It's a Brave New World for Water

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

For the last half of the last century, my family was driven to articulate a simple theme: humanity takes water for granted. In the new millennium, nothing has changed about the message or the messenger. We still believe that humanity, though better informed, continues to squander its most precious resource. What has changed is that there are dramatically more humans and significantly less water. So the situation is more dire than ever.

Last year, a coalition of more than 60 nonprofit organizations called The Turning Point Project drew attention to the threats to the global water system in a series of reports, as well as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. The highlights alone should give cause for grave concern: More than five million people die every year from contaminated drinking water; in the next 25 years more than two-thirds of humanity will lack access to clean water; in Africa well drilling has outstripped the aquifers' ability to replenish ground water; land subsidence due to overpumping plagues Beijing, Bangkok, Mexico City and other mega-cities.

But is water truly scarce, or merely misused? I believe that population growth is exceeding Earth's capacity to sustain life. There is simply less of everything to go around, including water. However, I also believe that water is being horribly misused. As The Turning Point Project notes, consumption of fresh water is doubling at twice the rate of population growth. Swimming pools and golf courses in the desert are only the more obvious signs of misguided priorities. Ninety percent of all fresh water is consumed by agriculture and industry, where it is often wasted. Pollution still makes vast amounts of water unfit for human consumption. In the U.S., some 40 percent of all rivers and streams are too polluted to even swim in.

Obviously, we need to be better stewards of this resource. Unfortunately, some very influential business and political leaders seem to see water not as a global commons, but as a commodity to be enjoyed by those with the thickest wallet. More insidious than national squabbles over water rights, the privatization of water would be a lethal blow for the world's poor. Wealthy individuals, cities and industry would drink while those unable to pay for water would simply die of thirst. Sound far fetched? Already children in the drought-ridden "free trade zones" of Mexico must turn to soft drinks (sugary libations that dehydrate) because all water is diverted for industrial use.

This is not the end of it. The International Forum on Globalization, a nonprofit environmental group, recently issued "Blue Gold," a report by Maude Barlow, a former advisor to Canadian Premier Pierre Elliott Trudeau. "Blue Gold" tells of the growing movement to privatize water. Several companies are gearing up for trade in vast quantities of water, either by supertanker, pipeline or in immense ocean-going bladders. One Canadian company, the U.S. Global Water Corporation, has already signed an agreement with the town of Sitka, Alaska, to export 18 billion gallons of glacier water to China for bottling.

Transactions such as the Sitka deal benefit from new global trade laws that make it more difficult for traditional water users to treat the resource as a common patrimony. Around the world, corporations are gaining rights of ownership over water and making those rights felt. One investment firm is actually challenging the public's right to control water-in this case represented by the elected government of British Columbia-as a restraint of free trade.

This month, the World Water Council, a consortium of businesses and policy makers, will hold the World Water Forum in The Hague. The purpose of this meeting and others like it is to expand the ability of private interests to control water. Increasingly it is corporate consortia, not elected governments, that are determining the future of the planet's water. And in all the legal language, nowhere will one find a statute recognizing a universal right to drinking water, even in an emergency.
The spectre of a world where resource barons control the very elements of life is not in the offing, it's here and now.

There is nothing wrong with seizing a good business opportunity. But in the case of something as elemental as water-the stuff of which our bodies are made-it's a question of altruism. We should ask not merely "What's in it for me?" but "Will there be enough for all?" While drawing up rules for the future use of water, we must give priority to the people.