Human beings, and virtually all other terrestrial animals and plants, need fresh water to live. We are water’s embodiment in myriad forms. But over 97 percent of Earth’s water is toxic to terrestrial organisms because of its salinity, and more than 90 percent of remaining “sweet water,” sufficiently low in sodium to sustain life, is deep underground or solidified as ice sheets and glaciers. A scant 0.0001 percent of the planet’s fresh water is readily accessible. The hydrologic cycle, which allows life-sustaining land-based and non-potable oceanic waters to evaporate, condense again, and fall as snow and rain, helps replenish that resource. An estimated 114,000 billion cubic meters of water fall from the sky every year, two-thirds of which evaporate back into the atmosphere. The rest, unevenly distributed, either replenishes lakes, bogs, groundwater streams and swamps, or drops infrequently on arid regions. Areas, where great rivers meander, tend to be forested and diversely populated. Drier, less habitable terrains sustain fewer species and smaller populations. Australia (25 million people) is less populated than Europe because vast stretches of its continental land mass are desert.
Because drinking water is relatively rare, Malthusian dilemmas confront not only our species, but entire ecological communities should human population growth continue nonstop. Everyone, from aardvarks to senators to armadillos, requires a certain amount of water to maintain homeostasis, replacing what we lose through perspiration, metabolic processes and respiration. But that’s a small fraction of water used for other reasons, especially inefficient, wasteful industries, such as meat and textile production, beverage and car manufacturing. We use much more water in rich countries than poorer ones. Despite its finitude, people in industrialized nations use between 350 to 1,000 liters of water per day compared to 2 to 5 liters in rural Africa. Water-glut countries are also biggest polluters. Aquatic ecologist Jack Vallentyne, referenced by David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance, estimates that a glass of Toronto tap water, originating from Lake Ontario, might contain 100,000,000 molecules of bromodichloromethane from chlorinated sewage, 500,000 PCB molecules, 10,000,000 molecules of industrial solvents and trillions more molecules of other pollutants generated upstream, including human urine.
Because 3.6 million people (including 1.5 million children) die each year from water-borne diseases, the UN adopted resolutions recognizing human rights to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation in 2010. Opposed: the US, Canada and the UK ─ all pushing market-based economies, privatization and “commodification” of water supplies. Three years later, 500 scientists, meeting in Bonn by invitation of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, warned that water abuses were transforming the planet the way receding glaciers had 11,000 years ago. Worsened by global warming and development, most of the human population now lives within 50 kilometers of impaired (i.e. polluted or drying) drinking water sources. Women in poorer countries spend 40 billion hours annually collecting it. Daughters are often denied school to help fetch. Meanwhile, the US, UK and Canada promote open global trade and corporate investment rights so private commercial companies can assert proprietary control of the world’s resources.
As of December 7th, a shocking deregulation occurred in the financial sector. Stock market investors are now permitted to trade water futures. Because water has never been traded this way, the new futures market invites speculation from all sorts of financial players, including hedge fund operators. This should especially concern the rest of the world given the U.S. is second largest consumer of water in the world (California accounting for 9 percent of that usage), and global warming and climate change have locked the western United States, like other regions of the globe, into patterns of recurring drought. Except where floods predominate (e.g., Southeast Asia) water tables are falling. Not only does mismanagement of water resources suck the Colorado River dry before it reaches the Gulf of California, similar fates befall other major rivers around the world, including the Ganges, Niger, Yellow, Nile, Indus, Amu Darya, Mekong and Murray-Darling. Right now, aquifers feeding the Ganges River in India are depleting faster than anywhere else in the world. Meanwhile, the human population is expected to reach 10.5 billion within decades, increasing demands for potable water. As supplies shrink, competition, conflict and migration will worsen. For every 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, the air holds 7 percent more water, drying the planet’s surface and making precipitation events, including storms, cyclones, hurricanes and floods more devastating. As the climate changes, tropical zones are expanding 20 miles per decade, pushing temperate conditions into higher latitudes. Populous U.S. and Mediterranean regions will get hotter and drier.
As the World Bank pressures countries to contract water services to private for-profit utilities, commoditization of water here and abroad will make it less accessible to those unwilling or unable to pay higher prices. Corporations and investment funds are already buying up large swaths of land in the Global South to access water when demand outpaces supply. Even now, nations are auctioning off water to mining companies and other corporate industries. When income disparities first ushered in this 2nd Gilded Age, Oxfam International warned that extreme wealth (individual and institutional) would guarantee economic inefficiency, corrosive politics, social unrest and ecological destruction. Already manifest here and abroad, “water wealth” will magnify those impacts. Daily per capita water use in North America and Japan, both preachers of unlimited growth, exceeds 350 liters, Europe 200 liters, sub-Saharan Africa less than 20. On average, a northern hemisphere kid uses 50 times more water than kids south of the equator, and groundwater pumping has doubled worldwide 1960 to 2000. As states over-extract, inner-city families get priced out of drinking water.
Investing in water futures and bidding wars won’t buffer the rich and powerful from emerging crises. If shortages worsen in drought-stricken areas, an estimated 2.2 million water refugees could migrate to wealthy nations annually. In addition to droughts turning U.S. forests into tinderboxes, 600,000 square kilometers of Brazil are now desert, and the Ogallala aquifer, on which plains states depend, can’t recharge. As the Great Lakes recede, Saharan and Chinese deserts expand; Lake Urmia (Iran) dries, and the Aral Sea is “polluted to death,” water needs are paramount.
Rachel Carson, convinced man had forgotten his origins and essentials for survival, warned in Silent Spring that water, our most precious natural resource and requirement for life, had been “victimized by human indifference.” Now, as quantities are threatened it’s exploitable for profit. Water is not a commodity to be monopolized, but a sacrament carried through the biosphere by every living thing, countless Gunga Dins, connected, partaking; tributary.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.