Thursday, 12 October 2006

Global & Australian Water Situation

Last night I attended a Lecture at Melbourne University given by Maude Barlow on the topic “The Right to Water: Approaches to the World Water Crisis”. Maude is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians (Canada's largest citizen's advocacy organisation), a Director with the International Forum on Globalization and co-author (with Tony Clarke) of "Blue Gold. The fight to stop the corporate theft of the world's water".

Her initial foray into this critical global issue started over 15 years ago in response to Canadian concerns about the USA taking actions to source water from Canada to help sustain its business and population needs concerns that remain valid today.

What follows is a sample of the facts and issues she spoke of last night.
* Canada is known as a water rich country, whilst the Mid and South West of the USA is going through the driest recorded period in the past 500 years.
* The World Trade Organisation now classifies water as a ‘good’ making it ‘acceptable’ for it to be traded and treated the same as another other commodity.

Maude outlined 2 major concerns in respect of water globally:

1. Ecological
Surface and ground water is progressively becoming polluted. In China, as an example, some 85 % of surface and 90 % of ground water in the cities is polluted due mainly to the impact of manufacturing. The Chinese believe that 60 times the profit is made from a single drop of water if used in manufacturing as opposed to agriculture, and as a consequence have diverted water from the agricultural north to the cities.

Coca Cola now supplies 10 % of human ‘liquid intake’ in industrialized countries and has a goal to increase this to 20 %. They have constructed huge armed fortresses in poor countries within which they have undergound water pumping facilities. In some of the cold climates they now ‘harvest’ melting ice in the spring. One of the core strategies for achieving the ‘liquid intake’ objective is through negotiating agreements with schools whereby the higher the per capita consumption of Coca Cola the higher the profit margin will be to the schools from these sales.

Mexico city is currently sinking due to the extraction of underground water, and they are piping water in.

2. Water Inequity
Globally it is estimated that 2 billion people do not currently have adequate water supplies, whilst it is wasted by the rich. In one poor country the poor pay about 14 times the amount for water compared to the rich – driven by the rich having the water piped to their houses whilst the poor have to pay for water transport.

Last year 200 billion litres of water was bottled and sold creating a substantial pollution issue with disposal of the plastic bottles. It is Maude’s view that water should not belong to any person or corporation, and that it is a basic human right to have good quality adequate water supplies.

Australia is the driest human inhabited continent with the most variable rainfall - which is declining. Our rivers are salinated and our aquifers under the cities are being polluted and drained. The rate of water extraction in 25 % of the water catchment areas throughout the continent exceeds to rate of recharge, and our population is forecast to grow by 25 % in the next 15 years. At current water usage rates Sydney is competing with Beijing and Mexico City to be the first major city in the world to run out of water. Our general populace (and particularly our politicians) believes that we should continue to strive for unlimited economic growth. We are the 3rd highest per capita users in the world, after the USA and Canada. Since the 1990’s our water usage has increased by 65 %, and there has been a 90 % increase in ground water use. We are also a massive exporter of “Virtual Water” – water is used to produce goods that are then exported – and by so doing we are exporting ‘fruits’ (for want of a better term) using water in such as away that we damage the environment.

Currently the Federal Government is espousing 3 ‘solutions’:
1. Installation of desalination plants. These should be seen as a last resort as they are incredibly power hungry (electricity – generated via non-renewable resources) and they generate substantial pollution in the air (visual and smell) and water around them
2. Increase underground water pumping
3. Introduce water trading – This is likely to increase the gaps between the haves and the have nots. The biggest problem will come if we allow the government to introduce ‘corporate middlemen’ (apologies – this is not meant to be a sexist term) who make profits out of buying (e.g. from farmers) and selling (e.g. to city users) water. There have been instances overseas where these decisions have been made, with disastrous social consequences.

Maude suggests that our community and governments need to take 3 significant steps:
A) Accept that we can no longer sustain ‘unlimited growth
B) Create a new ‘water ethic’ encouraging better practices. Maude quoted Martin Luther King who once said: “Legislation won’t restrain the heart, but will help restrain the heartless”.
C) Water needs to be acknowledged as a basic human right rather than a good or commodity

Getting involved
Those seeking more information or wanting to get involved should check out the Watermark Australia website at (email which is funded by the Victorian Women’s Trust (

1 comment:

Philipp Nauer said...

Water is a renewable resource
From an ethical point of view I absolutely support Maude's opinion. Here I just like to add some points which I think shouldn't be missed in this discussion.

First, water that is wasted is not lost. Most common pollutants like organic material, nitrate, phosphate, etc. can be removed in adequate treating facilities and the water can be used again. Probably in Australia and also in many other countries, where all major cities are located at the coast, this point often gets lost as the wastewater is lost to the sea.

Also, and most important, rainwater can be stored in the ground, in wetlands, in plants… in other words, in healthy ecosystems. As in these days, these ecosystems are not common anymore, water runoff (and with it soil erosion) is increased and the country gets dryer. In changing destructive land use practices to regenerative and protective management approaches this trend can be reversed. Clean drinkable water is an ‘agricultural’ good.

Both solutions have one thing in common: they cost money. (As a nice coincidence, the Google Ad on top of the site advertised for a report about the water recycling market in the USA, which has a value of about 2.1b$). Water recycling and treatment in the common sense as well as in the sense of ecosystem protection are costly and can only be done with adequate funding. Therefore giving water a monetary value might not only help Nestle and Coca Cola to polish their finances. If properly regulated, it could support a water policy where a farmer or entrepreneur is paid for producing (and not mining!) clean freshwater. If the Chinese believe that they can make 60 times the profit using water for industrial than agricultural processes, they should ‘produce’ clean water on their land…

As I am Swiss, here is a link of an interesting Swiss approach:
the basement sewage plant