In consideration of the recent debate about water privatization in the European Union I would like to share the 2008 documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. Even though the movie is not the most recent one it is still worth watching since the content of the debate has not changed much during the past years. The documentary is based on the book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, and criticizes the business of big water companies privatizing and selling water for profit, which creates a life or death situation for those who can not afford it. I personally consider the privatization of water a new form of slavery. Water is the source of life and every organism depends on it, thus I consider access to clean water (at locations where it is possible!) a human right. But let us take a step back first to take a look at the current water crisis and how we got there.
Ninety-seven percent of the Earth’s water is salt water. Of the remaining three percent more than half of it is captured in icecaps and glaciers whereas the rest is mainly groundwater. Only a fraction is actually accessible surface water in forms of rivers, lakes or swamps. A considerable amount of our ground and surface water is polluted by human activities such as agriculture, for example. However, industrial activity has the biggest impact on our water quality. I work for the incineration company, Ross Environmental Services in Elyria, Ohio. Currently the company has to send millions of gallons of waste water off site every year. Off site means disposal by deep well injection. The water contains hazardous compounds generated by the incineration of hazardous waste and will most likely return to our ecosystem in a few thousand years or so. Ross is only a small company compared to the big players in this business who probably inject a hundred times more contaminated water into the ground or directly pipe it into the ocean. But there is good news: Ross is aware of their problem and they are looking for a sustainable and environmental friendly solution. Despite the company’s small size, they can still set an example for bigger players by innovating novel approaches to waste water management. This is why they employed me. As an interdisciplinary biologist and engineer my job is to find an energy efficient way to recover the plant’s waste water. Due to my work at Ross I also see that industry has its difficulties with problem-solving. My task for instance focuses on the desalination and purification of the polluted water. So the company wants me to find a solution for a problem that they created. This is definitely better than not doing anything but I am not convinced it is the right approach. Current desalination technologies such as distillation or reverse osmosis are highly energy demanding processes. Thus they would create new problems by increasing the company’s CO2 footprint and energy consumption. Why do companies not rethink the system’s design, which is the root cause of the problem? For instance, most incineration companies use a wet-cooling system, meaning that water is sprayed on the combusted steam to wash out the ash and to cool down the gases. This is of course contaminating the cooling water. I always wonder why we are not using dry-cooling systems like counter current piping. This would allow us to separate the fresh water stream from the polluted gases, so the water could be used over and over again without taking more fresh water out of the ecosystem. Obviously those systems are more complex and/or more expensive than those being used. So as long as short-term profits have a higher value in our society than the well being of our fresh water sources there is probably no chance to expect. I believe that fiercer environmental legislation is required to limit industrial water pollution. Another problem humans created is the imbalance of the natural hydrologic cycles. We pump more water out of the ground than we can return, which leads to an increasing desertification of our ecosystems. This is also reinforced by the building of dams and increasing urbanization. Due to the extent of paved surfaces in big cities, less water is flowing back into the soil, and thus our ecosystems are losing more and more water. Additionally, deforestation leads to a decrease in the water holding capacity of forested areas, which aggravates existing water shortages in this areas. So we see that the hydrologic cycle is a highly complex and interconnected system and every human interference will have its impacts. It is estimated that we will approach a global water collapse in around 50 years if we continue on the same path.
Now that we understand the nature and causes of our water problems one might ask why government does not intervene and set up appropriate regulations to limit water pollution. The reason why they don’t is, as always, money. In fact our political system is totally failing when dealing with the big players controlling the water market. Politicians are giving more and more power to corrupt water cartels, which are buying our natural water sources in order to sell the water in bottled form for profit. The biggest players in this business, just to name a few, are the french companies Veolia and Suez Environment. The basic discussion between those companies and politicians is whether water is a human right or an economic good. According to the water companies water is a commodity – a point of view with which I totally disagree. I agree that it is hard to declare the access to clean drinking water as a human right for all of our people. That would be desirable but probably not realizable worldwide because in certain regions, such as deserts, water is hard to access. But we should at least try to use our best technology in order to make as much water accessible as people need. One drawback I see if water is declared a human right for everyone is that people will not use it responsibly. We would need the right regulations to make people use only the water they really need and utilize the right technology to recycle and reuse it. Monetary control is definitely the wrong approach to regulate our water distribution. We see this in several cases all over the world where companies buy natural water sources and sell the water in bottled form to the people. One example I would like to point out is the Swiss food company Nestle. The Nestle imperium owns a large number of water wells all over the world; even in areas where water is highly limited and the local population depends on the few wells they have. For instance, in rural areas in Pakistan Nestle owns the deepest water wells which access the majority of the local ground water leading to the aridification of the surrounding environment. Thus, the local people are running out of their natural fountain water and now have to buy Nestle’s bottled water with money they don’t have. This is only one example of the dark side of Nestle. You should take a look at the documentary, Bottled Life, which takes a critical look at the Nestle imperium. By the way, the Great Lakes region is also a target of Nestle and its water imperium. Nestle already received permission to bottle Great Lakes’ water to sell it in other parts of the world. Nestle is not the only company that is known for its dark deeds: Coca Cola is another well known example and the list goes on and on. As long as money is valued higher in our system than the life of the individual we will most likely not see any significant change in our water politics. But what are our alternatives? In that regard you might wanna take a look at an earlier documentary I posted: A New World System by Jaques Fresco, which is criticizing our money oriented society and suggests a resource-based rather than a monetary economy.
If we try to predict the future it almost seems like one day wars will be fought because of water like we are doing today because of oil. It is even happening already. One example is the Water War of Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000. The water supply company Semapa tried to privatize the city’s municipal water, which led to violent protests among the population. Finally, the government reversed the privatization. This example shows that we can do something against water privatization. It is not too late for change and the earth can still recover. We can return the earth’s water into its natural cycle. We can take down all the dams and generate hydro-power by river turbines that do not impact the ecosystem. We do have the technology to come up with feasible solutions for that. The redesign of cities could contribute to returning water to the ecosystem by using porous pavement that allows water to flow back into the soil. A mindset change in the general population would be necessary to treat our water responsibly and economically. There would be a variety of realistic solutions from which to choose.