the imposition of European-wide austerity measures, thousands of families in Spain, Portugal, and Greece have had their water service cut off. An employee of the water utility Veolia Eau was fired for refusing to cut supplies to 1,000 families in Avignon, France.
As in the Global South, the trend of privatizing water services has placed an added burden on the poor of the North. Food and Water Watch and other organizations have clearly documented that the rates for water and sewer services rise dramatically with privatization. Unlike government water agencies, corporate-run water services must make a profit for their involvement.
Talk about heartless — “An employee of the water utility Veolia Eau [“Veolia Water”] was fired for refusing to cut supplies to 1,000 families in Avignon, France.” Veolia is the largest privatized water company in the world according to this list.
Veolia had $50 billion in revenue in 2009. No doubt they’ve grown since then. The writer clearly notices that this is predatory behavior. (In fact, it’s behavior that kills for profit, so we’re in psychological territory here. If Veolia were human, they’d be diagnosed as psychopathic and put away forever.)
The story of over-stressed water resources is the same everywhere in the world. Barlow discusses China (“more than half the rivers in China have disappeared since 1990”), Africa, Brazil and ends in the U.S.:
The story repeats itself in the North. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Ogallala Aquifer is so overburdened that it “is going to run out…beyond reasonable argument.” The use of bore-well technology to draw precious groundwater for the production of water-intensive corn ethanol is a large part of this story. For decades, California has massively engineered its water systems through pipelines, canals, and aqueducts so that a small number of powerful farmers in places like the Central Valley can produce water-intensive crops for export. Over-extraction is also putting huge pressure on the Great Lakes, whose receding shorelines tell the story.
I’ll say now there will be no “Chinese Century” or “American Century” or “Basque Century,” for that matter. A century of chaos is coming if we don’t get a grip and end carbon emissions fast. (I’ve been told by renewable-energy industry professionals that the only barrier to fully transforming the U.S. to renewables in ten years is political — we have the money and the physical and technical ability. We just have to want to use them.)
A critical-mass cry to do that — end emissions fast — could be coming, by the way, as the climate screws turn tighter and tighter. What governments do when that cry comes will determine how we fare as a species. Will governments remain wealth-captured, or will they take up the cause of the people they claim to represent?
In that vein, Barlow writes the following:
There is some good news along with these distressing reports. An organized international movement has come together to fight for water justice, both globally and at the grassroots level. It has fought fiercely against privatization, with extraordinary results: Europe’s Transnational Institute reports that in the last 15 years, 235 municipalities in 37 countries have brought their water services back under public control after having tried various forms of privatization. In the United States alone, activists have reversed 58 water-privatization schemes.
This movement has also successfully fought for UN recognition that water and sanitation are human rights. The General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing these rights on July 28, 2010, and the Human Rights Council adopted a further resolution outlining the obligations of governments two months later.
Working with communities in the Global South, where water tables are being destroyed to provide boutique water for export, North American water-justice activists have set up bottled-water-free campuses across the United States and Canada. They have also joined hands to fight water-destructive industries such as fracking here and open-pit mining in Latin America and Africa.
And the global goal:
Water must be much more equitably shared, and governments must guarantee access by making it a public service provided on a not-for-profit basis. The human right to water must become a reality everywhere. Likewise, water plunder must end: Governments need to stand up to the powerful industries, private interests, and bad practices destroying water all over the world. Water everywhere must be declared a public trust, to be protected and managed for the public good. This includes placing priorities on access to limited supplies, especially groundwater, and banning private industry from owning or controlling it. Water, in short, must be recognized as the common heritage of humanity and of future generations.
Saying it should be so doesn’t make it so, Captain Picard to the contrary. But an organized force pushing back against the “plunder” is both needed and welcome.
Pickpockets on board the Titanic; they would be comic if death-for-dollars weren’t part of the plan.
Comments enabled at the request of the author