Water: The New Oil

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: Michael Melgar / Wikimedia Commons

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” — W. H. Auden, 20th Century poet and essayist

So begins “Flow,” a film shown on DVD at the Warwick Town Hall on Saturday night. Released in 2008, it’s a stunning survey of water shortages, pollution, and corporate exploitation in the developing world – and in the United States. Don’t think we’re immune; we’re not.

Early on, “Flow” predicts that the oil wars we’re fighting now will be followed by wars for water. We’re running out of clean water, the narrator says.

“Our planet is just one huge body with water circulating through it. Water is what gives it life.

In the United States 116 known chemicals go into rivers and streams. It’s not just industrial pollution, either. We put chemicals into the water we – or people downstream – use, in the form of household cleaners we pour down our sinks and prescription drugs we dump into the toilet. In Texas investigators find high levels of Prozac in every fish they test. What we don’t take in with our food, or by drinking or cooking with this chemical-laden water, we get through our skin when we bathe. There’s no escape.

At this point in the movie I realized that every one of the dozen or so neighbors watching it had to be glad they get their water from their own wells. We have no public water system, except for the town hall, a few houses, and a fountain in the village that share a pipe coming down off Mt. Grace.

Later, during the discussion that followed the viewing, I told the audience something they probably hadn’t known: When I was on the selectboard in the late 1980s we discovered that the state Department of Corrections’ low-security prison, ‘way out in the woods, was so hugely overcrowded that untreated sewage was being pumped into a wetland that fed an unknown number of aquifers from which an unknown number of wells were filled.

There’s no escape, not even here in Eden.

It was a short hop from pollution in general to the privatization of the water supply in the developing world. The film told us that in Bolivia, one child in ten dies before age five for lack of clean drinking water. It’s not that Bolivians don’t know any better. They used to have sparkling clean water, but then, the movie tells us, their government borrowed from the World Bank more than they could possibly repay. Then they were ordered to turn their water supply over to a private company, which put in pipes and outdoor faucets and charged the Bolivian peasants for what had been theirs to begin with. If you can’t buy your water from the company, what do you do? You go to the river.

Selling water to the natives is a $400 billion global industry, says “Flow,” the third largest after electricity and oil. Analysts expect the industry to triple in size in the next 20 years.

From selling water as a commodity to indigenous people to selling it to gullible Americans is another short hop. We spend $100 billion a year buying tap water in plastic bottles that will be here when the dinosaurs come back (I said that, the movie didn’t). And the joke on us is that there is less inspection and control over contaminants and germs in bottled water than there is in water that comes out of the tap in any U.S. city.

The U.N. estimates it would take $30 billion to provide clean water worldwide. In 2007 Americans spent more than three times that on bottled water.

Here are some more facts, courtesy of “Flow,” for you to consider:

  • Of the 6 billion people on earth, 1.1 billion do not have access to safe, clean drinking water.
  • While the average American uses 150 gallons of water per day, those in developing countries cannot find five.
  • The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.

In December 2008, at the United Nations on the sixtieth anniversary of the 30-article Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a new Article 31 was proposed:

Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance.

Signatures are still being collected on a petition to get that article adopted. Video and an opportunity to sign the petition are here.

A great list of resources to learn more and take action is here.

Meanwhile, back in the States, it’s no secret that our water delivery infrastructure – the pipes and conduits and such that bring water to homes that don’t have their own wells, and that means most homes – are in a terrible state. I can tell you about some of the piping that brings water to Boston and many suburban towns from the Quabbin Reservoir, near where I live.

Ten years before I was born, in 1926, work began to build the largest man-made reservoir in the world devoted only to water supply. Before the work was done, four Massachusetts towns were bulldozed and the area flooded to supply drinking water for a city 100 miles away. In the 1930s much of the construction work was paid for by federal WPA funds – the equivalent of today’s ARRA anti-recession stimulus money.

My husband’s oldest brother, who would be 94 if he were still here, worked on the crew installing the pipes. They were made of wood. Some of those wooden pipes are still carrying Quabbin water to Boston. Do you think they might be leaking a little bit? How much precious water do you think is being wasted each day? (Not long ago, Boston came looking to draw more water, from the Connecticut River, to slake the city’s thirst. This time, they went away empty.)

Believe me, Massachusetts doesn’t have the money to replace those pipes. We’re in deficit, just as is almost every American state. And two pieces of legislation, one in the House and one in the Senate, that would start gathering money to repair the nation’s water infrastructure, were filed in early 2009. The first, H.R. 3202, the Water Protection and Reinvestment Act of 2009, was sent to committee and there it stays. The second, S. 1005, the Water Infrastructure Financing Act, got through its committee stay within days, and was reported out to the whole Senate for action. And that’s the end of the story.

Both bills raise money from things like taxes on bottled water. They’re not looking to increase the national debt. Any bets they’ll get so much as a debate? I pass.

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2 Responses to “Water: The New Oil”

  1. […] after the human rights declaration amendment was proposed, and a week after you read about it here and may have signed the international petition asking the UN to vote on […]

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