Our troubled relationship with water (Blog Action Day 2010)

How did we get here, in this parched state, fighting for and over something as basic as water, on this watery blue world? Isn’t water a basic element essential for all life, including humans? Like air? How and why have we lost sight of this fundamental truth?

At a late hour on this Blog Action Day 2010, as part of my keyboard action, I want to briefly explore some aspects of our (humanity’s) increasingly troubled relationship with this basic element. (ok, strictly speaking it is a compound, not an element, but you know what I mean here, right?). But first, here’s a brief video highlighting the need for more action on water issues.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/15336764 w=500&h=283]

One obvious reason people are now fighting over water, of course, is that we have more and more people living in places with limited if not dwindling freshwater supplies. It is remarkable that some of the fastest growing cities in the world (Las Vegas, for example) are located in the middle of the desert! (Did you know that?) Remarkably, people face acute shortages of safe drinking water even in far wetter places (Cherrapunji, anyone?), because we have on the one hand stripped bare the watersheds by chopping down formerly dense water-soaking forests, and on the other, failed to develop or deliver appropriate water harvesting / saving / distribution technologies to the poor people living there. Of course, when technology does find its way to such places, it is all too often laced with poison. Throw in changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and we’ve got a perfect storm of natural disasters compounded by limitless human stupidity to land us in this situation: we dig deep into aquifers or divert water from remote rivers to support megacities growing in the driest places, even as we neglect the small villages in the wettest places on earth! Gotta love that human ingenuity, for only our species could have conjured up such an unlikely paradoxical pickle in which to land ourselves.

What puzzles me even more is how we have fundamentally changed our relationship with water by turning it into a market commodity! Because that ultimate stupidity is what often lies behind water shortages in most places now. We (i.e., our governments, from Kerala to California to Bolivia) are letting corporations take control of our aquifers and watersheds, so that they can sell the water back to us in bottles and cans, with or without sugar’n’fizz, at exorbitant prices. There’s much profit in that, obviously. But supplying potable water and indoor plumbing to those villagers in Cherrapunji? Surely there can’t be much profit in that! Let them buy the bottles, if they can afford it. Such is the wisdom of the market, of course.

The same logic of the “free” market dictates that municipal water supply agencies be run like self-sustaining (if not for-profit) businesses. Thus do we end up with the paradox of places like Las Vegas, where water departments must, even as they encourage citizens to use less water, keep raising prices on the smaller amount of water they use in order to maintain revenues to keep the department viable in tough budgetary times. Incentivize people to save water by raising prices; see revenues drop as people listen to you and use less water; raise prices again to maintain revenues to keep up the water infrastructure; rinse and repeat! Until people revolt. Or, shrivel up, I suppose. Maybe that is the final solution – wean people completely off of water through this spiraling of costs so we have a dehydrated citizenry that doesn’t need water any more. What a tragicomedy of the commons…

Meanwhile, here in Fresno in the Great Central Valley of California, in one of the richest agricultural counties in this breadbasket of the arid west, we have a growing city that is only just beginning to meter water use! And they are doing it quite tentatively, with a non-tiered rate structure that may not be steep enough to discourage water use. Some of us who have already been trying to reduce water use (without any incentive from the city) may see our water bills go down from the current flat rate. I look forward to that! Yet it is also possible that some of my fellow citizens, upon seeing their bills get lower, may actually increase their water use because that new bill tells them they can use even more without busting their original budgets! So what’s the net result going to be? I hope to be able to tell you as we continue to monitor water use in this city.
It seems to me (non-economist that I am) that it is well nigh impossible to find any free-market solutions to these paradoxes, because it is inherently problematic to charge an industry that relies on profits from selling water to come up with ways to reduce the use of water! Can it really be done, from within this capitalist paradigm? Isn’t it time to reconsider this folly, and start treating water like the public good and human right it really should be? When even the rich societies of the global North / West refuse to invest public funds to ensure a safe and steady water supply for its citizens, what profit is there for corporations to provide such supplies to the poorer peoples of the world?

That surely is a fundamental disconnect in our increasingly troubled relationship with water.

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