Words

Water Wars

From resource to commodity

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Since 1970, thanks to population growth and overuse, the global per-capita water supply has shrunk by a third. By 2025, 817 million people worldwide will lack adequate water.

In Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit (2016), Vandana Shiva talks about open, often armed, conflicts over water inequities, and notes that such conflicts, though actually about water,  are often reported as religious wars. She also talks about deadly water-caused violence between protesters and the state.

But the “wars” in her title mostly refer to those between corporations and others seeking to privatize water for profit, and ordinary people who need it to drink, bathe, grow crops and raise animals. On one side, a handful of profit-seeking corporations and the government organizations and banks that support them worldwide, and on the other, millions of species and billions of people seeking sustenance.

Shiva estimates the water market may be worth a trillion dollars. So corporations, banks and governments want their share—converting ecological crises into business opportunities. They are redefining water, once a resource freely available to all, into a commodity.

Take dams, for instance. Since, as Shiva says, international law pertains only to water controlled by concrete, build the biggest dams you can—the more water you use, the more you can get. There are now 45,000 large dams worldwide, nearly half in China and the rest in the United States, India, Japan, and Spain. Shiva calls dams the “colonizing of rivers and people” and compares their destructivity to nuclear bombs. In her native India, they’ve displaced nearly 40 million people, and 80 million worldwide.

Pollution, Shiva says, will affect water availability more than anything else. She doesn’t quantify this or compare losses from pollution to those from other causes, but she gives a range of examples.

Information technology, for instance, often thought of as “clean,” is responsible for many superfund sites; one plant manufacturing silicon wafers at 2,000 per week requires 236,600 gallons of water for wafers alone, per week, and is also seriously polluting. Meanwhile the water of the sacred Ganges, heavily polluted with constant human contact, contains something that kills bacteria. 

Globalization, which sounds all-inclusive enough to honor even the sacred, Shiva says in fact drives rich countries to exploit poor ones, through World Bank loans, “free trade” policies, and defining water as “tradable goods.” Shiva speaks of the “double fascism of globalization”—depriving citizens of rights to their own resources, and dividing everyone into haves and have-nots.

Corporations, governments, banks and trade groups push a market paradigm. Trading water will bring higher prices, reduce use and trigger searches for substitutes. But the world’s poor can’t pay more, can’t reduce use and already know there’s no substitute. Instead, water scarcity means life or death.

Add climate change to all this. Glaciers that feed Himalayan rivers whose water supports half of humanity are melting, resulting in deadly floods and seasonal, drying streams. In the 1990s alone there were hundreds of climate-related disasters. 

Shiva is not against all control of water. She mentions several low-tech, local water storage systems in India which have sustained crops over centuries, recharged aquifers and kept the soil alive. But these systems depend on locally adapted crops and ancient traditional knowledge, and won’t work with chemically fed monocultures. In fact, Shiva argues that in India, where much water is still locally controlled—only such systems can avert water wars.

So there is hope, though Shiva offers no global strategy for winning this struggle of the weak against the powerful, unless it’s that the sacred Ganges, and the sacredness of all water, will somehow heal us all.

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