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Water: You Only Think About It If You Can’t Get Any

Posted on 10 October 2013 by Jerry

There is a discovery of five new water sources, aquifers, in the largely desert area of Kenya.  Estimates are these aquifers represent 17% of Kenya’s known water reserves or some 250 billion cubic meters of water.  Based on a breakthrough in satellite sensing technology this then must take care of Kenya and sets the stage for the rest of Africa.  Right? Not so fast.

The search, use, and ownership of the world’s drinkable water is controversial and an ever growing picture of profit in scarcity.  Water disputes abound and as businesses seek to portray that there is really no problem they can’t handle for a price, the problems continue to grow.

The issue with water in Kenya is not really its scarcity but rather the absence of access to it or its distribution.  The water that was discovered is buried deep underground, more than 100 meters down.  A water borehole for a community hand pump costs roughly $1,300 apiece.  Unfortunately it can only accommodate sources of water at less than 50 meters of depth in order to maintain an adequate flow rate.  The new sources of water are between 100 to 250 meters in depth which require a pump whose cost starts at $130,000 and goes up from there.

Unfortunately Kenya is identified as a “very poor country”, with a per capita annual income of around $1700, or between $1001 and $2000, as characterized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This income level puts the average cost of a water pump beyond what is affordable for most towns and villages in Kenya.  Funds to make up the difference would have to come from international charities or loans to the government from the IMF or from businesses in exchange for ownership of the water sources.

The fact that affordable water is out of reach for poor areas does not stop business interests such as agriculture and government officials, corrupt and well meaning, from fighting with their neighbors for a bigger share of available water.  The following are three descriptions of the ongoing disputes between upstream and downstream nations over who gets how much water.  They are representative of many disputes that include those between India and Bangladesh, China and India, and Jordan and Israel.

  • Ethiopia and Sudan are upstream from Egypt.  All three are angling for a greater share of the water of the Nile and its contributing tributaries, the Blue Nile and White Nile.  Ethiopia is building the Grand Renaissance Dam that will become the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa generating more than 6,000 megawatts of power.  Egypt is afraid the mile long damn and the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir it creates will siphon off water necessary for Egypt.  Egypt, that receives almost no rainfall, depends on the Nile for 97% of its annual renewable water supply.
  • Pakistan is fighting its upstream neighbor to maintain its share of the Indus River system that carries Himalayan water from the mountain glacier valleys through India to Pakistan.  India, which has 40% of its people off any power grid, has been planning the construction of the Kishenganga Dam along with several others to produce hydroelectric power for India.  Even though there is a long standing treaty signed in 1960 that guarantees 80% of the Indus River system water for Pakistan, it fears its historic upstream rival will have concentrated its ability to shut off all water to Pakistan and its large agricultural region.
  • The Euphrates and Tigris rivers flow from the mountains of Turkey through Syria, Iraq and into the Persian Gulf.  Turkey has used the water from these and other rivers to build a large water and power infrastructure.  With running water to 85% of the Turkish homes it compares well to the 75% average among Middle Eastern countries.  It only uses 41% of its annual water flow and has constructed over 670 large dams and 650 small ones distributed among its 25 hydrological basins.   It has historically been very proprietary about its water resources.  This has caused unending friction with its separatist Kurdish region and with Syria and Iraq.  Both neighboring countries have long complained that Turkey is not adequately sharing its water resources.  These frictions continue today.

Last but not least, water is fueling growth for a burgeoning water industry.  While there are hundreds if not thousands, of small companies competing for a piece of the water pie, the market is dominated by international conglomerates.  Many people participate in making drinkable water available around the world but some of them are voicing fears of what the future may hold.

Maude Barlow, chairperson, of the Council of Canadians and a former senior advisor to the U.N. General Assembly has long been an advocate of citizen rights to water around the globe.  She recently warned that international business is calling for increased privatization of water with businesses taking over ownership and provision of water.

She quotes Nestles as saying that 1.5% of the world’s water should be set-aside for the poor and rest should be put on the open market.  A recent report published in IPS News quotes Ms. Barlow as stating that if Nestle and other businesses prevail “There will one day be a water cartel similar to big oil, making life and death decisions about who gets water and under what circumstances every day.”

The international conglomerates she is concerned about include Nestle, Coca Cola, Suez, and the Veolia Corporation.  Each of these is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that are actively lobbying around the world and leading the charge on privatization.  They offer cities, counties, and countries financing, infrastructure and other assistance with their water needs for a price.

There are some notable examples of how some of these companies have done business over the years.  Many politicians around the world were bribed to insure positive contract awards, regulatory rulings or active support for privatization.

It has often been said that water will someday be more valuable than oil.  Rising temperatures, shrinking glaciers, and rising seas are rapidly diminishing the supply of pure drinking water.  At the same time the world’s population is growing especially in developing countries, many of which have never had an abundance of water.

The long-term problem is one of appropriate management of the world’s water resources to insure it is distributed fairly to the world’s citizens.  This can only happen as long as water is a public good, available to everyone on a non discriminate basis.  This means there must be increasing aide from the developed world to make water more plentiful and available.

Privatization is not the answer.  Putting water resources in the hands of businesses that are driven by the profit motive only insures continued waste by wealthy nations and greater poverty and thirst in the developing world.

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