Enough for all? The Challenge of Ensuring Clean, Safe Water for a Thirsty World

By Heather Williams

There is enough water for all – but not for every purpose that human beings can use it for; consequently local democratic control over what locally available water are to be used for are necessary around the globe.

The headlines are heart-stopping:

  • Long-term drought in U.S. West is felling forests and draining reservoirs, threatening to leave its cities high, dry and without enough power;

  • In the Near East and Central Asia, dryer weather combined with intensive export agriculture is draining critical aquifers that supply major cities;

  • In northeast Africa, the race for the Nile River basin is heightening tensions among already-fragile governments in Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea;

  • Meanwhile, in the Middle East a massive dam complex in eastern Turkey on the Tigris and Euphrates flowing south into Syria and Iraq may cause great shortages in regions already plundered and impoverished by war;

  • In China, India, and Brazil, the world’s emerging great powers, governments are quickly making plans for massive re-routing and engineering of their river basins to accommodate growth and bring water to arid lands. China, for example, is lifting portions of the mighty Yangtze out its banks in the south of the country to its parched industrial north, where the Yellow River has become too degraded for use. India, meanwhile, is considering a $140 billion project to interconnect its great rivers to meet rising demands for power and water, and to compensate for aquifers that are being rapidly depleted;

  • Australia, the world’s least water-endowed continent, is now experienced hyper-heated summers and prolonged drought, with interior region temperatures averaging 120 degrees Fahrenheit;

  • The list goes on. Unfortunately, at the very juncture when climate change and continued population growth would seem to indicate the necessity of extraordinary measures to conserve water, many projects are being undertaken to increase countries’ per capita water use in the name of more growth, more land under cultivation, and more export

  • At the same time, water as a basic need is not being met for great numbers of people. It’s estimated that between 780 million and one billion people in the world currently lack access to clean water—that’s one in nine people in the world. According to the World Health Organization, deaths from polluted water outnumber deaths from any of the major epidemics—TB, HIV/AIDS, malaria.

Is there enough for all? Will there be in the future?

Do we have hope of seeing to it that there is enough water for all on an increasingly crowded planet, with hotter summers and dryer arid regions, and wetter and saltier flood-prone areas, particularly along the world’s coasts?

My answer, believe it or not, is yes.

I believe that our failure to meet the challenge of providing tomorrow’s population with access to adequate, safe water would not only be shameful, it would be a scandal.

I hope to convince you that we do have enough fresh water in the world for all to thrive. And if the global community is determined to defend freshwater supplies for the coming generations, and we are mindful of the importance of defending diverse uses of water, shared freshwater supplies, instead of being a detonator of conflict, could be a bridge to peace and greater cooperation inside countries and also between them.

I say this not as pipe dream to make people feel like it’s worthwhile to grapple with a complex and somewhat scary topic. I’m actually serious.

The first reason I study water is because I never doubt that it is important. I never wake up in the morning and say, “Gosh, who cares about water?”

The second reason I study water is because, as a political scientist, I am very interested in the ways people spar over a scarce resource. You can look at the Nile or the Brahmaputra or the Danube or even our own Santa Ana River to get a sense of the knock-down, drag out fights that often rage over the rights of upstream and downstream water users.  As the historian Karl Wittfogel once argued about arid lands kingdoms in the ancient world—what he called “hydraulic civilizations”--control of water supplies in dry regions is critical to the business of ruling. The more effectively people’s labors and their taxes are tied to the control of conveyance of water, the more power accrues to rulers at the top.

The third reason I study water is because, while the conflicts are intriguing, the solutions that people reach over water are even more interesting, and they account for some of the greatest advances in quality of life in human history. Many of the technologies and forms of public participation that have emerged around water, both in traditional rural societies as well as urban and more (statutorily) democratic societies show the possibilities for bringing diverse groups of people together along with experts to build arrangements for resolving disputes and allocating clean water peacefully and equitably.

Consider, for example, something we don’t even think about. Water treatment is one such solution that addresses the inherent conflict between those who discharge wastes into waterways, and those who need that water for use in their homes or on their farms, or who fish or swim in that water. Water treatment for domestic use, for example, has extended lives in the last 100 years by more years than all medical procedures combined. And it’s incredibly cheap—you pay one hundred thousand dollars or more for a heart operation. Each year of life extended through water treatment, by contrast, is in the pennies. It’s one of the best, more cost-effective things that can be done to improve life for all. Likewise, end of the pipe treatment and pollution regulation—though it is more expensive, controversial (at least among polluters), and energy-intensive—is also a great investment in peace, health, prosperity, and quality of life.

What I want to argue is this:  There is enough water for everyone to thrive.

However, the challenge for us is:

Water is scarce in that there isn’t enough water for all to get everything they want for all the purposes they’d like. The problem is that those who’d like water for greater luxuries and wealth-enhancement, such as additional hydropower, or water for vast soybean or biofuel plantations, or for gigantic gold mines, or for golf courses in the desert, at this point are in an excellent position to secure money and government backing for large-scale river basin engineering and take-outs of water. That leaves many with only scant access to the wheels of power without water, or with degraded sources of water.

Water scarcity as a global phenomenon is also a puzzle, though, because it is an intensely local resource. While it can be transported over considerable distances in aqueducts, it is nonetheless a thing that exists in time and place, and so the solutions that are available in some basins won’t be applicable to others. There is no “one size fits all” for solving water conflicts, and so the principles that could be applied to finding solutions have to be sufficiently broad to accommodate local geography, politics, cultural understandings of the meaning and purpose of water and water-ways, and development needs:

  • In the Okavango River basin in southern Africa, it’s a question of balancing the needs of urban Namibians, who don’t use much water but who do need more than they have now, with the gathering and fishing rights of people who have long lived downstream in its marshes and swamps;

  • In the lower Mekong, it’s about the rights of Cambodian and Vietnamese fishers versus upstream hydroelectric dams;

  • In the highlands of Peru, where I have done a great deal of work, it’s about compensating for dropping springs and groundwater due to retreating glaciers;

  • In Mexico City, it’s about depleted aquifers and an aging, overtaxed distribution system.

That’s why when I began with the assertion that there is enough water for all I’m not showing you some kind of global freshwater budget chart with a neat little breakdown of per-capita water availability, future projections, Millennium Development Goal language. That’s useful to a point, but it’s somewhat deceptive, because it suggests that water is a single-use, transportable commodity that can be priced or otherwise allocated from where it exists in the world to where it’s needed. As wet as the interior Amazon is, or the middle of Kauai, and as dry as Namibia is—they’re not getting connected anytime soon, as might happen with, say, critical medicines or foodstuffs.

Water, more than any other scarce resource that sustains lives and livelihoods, is anchored in the physical planet. As much as the 21st century seems to suggest that everything we are and everything we need can be made abstract, can be done online, can be traded over borders, can be bought with Bitcoins and PayPal accounts, water brings us back to where we are—physically, on the planet. Ultimately it is too heavy, too unwieldy, and needed in too great a volume to be trucked around like wheat or corn or aspirin or iron ore for all the purposes it’s needed for. Those plastic bottles from Fiji or wherever pose a big problem for certain local supplies, and a big problem for landfills where they end up, but it’s ultimately a very small amount of the water we need and use.

If we are to have enough for all, what is needed is for us to roll back the language of globalism, where we imagine instantaneous transfers of information and money, of mutability of identity, and remember that some things, like rivers, may flow as slowly as a man can walk. And water percolates through earth sometimes as slowly as inches a day.

The truth is, no matter how clever we get about recycling water, storing it, wheeling it in pipes across the land, we, like our ancestors before us, are utterly dependent on the skies, on the water cycle to renew the water in our basins.

You may not even know what basin you’re in, may not know where your water is coming from, but your activities, your presence in that basin, leaves a mark on it.   We have an impact.

The Dublin Principles are designed to provide a framework for countries to address water resources, and they assert the following:

Principle No. 1- Fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment

Principle No. 2 - Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels

Principle No. 3 - Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water

Principle No. 4 - Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good

If these principles are to work for us and for the many non-humans with whom we share the planet and who also need water for life, we may need to add a fifth principle. I would propose the following:

Principle No. 5: Water comes to us through basins in the physical Earth, and the care and protection of that water must involve those who live in it.

These principles must be recognized at a basin level to alleviate poverty and disease, to ensure protection of populations in natural disasters, to allow cities to thrive, to grow food sustainably, to provide quality of life and natural beauty in the landscape

If we are to set priorities, I believe the following kinds of land uses and land-based problems must be reviewed democratically and openly with a mind to what balance be achieved between needs for growth and needs for sustainability:

Extractive activities, including drilling and mining and underground injection of waste. One of the greatest losses we could possibly sustain at this time is the loss of the world’s natural storage of freshwater. Here we face a choice—do we want everything we can get OUT of the earth, or do we want to be able to put precious water into the earth? We see the dilemma here in California with hydro-fracking, we see it in oil drilling in the Amazon or Canada’s Tar Sands, in gold and other metal mines in South Africa, Bolivia, Ghana, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and a host of other countries. If we are to provide enough for all, the use and/or conservation not only of land, but of subsoil must include local review, local monitoring, local regulation, and even local veto.

Large dam-building, especially in the Himalayan watersheds. Much as we saw in the 1950s and 60s, the 2000s has become an era where rising powers are racing to the rivers. Rapid-fire dam building has enormous consequences for the world’s remaining wild rivers, which are not only a critical source of water for people, they also provide much of the available protein in fish to the world’s poor. It must be decided whether ideas about impact assessment with public participation can be brought to bear in the design and financing of massive river structures? If not, who pays for damage? I call for renewed commitment to the groundbreaking work of the world commission on Dams, which in 2000 established guidelines for project design, local review, and the elimination of projects likely cause great harm.

Sea-level rise and saline intrusion in aquifers, marshes, river deltas.  Climate change is having enormous and observable impacts on patterns of precipitation. But an even greater impact on freshwater supplies may come from ocean pressure on freshwater basins. Much as with extractive activities, we must consider what the loss of natural storage means for our ability to supply populations with water.

Management of discharges into waterways, and enhancement of treatment and recycling facilities.  As I said earlier, though this seems like a huge investment, given the opposition of many industries to pollution control and the resistance of many governments to dealing with the non-sexy issue of waste—this is perhaps the most cost-effective way of extending lives, avoiding illness, protecting the most vulnerable, and extending the number of uses that water can serve.

Time is short. I hope these slivers of ideas may serve to open a wide-ranging conversation today what’s at stake in water around the world.

© Heather Williams, 2014