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The Politics of Water

Series Overview
by Jeff Elliott

Introduction to water series
Imagine a world without drinking water.

One dire prediction of that future appeared January in an obscure scientific journal, and was hedged in a diplomat's careful language. But his frightening message was clear: Someday there will be large wars routinely fought over water.

Klaus Toepfer, director-general of the United Nations Environment Program, told the journal Environmental Science & Technology that, "Everybody knows that we have an increase in population, but we do not have a corresponding increase in drinking water, [which will result in] conflict."

Another warning was heard in January at the nation's leading science conference. "If there is light at the end of the aqueduct, it's because the pipes aren't filled with water anymore," Theodore L. Hullar, coordinator of the newly established National Water Initiative told the AAAS conference. "It should remind us that our precious aquifers, the natural underground reservoirs that took thousands of years to fill, are being depleted much faster than they're being recharged."

Both scientists called for similar drastic steps. UN director Toepfer said an "efficiency revolution" is needed as part of a worldwide campaign to monitor supplies of drinking water. Hullar said a new collaboration among universities, states and federal agencies is needed to marshal all available resources.

And both agreed that whatever is to be done, must be done soon: We have only about 25 years before the global water supply reaches crisis.

A World of Thirst
Like other researchers, Toepfer and Hullar paint a very glum future. Demand for water is rising faster than the world's booming population. Even now, more than a billion people -- 1 in 5 people on Earth -- don't have access to clean water. A 1997 UN study reported in the Monitor said that by the year 2025, the world's 8 billion people will be consuming more water than nature supplies. Two thirds of the world's population will live in countries facing moderate to severe water stress.

The only solutions are difficult and political. Either new sources of water must be found or water must be diverted from somewhere -- or someone -- else. Water can also be viewed as an economic problem with the usual villians and victims: rich vs. poor, North vs. South.

Part of the equation is lack of access. Most fresh water is found in just 10 countries, including U.S., Canada, Russia, and China. (The U.S. Great Lakes alone contain one-fifth of the world's fresh water.) Moving any of that clean water to other parts of the globe would be enormously expensive.

In the developing world, the water pipes also belong to the rich. Governments often abandon their poor, who are forced to buy their water at inflated prices. In Haiti, the poorest spend about 20 percent of their income on water from vendors or black market suppliers. In other countries it's between 5 and 9 percent.

Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank said, "the very poorest... are often forced to pay the highest fees for water, primarily because of politicized inefficient bureaucracies. In city after city, the poor often rely on vendors who typically charge [about 1 U.S. penny per gallon] of water, ten or more times the price paid by those in the same cities with access to tap water in their houses."

As author Robert Downes describes in A World of Thirst: the thousands of years of human acceptance of water as a free birthright is at an end. Water has become just another commodity that must be distributed.

Unique Lawsuit Ties River Damage To Urban Growth
But at the same time, water isn't simply a commodity like sugar or rice that's owned outright. "It is also the source of life," argues Sandra Postel, director of the Global Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. "I'm concerned that as the private sector takes more and more control of our water resources, it will undervalue or entirely disregard this aspect."

Discussions of who "owns" water quickly becomes a matter for diplomats. Rivers and lakes very often straddle national or other borders. It's estimated that about 40 percent of the world's population depends on water that comes from somewhere else.

The Nile River in Africa is a classic example of how this can be exploited. Although the great river touches nine nations, two -- Egypt and Sudan -- claim rights to its entire flow. But both these countries draw from water sourced in Ethiopia, which is not, under a 1959 international agreement, allowed to extract any water from the Nile for itself.

Urban Sprawl is another drain on water resources. Cities everywhere are growing; by next year, 77 percent of Latin America will live within city limits, as will 41 percent of the African population. But much of the water flowing into those cities is wasted. Taps leak, old pipes rust. The Asian Development Bank calculates that most of Asia's big cities lose about half the water that way. Similar figures are found throughout the world, according to the World Bank.

As thirsty cities swallow (and waste) more of the drinking water supply, more rivers and aquifers are literally sucked dry for development's sake. Many of the world's old cities, such as Beijing, depend upon deep wells. But the water tables under that city is falling about five feet a year, forcing planners to draw water from further away.

With 1,200 dams, California is probably the world's champ for water diversion schemes, taking water from far-distant rivers and lakes. Examples abound: Most infamous is the Los Angeles area, which drinks water that flowed originally from the distant Colorado River.

But a suit filed in January may change the state's future. A coalition of individuals, conservation organizations and Native American groups has sued to stop environmental damage to the Northern California Eel River caused by the insatiable thirst of boomtown Santa Rosa, located about an hour's north of San Francisco. To fuel its irresponsible growth, the groups say, the city is destroying a great river and its wildlife -- 100 miles distant.

Succeed or fail, the outcome of this suit will be a landmark decision in the politics of water. The Monitor will cover this case of city vs. environment as it develops.

The Pathogens in our Water
As cities push outwards, so does their "pollution halo," forcing them to draw water from points farther away. And this is part of the greatest danger to the world's precious water: As the supply dwindles, we insanely pollute it at a faster rate.

"It's not just the quantity of water you should be concerned about," Penn State hydrologist Dr. David De Walle told the Monitor in 1997. "It's the quality."

De Walle was speaking about runoff from urban pollutants into our rivers and groundwater, but far more damaging in the waste from industry. The greatest demand on water comes from agriculture, which uses 70 percent of the world's water supply and is also the largest single source of water pollution. In a pair of 1995 articles, we reported that fertilizers from large-scale agribusiness has contaminated water throughout the American Midwest and California's Central Valley.

Health threats are also caused by runoff from huge factory farms and intensive cattle grazing. Pathogens in our water supply like Pfiesteria, Cryptosporidium and Giardia are commonly spread by livestock manure. These contaminated water supplies have sickened thousands and caused infant deaths.

Paradise Lost
Less obvious -- but maybe most important -- is the loss of our wetlands. America's wetlands are disappearing rapidly; an acre vanishes every minute, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some are lost to farmers draining potholes; more is lost to developer's bulldozers that flatten suburbs- to- be. And, author Sally Deneen discovered, it's also due to the more than 40 tax-funded programs that encourage drainage, including aid for road building, subsidized farm prices and "water management."

But wetlands filter all sorts of pollutants from our water supply; suburban grass pesticides and agricultural fertilizers are all absorbed. Also, about half of our endangered species need wetlands to survive. "The primary thing that concerns me about 'potholes' is that people don't fully appreciate what they do," U.S. Geological Survey expert Ned Euliss said.

Euliss lives in North Dakota, part of the five-state "Prairie Pothole" region where some wetlands resemble a moonscape of water-filled craters, while others are so varied that they may be filled with water that's saltier than an ocean, or as fresh as rain.

He told Deneen that these potholes are a mallard's version of Manhattan and the suburbs rolled into one. "You need a place to court. You need a hospital, and a grocery store. That's what these wetlands are to all of these birds."

While the Clinton Administration aims for a net increase of 100,000 acres of wetlands per year by encouraging the building of artificial wetlands, studies have shown that artificially created wetlands often dry up or die because scientists don't fully understand how to recreate the original soggy lands. In some cases, homeowner's associations or commercial developers are left to tend the puzzling marshes, with decidedly checkered results.

Where It Goes, Nobody Knows
The failure of fake wetlands underscores an important point: Although about half the world draws its water from wells, we don't really know very much about how those water systems work.

While scientists have models that can predict how water seeps from the earth's surface to the water table below, it's only accurate when it involves only a single type of soil, like sand. Only rarely is the ground so consistent. Researchers are now attempting to use chaos theory to explain the unpredictable flow water might take through typically rocky and mixed-consistency soil. This kind of research is critical to the safety of our water supply; if they can predict the path of clean water, they will also be able to track the flow of contaminated water.

And just last year, scientists discovered something that makes this all the more urgent: radioactive contaminants can migrate in groundwater over long distances, and faster than originally thought. With thousands of waste disposal sites in the U.S. that handle hazardous materials, much of our future drinking water supply could someday be contaminated.

Until new studies by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, it was thought that any radionuclides that escaped a disposal site remained in the surrounding soil. But the Oak Ridge scientists found that the radioactive particles bind with decaying plant matter, and move at the same speed as water. Instead of staying put, the material is moving hundreds of feet per year through the water supply.

The potential for some water contamination by low-level U.S. nuclear waste is worrisome, but this risk pales in comparison to the possible global catastrophe from the situation in Russia. As reported in the Monitor last July, five million cubic meters of radioactive salts from bomb making has contaminated Lake Karachai in the Ural Mountains, and less than two miles from access to the Arctic Ocean. In 1991, the World Watch Institute called Lake Karachai the most polluted site in the world.

This overview includes information from 1998 Panos Briefing "Liquid Assets," funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the UK Department for International Development

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Albion Monitor January 31, 1999 (

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