Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Water Issues Loom Large

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  December 14 / 08

Zack Gross

When it comes to worrying about “liquid assets
,” likely most people these days are worrying about the “liquidity” of our financial systems. 

However, before the economy took over our consciousnesses, it was environmental issues, and especially water, that were top of mind with Canadians and people around the world.  The crises around water range from fears for its quality and quantity, to outrage about water privatization and corruption.

One can live for weeks without food, but only for a few days without fresh, clean water.   When you think of the many ways we use water – not just to drink, but to cook, to wash, to clean, for recreation, and more – one can see that there is no limit to how much is needed.  Industrial processes, such as food processing and the manufacture of clothing and other commons items, use as much as 30 times more water.

While an African family uses, on average, four to five gallons per day, which is judged by the United Nations to be the minimum necessary to survive, the average American family uses a minimum of 100 gallons per day and often closer to 200 gallons.  Says World Watch magazine, an authoritative environmental journal:  the average British citizen uses the equivalent of 58 bathtubs full of water everyday!

Access to enough clean water is a life or death issue in the developing world.  Ninety-eight per cent of water-related deaths occur in the so-called Third World, and 80% of those are of children under 14 years of age.  One billion people on our planet face this type of “water pressure” in today’s world.  Sanitation issues, which are closely related to water, affect 2.5 billion people, as water-related diseases kill a child every fifteen seconds.  Half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases.  Thus, 2008 was designated by the UN as International Year of Sanitation.

The 2008 Global Corruption Report states that the growing cost of water, sometimes inflated by privatization or corruption, has its greatest impact on the poor.  Many developing countries, for example South Africa, have installed meters on community water pumps and the poor must stuff coins into the meters to access clean water.  As many just don’t have cash, they often gather unclean water from ditches or puddles. 

With climate change, the World Water Council predicts that half the world’s population will live in areas without sufficient water by 2025.  Privatized water suppliers will turn the “right to water” into “water for those who can afford it,” which will also lead to increased corruption and inflated prices.  The United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015 seems less realistic as these conditions develop.

Here in our “developed” world, bottled water is a controversial subject.  By global standards, we have the safest water available, but in recent years there have been instances of contamination, illness and death, causing a boom in the bottled water industry.  As well, in our individualistic, convenience culture, carrying a water bottle, even when tap water is safe, has its appeal.  American bottled water suppliers are not required to reveal the source of their supplies.  Thus, KAIROS, a coalition of church organizations working on environmental and social issues, states on its website, as part of their bottled water campaign, that both Coca-Cola and Pepsi, in the US, source their water from municipal taps.

As Manitoba moves to ban non-recyclable plastic bags, there is an explosion of small plastic bottles taking place with bottled water.  Although some plastic bottles have recycling logos on them, not all of these are actually made of recyclable materials.  On top of that, people have not been proven motivated to judiciously recycle these bottles.

As with the privatization of water in poor countries, the bottled water industry amounts to privatization, as consumers pay hundreds of times more money per year for bottled water than they would for turning on their taps.  A cheap bottle of water might sell for $1, but its equivalent from your kitchen tap might cost one cent on your quarterly water bill.  Campaigns and resolutions to limit or ban bottled water sales in public buildings, schools and other institutions are beginning to take effect, including a highly publicized discussion recently at Winnipeg City Hall.

Like the air we breathe and the soil we cultivate, water is an essential ingredient of our lives.  Even through tough global economic times, United Nations targets for clean and plentiful water resources must be reached.  The situation in the world today is already at crisis proportions for the poorer half of our world.  We must deal with that challenge and realize that we are all at risk if we don’t take action or a range of health, climate and ethical issues.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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