Major Problems of the Twenty-First Century: Access to Clean Water
“Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The image of women lined up to get access to relatively clean drinking water from delivery trucks, in the slums outside of Delhi, is a stark reminder of the realities faced by some millions of persons across the planet who do not have ready access to either clean drinking water or adequate sanitation. Michael Spencer writing about water issues in “The Last Drop” describes the growing problem accessing clean water around the world. The author focuses on India, making comparisons with water policies in the United States, surveying water issues and suggested solutions for the emerging potable water crisis. (Specter 2006).
The Word Heath Organization (WHO) states that some 2.5 billion people laced improved sanitation, 1 billion practice open defecation, 748 million lack access to improved drinking water and that 1.8 billion people use water that suffers from fecal contamination These figures, although better than the ones cited in the 2006 article by Specter who claimed approximately half of the world population have inadequate sanitation or water, demonstrate that there is still a huge problem. The WHO figures indicate a drop in cases of childhood death from diarrhea from 1.5 million in 1990 to 600 thousand in 2012, and with some 2.3 billion people gaining access to improved water supplies in the same period (WHO, UN Water 2014).
The article notes that there are solutions involving expensive engineering such as dam building and desalination plants, which demand a lot of infrastructure but are popular among politicians and policy makers, quoting Jawaharlal Nehru then Prime Minster of India said, speaking of a new dam project “Bhakra-Nangal Project is something tremendous, something stupendous, something which shakes you up when you see it. Bhakra, the new temple of resurgent India, is the symbol of India’s progress” (Spector 2006, np). They are expensive and often benefit or even induce the development of large agribusiness operations at the expense of small farmers as the example of the battle over the Narmada Dam project in Gujarat in which the activist author Arundhati Roy participated (Specter 2006, np). Another path is that of conservation, repair of infrastructure, charging agricultural interests at a rate that would encourage a switch to cost effective methods and the use of low tech solutions such as collecting rainwater. The example of Chennai is used to demonstrate a city without access to adequate water supplies dependent upon rainfall. Rather than go for an expensive water desalination system a local expert, one S. Janakarajan points would rebuild the traditional, pre-British occupation system of catching rainwater, change government policy to encourage local farmers to switch from water intensive rice, which is partially a legacy of the Green Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, to other crops, and clean up and rebuild the areas ponds, lakes, and reservoirs, which he claims would end the recurrent water crisis in the region at a minimum of expense (Specter, 2006, np). Cotton is another area where India has been a traditional producer, with some 5000 years of a tradition of cotton growing by sustainable means, but is now facing a crisis as unregulated use of pipe well water has been draining the underground aquifers faster than the replenishment rate chasing the needs of the water hungry crop only exacerbated by the introduction of GMO modified high yield varieties (Gutierrez, et al, 2015). Los Angeles could benefit from a rainwater recovery program, something that should have begun with the California Proposition 1, Water Bond which was intended to relieve drought conditions in the state (California Proposition 1 2014).
The article points out that the water crisis is upon us and that mechanisms have to be devised to not only conserve but the develop water resources a manner that is equitable. The proposals to reduce water subsidies to farmers at the expense of retail consumers has become a major issue as more and more of the world’s population moves into the urban environment. Strain on water systems, already severe indicate the need for a major focus in the world on water sources. There are some problems, including not focusing on what is being done through the United Nations to alleviate the problem world-wide, and emphasis on what seems to be a Bush era focus on market based solutions in an otherwise important article bringing attention to an important issue.
While I don’t like the idea of privatizing water, as companies like Nestle buy up access to water resources with the intent of treating a vital common resource as a commodity, it is critical that civil society mobilize around the issue to insure that clean, water is available for all. Charging a usage fee via metered non-profit rates that allow for infrastructure repair and extension to meet future needs makes sense, forcing the poor to pay for privatized water while, sectors like agribusiness get government subsidies is inherently unfair and contributes to waste. Technologies to monitor water usage, as they come on line, especially if they can be delivered at low cost can be helpful in helping consumers make smart choices, but major changes in lifestyle will be much harder. India at least is ahead of the game in one respect, with a large vegetarian majority at least one aspect of the virtual cost of water use is less than it is in a country like the USA where water intensive beef has become a model of prosperity around the world that it is unlikely to be sustainable on a massively larger scale if water needs are to be met. Changing lifestyle, policy and approaches will be needed to meet the impending crisis in potable water. Working with the UN through the WHO and organizations like UNICIEF are paths that can immediately effect change around the world, but there needs to be changes in consumer usage and agricultural practice especially for more efficient water use and planning. A concerted international approach, with a focus on practical solutions on the ground, that do not strictly focus on hard tech dam and desalination approach advocated in the pages of trade publications such as International Water Power and Dam Construction, although certainly as Specter notes, places like India need to build infrastructure for water if they are to be able to move forward on a sustainable development trajectory. The question becomes, what is sustainable?
California Proposition 1, Water Bond (2014). Ballotpedia the Encyclopedia of American Politics. Accessed 30 September, 2015. http://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_1,_Water_Bond_(2014).
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Poets.org. American Academy of Poets. Accessed 29 September 2015. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/rime- ancient-mariner
Gutierrez, Andrew, Luigi Ponti, Hans Herren, Johann Baumgärtner, and Peter Kenmore. 2015. Deconstructing Indian Cotton: Weather, Yields, and Suicides. Environmental Sciences Europe. 27, no. 1: 1-17. Doi: 10.1186/s12302-015-0043-8. Accessed 30 September 2015. http://www.enveurope.com/content/27/1/12.
International Water Power and Dam Construction. 2015. Global Trade Media. Accessed 30 September, 2015.http://www.waterpowermagazine.com/
Spector, Michael. 2006. The Last Drop. The New Yorker. 23 October. Accessed 19 September 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/23/the-last-drop-2.
WHO World Health Organization, UN-Water. 2014. Investing in water and sanitation: increasing access, reducing inequalities. UN-water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking-water (GLASS) Report 2014 - report. Eds. World Health Organization. WHO 2015. Accessed 29 September 2015. http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/glaas_report_2014/en/