Friday, October 15, 2010

Water Rights

It's gone, but we had a right to it.

As Thomas Fuller said, we don't know the worth of water until the well runs dry.

Or until someone locks the pipe and installs a pre-paid meter.

This is not intended as a gloomy, doomy message for your Friday, but hello there, humans, we have a very serious problem on our desk. Consider this a memo to anyone who will stand up, be uncomfortable, and act. Individual pains-in-the-ass like your humble correspondent are all too easily ignored. We need to make a very large collective pain in the system's ass, or else accept some very serious consequences during our lifetimes.

But first, we've got to think through this concept of "rights."

In July of this year, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to water and sanitation as a human right. Yet they do this at a time the world is seeing horrors such as the pre-paid water meters in Africa, and as the World Bank pushes developing countries, the vulnerable countries it is "helping," to privatize more of the basic needs for human life. Similar efforts have been advanced in the United States, with disasterous results for people.

The wars of the future will be over water.

The human population is growing at a drastic rate (tripling during the twentieth century) while, simultaneously, the effects of climate change and deforestation have strained the water supply. The glaciers that feed the rivers of India, China, and southeast Asia, are rapidly melting, which will lead to a surge of water levels followed by drought. (They will be gone before I retire, assuming I ever retire. My son will be an adult in the summer of his life.) The snowpack melt on which New Mexico depends for its annual water supply has been distorted by reactions to global warming.

Among our United States, there are screaming fights behind closed doors over access to the Colorado River and other shared sources. Much of our water is polluted: we have a significant rate of deaths of water-borne diseases.

In the middle east, water shortages are becoming a serious problem. The capital of Yemen is predicted to run out of water by 2017. (I will be 46. My son will 9.) Some of these states are land-locked. Access to water ways for shipping and imports, and water rights for farming, to say nothing of drinking and sanitation, are already causing tensions. As population grows and conditions worsen, what do we expect to happen in the middle east? Remember that some of these states have nuclear weapons or are working on them.

And in the ruthless logic of "free enterprise," all of this makes water the new oil. Even better than oil, because no human being can survive without water. There can be no agriculture (and thus no food) without water. There can be no medicine or health care without water.

For the same reasons the U.N. declares water a "human right," capitalism sees water as a golden opportunity to squeeze profits from captive customers. This is why AIG -- yes, the AIG we bailed out -- has spent a fortune buying local water utilities across the United States.

So let's talk about "rights."

It is not enough to declare water a human right. The corporations seizing their opportunity to profit from water also see it as a right, because that is their point of view: they have a right to use their capital to buy up important resources and sell them to the rest of us. Most of us who grow up in the developed world are conditioned to accept this relationship.

Wars are fought in order to establish rights, even as it destroys the human civilization and the resource both together. It's gone, but we had a right to it.

The corporatization and militarization of water is not likely what the General Assembly had in mind when it spoke of rights.

So what are the implications of this?

Comments are welcome. May take me a while to post them, but check back tonight.

[Photo: the Lake Powell "bathtub ring"]

1 comment:

Sabio/Jōsen said...

We had friends that moved out that way and invited us. We are glad we did not go. Water is plentiful here for now. Just as violence, jobs and education determine where many people move, soon water will be on that list -- it was for us even 8 years ago.

The problem is, as you allude, what about those who can not move.