Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water
by Maude Barlow
The New Press (2007)
Although it receives less public attention, fresh water scarcity is far more urgent and deadly than climate change. With no choice but to drink contaminated water, millions of children under five are dying from infectious diarrhea. Growing water scarcity is also the major driver of illegal immigration. In Mexico alone, nearly 600 farmers a day abandon their land when their wells dry up.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of global sickness and disease is caused by contaminated water. In the global south, where only the rich can afford clean water, the poor die of hepatitis, cholera, polio, botulism, salmonella, e coli, campylobacter, viral gastroenteritis and other infectious illnesses transmitted by human feces. In the global north we die at unprecedented rates of cancer and autoimmune disease from drinking water contaminated with endocrine disrupting herbicides and pesticides, industrial toxins, heavy metals, drugs and nanoparticles.
The Cause of Freshwater Scarcity
Barlow identifies seven major factors contributing to the rapid depletion of clean drinking water:
1. Total failure to regulate the massive increase in toxic runoff (animal waste, herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics) from factory farms and industrial sites.
2. Unregulated corporate mining of fossil water from aquifers that are too deep to be replenished by rainwater. Corporations siphon off millions of gallons a day at zero or minimal charge to mass irrigate deserts, manufacture cars and computers, mass produce bottled water* and extract oil from tar sands and oil and gas from shale (aka fracking).
3. Reduced rainfall due to destruction of water retaining landscapes from rapid and haphazard urbanization. Rain that falls on pavement runs off (and ends up in the sea), rather than being absorbed and evaporated.
4. Rapid glacial melting (due to climate change) of glaciers in the Himalayas, Alps and Andes. The Himalayan glaciers are the primary source of water for nearly half of humanity (India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and Cambodia).
5. Loss of water from the “virtual water” trade, thanks to International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policies that force poor countries to sacrifice their scarce freshwater by growing and exporting water intensive crops (eg avocados, citrus, wheat, coffee, cut flowers and biofuel).
6. Ill-conceived technological fixes, such as mega-dams, water diversion and desalinization that reduce, rather than increase, access to clean water. Desalinization is the most destructive, owing to the massive of toxic waste (from chemicals used to clean reverse osmosis filters) discharged to the ocean.
7. Water privatization by powerful multinational corporations. Most of the world’s freshwater is controlled by the French Companies Suez and Veola and the British/German company RWE/Thames.
The Global Water Cartel
During the late 19th and early 20th century, Europe (with the exception of France, where municipal water service has been privately run since the late 1800s), North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan adopted universal public water and sanitation services in all major metropolitan areas. This never happened in the global south, where cities only provided water service to the wealthy elite. This made it easy for neoliberal institutions like the IMF to force water privatization schemes on countries in the global south with debt problems.
Barlow slams the IMF and World Banking for forcing water privatization schmes on South America, Africa and Asia as a condition of development loans. She’s especially critical of former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan for supporting these policies, in return for major donations Suez and Veola made to UNESCO.
Over the last few decades, Suez, Veola, RWE/Thames and a few smaller corporate players have been targeting cash-strapped US cities with their water privatization schemes. Bankrupt cities like Detroit are being forced to sell their public water systems as a source of revenue.
Barlow devotes the last third of her book to the “water warriors” around the world who are fighting for clean drinking water to be recognized as a basic human right. Among other reforms, there must be pressure on government to end the virtual water trade by promoting local sustainable farming, to ban private water companies from developing countries, to strictly enforce laws against surface and ground water contamination, to charge corporations full value for the water they take for bottling plants, fracking, manufacturing and flood irrigation and to promote urban planning that accommodates the need for rainwater to be captured and returned to the earth.
* The big three global bottling companies are Nestle, Pepsico and Coca Cola, though Starbucks’s water bottling company Ethos Water is sneaking up on them with their phony campaign to “help children get clean water.”