Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Water Sweeps Other Global Issues Aside 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  Monday, April 9 / 12

Zack Gross

 According to a new report released by the United Nations, global fresh drinkable water supplies are threatened by a combination of increased agricultural production, urbanization and climate change. 

Officials warn that the state of the world’s water needs to be more closely monitored and better understood, and that decision-makers need to hear the alarm bells that are ringing as a crisis looms for mid-Twenty-first Century.
As the demand for food increases, so does the need for fresh water.  Countries are extracting triple the underground water they did fifty years ago.  Without access to fresh water and sustainable food production, the UN warns that famine and political instability will increase in developing countries.  Currently, there are one billion hungry people on the planet and 800 million who lack a safe supply of fresh water.
At the other end of the scale, the big issue today is waste water and sanitation, 80% of which is neither collected nor treated.  Now that more than half the people on Earth live in cities, urban areas are not keeping up with the demand for proper facilities and infrastructure.  This not only results in pollution but also spreads disease and forces especially girls to stay away from school.
Advocates spoke out internationally for a Right to Water policy to be adopted by UN member countries when World Water Day was celebrated last month.  Canada, the United Kingdom and other Western countries have “debated the semantics” and “back-tracked” on this issue, said a UN water and sanitation expert.  The General Assembly declared in July 2010 that safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to full enjoyment of life.
While Canada, as a country, has been criticized for dragging its feet on the Right to Water issue, a Canadian is very much involved in the effort to deal with global water issues and people’s human rights:  Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council for Canadians citizens group and a well-known author on water issues.  Her main concern is that water will become a commodity to be bought and sold, and those without cash in developing countries especially won’t be able to access it.
The European Environmental Agency has also expressed concern that the continent’s water resources are under pressure.  While river basins are experiencing water scarcity, behavior change is not changing to address this reality.  In the European Union, in general, 25% of available water resources are used in agriculture.  This jumps to 80% in southern Europe.  Farmers are looking at conserving technologies such as drip irrigation and other efficient methods of using water.  Without more measures to conserve water, Europe’s river fish stocks will be at risk.
Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet President, spoke out on this crisis at a recent European forum.  He said, just a month ago, as head of Green Cross International, a global environmental group, that “continuation of water consumption at 20th Century levels is no longer possible” and that the crisis is “closely related to the flaws of contemporary economics and politics.”  We need to re-think the goals of economic development, he said finally, to include the public good – “a sustainable environment, people’s health, education… an absence of glaring gaps between the rich and the poor

Even corporate bosses are sounding the alarm. 

Coca-Cola’s water stewardship director and the International Finance Corporation’s head of water, infrastructure and natural resources just last week put water in the same risk and priority category as climate change and carbon emissions. 

Corporations are beginning to think about the effect of potential water shortages on their businesses.  When 190 publicly traded companies in the US were polled as to their oversight of water issues, 57% responded that their Boards have water policies, strategies or plans.
Environmental groups, such as the Boston-based CERES, are working with the private sector to analyze risk, management and best practices in water use.  Some would say that multinationals are doing this for their own purposes of making money, positioning themselves to control water needed by their beverage or food companies, or producing and marketing technologies that would be needed in water shortage situations, whether here or overseas.  Some business thinking is that a price needs to be put on water, a diametrically opposed idea to Barlow and the UN wanting water as a human right.
In Manitoba, each year can be a new adventure in dealing with drought or too much rain, parched fields or flooding.  As some eventualities are unprecedented, it is harder to plan for them and manage them when they occur. 

Global leaders in the UN, the corporate world and environmental organizations are calling for increased attention to fresh water and sanitation issues.  The need is to realize there is an issue and make provision so as to avoid it becoming a crisis.

And it should be about more than profit.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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