The fresh water issue

Image: Huy Phan
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By LEONARDO BOFF*

Scarcity of clean water can trigger wars and threaten life

As important as the change in climate regime (global warming) is undoubtedly the issue of fresh water. The survival of the entire chain of life depends on it and, consequently, on our own future.

Water can be the reason for wars as well as for social solidarity and cooperation between peoples. Even more, as strong humanist groups want, around water it will be possible and surely will have to create a new world social pact that creates a minimum consensus between peoples and governments in view of a common destiny, ours and of the life system. The growing scarcity of fresh water could endanger life on the planet.

At the recent conference in New York on the occasion of Water Day (March 22) an alarm was raised: “there is a risk of an imminent global water crisis affecting two billion people who do not have access to a supply of portable water”. The UN launched, on this occasion, an “Agenda: action for water”. In the words of UN Secretary António Guterrez “an ambitious program of action on water that can give this vital element of our world the commitment it deserves”.

Regardless of the discussions surrounding the topic of water, we can make a safe and indisputable statement: water is a natural, vital, irreplaceable and common good. No living being, human or otherwise, can live without water. Because water is vital and irreplaceable, it cannot be treated as a commodity to be traded on the market. The future of life on the planet will depend in part on the way in which we treat water, as a commodity or as a vital and irreplaceable asset.

But first, let's quickly consider the basics about water. There is about one billion and 360 million cubic km of water on Earth. If we take all this water that is in oceans, lakes, rivers, aquifers and polar ice caps and distribute it equally over the Earth's surface, the Earth would be submerged in water at a depth of three kilometers.

97,5% is salt water and 2,5% is fresh water. More than 2/3 of this fresh water is found in the polar ice caps and glaciers, on top of mountains (68,9%) and almost all the rest (29,9%) is groundwater. 0,9% remains in swamps and 0,3% in rivers and lakes from where most of the fresh water for human and animal consumption, agricultural irrigation and industrial use comes from. Of this 0,3%, 22% goes to industry , 70% for agriculture. The little remaining 0,3% is for humans and the living community. 35% of the world's population, which is equivalent to one billion and 200 million people, lacks treated water. One billion and 800 million (43% of the population) have precarious access to basic sanitation. This fact causes about ten million people to die annually as a result of untreated water.

Access to fresh water is increasingly precarious due to the growing contamination of lakes and rivers and even the atmosphere, which causes acid rain. Poorly treated sewage, use of non-biodegradable detergents, abusive use of pesticides contaminate groundwater, industrial effluents dumped into watercourses return poisoning and death to rivers, compromising the fragile and complex chain of reproduction of life.

Water is plentiful but unevenly distributed: 60% is found in just nine countries, while 80 others face shortages. A little less than one billion people consume 86% of the existing water, while for 1.4 billion it is insufficient (there are now 2 billion) and for two billion, it is not treated, which generates 85% of diseases. It is assumed that by 2032 around 5 billion people will be affected by water scarcity.

There is no problem of insufficient water but of poor management of it to meet the demands of humans and other living beings.

Brazil is the natural power of waters, with 13% of all fresh water on the Planet, amounting to 5,4 trillion cubic meters. But it is unevenly distributed: 70% in the Amazon region, 15% in the Midwest, 6% in the South and Southeast and 3% in the Northeast. Despite the abundance, we do not know how to use water, as 46% of it is wasted, which would supply all of France, Belgium, Switzerland and Northern Italy. Therefore, a new cultural standard is urgently needed. We have not developed a water culture.

There is a worldwide race to privatize water. There arise large multinational companies such as the French Vivendi and Suez-Lyonnaise, the German RWE, the English Thames Water and the American Bechtel. A water market involving more than 100 billion dollars has been created. Strongly present in the commercialization of mineral water are Nestlé and Coca-Cola, which are looking to buy water sources all over the world.

Water is becoming a factor of instability on the Planet. The exacerbation of water privatization causes it to be treated without the sense of sharing and consideration of its importance for life and for the future of nature and human existence on Earth.

Faced with these excesses, the international community represented by the UN established in the meetings of Mar del Plata (1997), Dublin (1992), Paris (1998), Rio de Janeiro (1992) enshrined “the right of all to have access to potable water in sufficient quantity and quality for essential needs”.

The great debate today takes place in these terms mentioned above: Is water a source of life or a source of profit? Is water a natural, vital, common and irreplaceable good or an economic good to be treated as a water resource and as a commodity?

Both dimensions are not mutually exclusive but must be directly related. Fundamentally, water is a right to life, as insisted by the great water specialist Ricardo Petrella (The Water Manifesto, Voices). In this sense, drinking water, for use in food and for personal hygiene, must be free (cf. Paulo Affonso Leme Machado, Water resources. Brazilian and International Law, Malheiros Editores,). Therefore, rightly so, the first article of law n.9.433 (8/1/97) on the National Water Resources Policy says: “water is a public good; water is a limited natural resource, endowed with economic value; in a situation of scarcity, the priority use of water resources is human consumption and animal feed” (See the recent book with all data and laws by João Bosco Senra, Water, vital element).

However, since water is scarce and demands a complex collection, conservation, treatment and distribution structure, it has an undeniable economic dimension. The latter, however, must not prevail over the other, on the contrary, it must make it accessible to all and the gains must respect the common, vital and irreplaceable nature of water. Even implying high economic costs, these must be covered by the public authorities.

Water is not an economic good like any other. It is so bound up with life that it must be understood as life. And life, due to its vital and essential nature, can never be transformed into a commodity. Water is linked to other cultural, symbolic and spiritual dimensions of the human being that make it precious and charged with values ​​that, in themselves, are priceless. Saint Francis of Assisi in his Song to the Creatures refers to water as “precious and chaste”.

In order to understand the richness of water that transcends its economic dimension, we need to break with the dictatorship that the rational-analytical and utilitarian thinking of modernity imposes on society as a whole. This sees water as a water resource for profit.

The human being has other exercises of his reason. There is the sensible reason, the emotional reason and the spiritual reason. These are reasons linked to the meaning of life and the symbolic universe. They offer not reasons to profit but reasons to live and give excellence to life. Water is the niche from which billions (3,8) years ago life emerged.

As a reaction to the domination of the globalization of water, the republicanization of water is sought. Let me explain: water is a common global public good. It is the biosphere's heritage and vital for all forms of life. Due to this decisive importance of water, FAMA – the World Alternative Water Forum was created in March 2003 in Florence, Italy. Along with this, it was suggested to create the World Water Authority, an instance of public, cooperative and solidary government at the level of the large international water basins and of a more equitable distribution of water according to regional demands.

An important function is to pressure governments, companies, associations and citizens in general to respect the unique and irreplaceable nature of water. Since 75% of our body is made up of water, everyone should be guaranteed at least two liters of safe, clean water for everyone, varying according to different ages. Tariffs for services must consider the different levels of use, whether domestic, industrial, agricultural or recreational. For industrial uses of water and in agriculture, of course, water is subject to a price.

Encourage cooperation with all public and private entities to prevent so many people from dying as a result of lack of water or as a result of untreated water. Every day six thousand children die of thirst. The news doesn't count. But this is equivalent to 10 Boeing planes plunging into the oceans with the death of all passengers, as happened to Air France years ago. It would prevent around 18 million boys/girls from going to school because they are forced to fetch water 5-10 km away.

Parallel to this, there is a worldwide articulation for a World Water Contract. It would be a global social contract around what everyone needs and, effectively, unites us, which is the lives of people and other living beings, inseparable from water. A world zero hunger, foreseen by the Millennium Goals, must include zero thirst, because there is no food that can exist and be consumed without water.

From water, another image of planetization, today multipolar, emerges human, solidary, cooperative and oriented to guarantee all the minimum means of life and reproduction of life. She is life, generator of life and appears as one of the most powerful symbols of eternal life, according to the words of the One who said: “I am the source of living water, whoever drinks from it will live forever”.

*Leonardo Boff is an ecologist and philosopher. Author, among other books by Caring for the Earth-Protecting Life: How to Avoid the End of the World (All time lap record).


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