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Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Real Watergate


The frequent grim calls to ‘Save Water’ are not coming from the prophets of doom; they may be Voices from the Waters... indira parthasarathy joins chorus for protection of this very limited resource…
Issue Dated: September 12, 2010
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The Real Watergate Is the quest for the ‘elixir of life’ still on? I daresay one needn’t look beyond the glass of water perched at the far end of your table. What the chemists call H2O in what is a case for oversimplification, is that which is believed to be one of the cardinal five constituent elements of the universe, and that which is the most critical lookout in the hunt for extra terrestrial settlement. Celebrating water then, as did the Voices from the Waters (VFTW) Festival in Bangalore between the 27th and 30th of August, is a fine way to remind us how precious this unique gift of nature is, and how exigent is the need to protect it.

In what has been a long time coming, the United Nations recently declared clean water a fundamental human right, but the move is only a step towards acknowledging the problem, and not quite a solution in itself. According to the UN World Water Development Report, 2009, an estimated 90 per cent of the three billion people who are expected to be added to the population by 2050, will be in developing countries, many in regions already in water stress where the current population does not have sustainable access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. Increasing urban migration and resultant industrial and municipal contamination only compounds the crisis. Says Ganesh Pangare, IUCN’s Water Coordinator for Asia, “Strategies for investment to reduce the vulnerability of cities will need to include maintenance and restoration of watersheds, wetlands, rivers and coasts.” Outside the environment conference halls however, investments can only be found in places like Alberta, the centre of Canada’s oil sands industry. “H2Oil”, screened at the fifth edition of VFTW, the largest international film festival on water, highlighted how River Athabasca in Canada, which is the biggest energy satellite of the US, was being sucked dry considering extraction of one barrel of oil from the tar sands used up to four barrels of fresh water. With the government firmly behind the industry, incriminating evidence of explosion of cancer cases in the community owing to carcinogenic effluent discharge leaking into the river amounts to nothing. The Real Watergate On the subject of bureaucratic complicity, director of “Goa Goa Gone”, Kurush Canteenwala stated that nearly 38 of the 40 legislators of Goa hold mining leases directly or indirectly. Mining across the small state threatens to cut off rivers flowing from the western ghats towards the sea, as also induce saline water intrusion in the hinterlands. As The Stockholm International Water Institute puts it, the world’s water crisis is not related to the physical availability of water, but to unbalanced power relations, poverty and related inequalities.

Inequality is the mildest word that comes to mind when one talks of ‘private water rights’. The subject of “Life on Sale”, Chile’s model of a water market where private individuals own quantities of water as big as a small European country could have been stuff for satire, if it wasn’t for real. Needless to say, the poor local communities in a land that is home to the driest desert on earth – Atacama – are condemned to thirst and more poverty. Hopefully, with water reforms underway to reclaim it as a public resource in the country, and with the UN Declaration in place, the model won’t find any more takers.

With global warming turning on the heat in the polar ice caps which are the storehouse of 70% of our fresh water supplies, and with states choosing to look the other way as indiscriminate Environment Clearances render our lands barren and dry, there might soon be a time when we see no meaning to Bruce Lee’s iconic words “Be water, my friend..” The Real Watergate Water, water…

Anil Naidoo, coordinator, blue planet project, and a key figure in mobilising support for the un resolution for fundamental right to water, talks about proactive measures to address the impending water crisis…

97% of the planet is water. Is science and technology doing enough to make more and more of it usable as fresh water?

It is a fantasy to think that we can actually use science to create more fresh water in anything but emergency and critical situations. Desalinisation technologies, for instance, require massive energy at a time when we are dealing with a global energy crisis as well as leaving a legacy of toxic effluent. This is only a stopgap in the wealthiest countries and is not a sustainable solution for the global water crisis.

The mining industry uses up tremendous amounts of fresh water in many parts of the world. What, short of closing all mines and revoking all leases, is the solution to preserve our fresh water sources?

Simply, we must demand a water conservation and protection plan before the licensing of new mining operations, and alongside this a plan for watershed restoration. It is impossible and not productive to demand closing of all mines, but there will certainly be areas where mining should not be allowed as the damage to the ecosystem and the people and life which depend upon those ecosystems.

If these companies are allowed to exploit the water without consequence and leave it heavily polluted, then they will not invest in a different way of managing their need for water and their ecological footprint. There needs to be global governance structures to ensure a strict level of accountability and compliance.

The pro-water rights lobby defends privatisation as the only way to highlight its scarcity, and price signals being indicative of its valuable status. Some cite increased hydropower development in Chile following privatisation as an example. How do we refute this?

The so-called economically productive uses of water will certainly be increased through price signals. By charging for water, users will be chosen based on their ability to pay and their ability to out compete rival users. To acquiesce to a society where human life and ecological integrity is allowed to be traded away with water rights, or where the thirsty are left to struggle as water goes to less critical uses is abhorrent to most people.

Water is a human right and these rights must be progressively realised which requires us to be vigilant against mechanisms, such as markets and pricing for profit, which exclude people and violate their human rights.

Distribution of water is often a political conundrum too, as in the case of River Cauvery in India. How do we ensure equitable distribution of water?

By engaging the people who depend on the water to live and by factoring in the needs of the natural environment… More than a political process, we would benefit from a democratic process which fosters community participation in decision-making. Water discourse is often about power and acknowledging and redressing power imbalances in all communities must be at the core of water distribution mechanisms.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017