Water: Basis of Life or Commodity for Profit?

by Blue Evening Star

(First of a series of articles addressing water issues—from global to local perspectives)

We are born of water and water sustains us. Every living cell has its own reservoir, all a part of the 320 million cubic miles of water that is locked up in polar ice caps and glaciers, gathered in lakes, flowing through soil and river systems of the earth and eventually into the salty sea. Water is what makes this planet habitable and, in her natural state, a paradise of beauty.

Water is the basis of life on this planet. It has been and continues to be used in spiritual symbolism. Water, like higher thought or "aquarian concepts," is cleansing to the body and soul. The present Aquarian Age we recently entered is to be the age of cooperation. Jesus often referred to Himself as the "water of life" while teaching the ethics of caring for one another as brothers and sisters. How strongly we need a revised and enlightened approach to the environment which is based on concern for the welfare of all we are in relationship with. In order to pass on a living world to the generations to come, it is up to each one of us to upstep our relationship with the living waters of the earth.

This is the first in a series of articles about water—from a global to a local perspective—identifying the essential problems in water management policies, exploring successes of people implementing solutions around the planet, and encouraging everyone to seek a new and ethical approach to water use.

The world is running out of fresh water. Industrial and corporate practices are especially exacting a devastating cost to the environment with no regard for sustainability. The Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest hydro-electric project to date, has caused the forced relocation of 1.3 million people and is flooding one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world with a 400-mile long lake. Arundhati Roy, author of Power Politics and The God of Small Things has been a leader in speaking out against massive dams in India’s Narmada valley—dams that have rarely met promised benefits of irrigation, power, and flood control, offering instead displacement of millions of people, destroyed forests, and decimated fisheries.

About 39,000 gallons of water is
needed to make an automobile,
tires, included.

Transnational corporations (TNCs) are making sure that they will not be held legally, financially, or morally accountable for their actions throughout the world. Economic globalization, backed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank, has a track record of assisting corporate profiteers at the expense of human rights and the environment. Multinational corporations can sue local, state, and national governments in secret trade courts to overturn laws or extract payment for actions that block their access to local markets.

TNCs are inventing diabolically innovative methods of cashing in on water scarcity by acquiring water rights and then treating water as a commodity to be bought and sold with no concern for the needs of people or the environment. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, such was the case in 2000 when the World Bank pressured the government to privatize water services in the country’s third largest city and turn the utility over to Aquas del Tunari, a subsidiary of the U.S. engineering giant Bechtel Corporation. Within a few weeks the water rates were raised up to 300%, far beyond what families there could afford. All water, including water from community wells, required permits to access. Small farmers even had to buy permits to gather rainwater on their property. Tens of thousands took to the street, shutting down the city for four straight days. After a week of escalation, the government placed the country under martial law and announced that it would break its contract with Bechtel. The Bolivian government then handed Cochabamba water services over the to the community itself which set up a new company committed to provide first for those without water and to work directly with local neighborhoods to solve water service problems. (Bechtel is now looking to sue the government of Bolivia for 25 million dollars through the World Bank’s closed court system for damages to their investment and for lost profits. But that’s another story.…)

The Cochabamba scenario of selling off public services to transnational corporations is duplicated all over the world. The privatization, i.e. commodifying for profit, of municipal water services has left a trail of customer rates being doubled or tripled, corporate profits raising as much a 700% and drops in water quality standards.

This type of scenario is indicative of a prevailing code of behavior regarding water management which needs to be changed. People all over the world are calling for the establishment of a water ethic that strives for hydrologic sustainability. There have been a few notable projects around the globe yielding immediate and significant results.

In the 1980s, the proposed Two Forks Dam in Colorado was stopped due to overwhelming public protest. Using conservation techniques (i.e. water meters, cash incentives, and xeriscaping—low water usage landscaping) the city of Denver successfully demonstrated that they could supply 20% more water than the Two Forks Dam for half the cost and for one-twentieth the environmental damage.

In Melbourne, Australia, a ten-year drought that ended in 1983 caused water use to drop 30%. A city-wide conservation strategy has kept water use down, allowing construction of new water works to be postponed and saving $50 million.

Water saving devices, leak detection and repair, and more efficient irrigation in public parks contributed to a 14% drop per capita of water use in Jerusalem, Israel in the 1990s.

1.2 Billion: Number of people worldwide
who do not have access to clean water.
6.8 Billion: Gallons of water Americans
flush down their toilets everyday.

Local water problems are intrinsically connected to state and regional problems. Arizona, one of the fastest growing states, is in its eighth year of drought. The golf-course and artificial lake-and-lawn speckled metropolis of Phoenix gets 75% of its water from the Verde and Salt Rivers, whose waters are owned and managed by the Salt River Project (SRP). In fact, the SRP owns all the ground and surface waters of the entire Verde River watershed. This is not a friendly arrangement for Verde Valley residents. SRP just announced that due to severely reduced water levels in the six reservoirs (currently at 27% capacity) which supply Phoenix, they are cutting water deliveries by one-third. So far, Phoenix residents have only been asked to cooperate in a volunteer program to reduce water use by 5%.

"When the well is dry, we
learn the worth of water."

~Benjamin Franklin,
Poor Richards Almanac, 1733

The SRP has begun a "water adjudication" in the Verde Valley in which they will test all wells to determine if the water belongs to the SRP. All wells that are drawn from ground/surface water will be shut down or those using them will have to pay the SRP to use the water. Technically, the SRP has the legal right to control all water gathered from the rain as well. (Locally, here in Arizona, we may very soon have a lot in common with the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia.)

A Citizens Water Group Conference was hosted by the League of Women on January 18, 2003 in Camp Verde. More than twenty-two Verde Valley Watershed concerned citizens groups and a host of observers attended, including Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis and State Representative Tom O’Halleran (who is the Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in the House and a leader in creating sustainable water practices). The day was spent comparing mutual concerns and brainstorming solutions to local water problems. An alliance was born at this informative and productive conference. It was agreed that a regional water authority and a regional water management plan were needed in order to protect the watershed, the Verde River, and its tributaries. Representative O’Halleran invited the new alliance (unnamed as yet) to come and make a presentation to a legislative hearing on water issues in Phoenix in March 2003. Anita Rochelle of the Verde River Citizen’s Alliance summed up the general tone of the conference in the following statement: "If we are not careful, we are likely to end up in the direction we are going."

From the March/April 2003 Alternative Voice newsmagazine

Clarification: Although the Arizona statutes do protect precipation in the Verde Watershed, the author has not found a documnted case of the Salt River Project stopping residents from gathering rain water like what happened in Cochambamba, Boliva.