A Flood of Trouble for a Thirsty World

Analysis by David Agrell, Newsdesk.org

Unsafe water from New York to New Delhi, toxic rivers in China, drought in England and privatization riots in South Africa … water woes are playing out on every continent, where population growth, climate changes and pollution have turned “blue gold” into a commodity and a source of conflict.

Dwindling water and droughts
According to the latest United Nations World Water Development Report, one-fifth of the world population lacks clean drinking water, and pollution, mismanagement and climate change will only worsen the situation.

Attendees of the tenth Stockholm Water Symposium said that figure could swell to two-thirds by 2025 (PDF).

Land affected by drought has doubled over the last 30 years, says the National Center for Atmospheric Research, adding that climate changes are responsible for “widespread drying” in Europe, Asia, Canada, Africa, eastern Australia and North America:

— East Africa is experiencing its worst drought in years, killing livestock and threatening starvation, the humanitarian aid group Project Concern International reported.

— Despite England’s rainy reputation, Thames Water of London says 7 million customers may have to ration this summer. Why? Growing consumption, leaky pipes damaged during World War II and drought caused by lower than average rainfall.

— In China, the government is trying to alleviate drought and induce “artificial rainfall” by detonating silver-iodide sticks in clouds over Beijing, according to state-controlled Xinhua news.

— The expansion of agriculture into arid parts of Australia has put pressure on water supplies, forcing the city of Bendigo to purchase water from irrigators for urban use, reported the Australian.

Dirty water
In India, seismologist Janardan G. Negi told the Indo-Asian News Service that water levels in some places have dropped by up to 12 meters, and that 27,000 wells have already dried up.

To make matters worse, he said, “only 2.8 percent of the total available water is fresh.”

Meager freshwater supplies is a global problem due to pollution by human waste, industry and agriculture.

According to the World Health Organization, unsafe water is causing a “silent humanitarian crisis” that takes the lives of 3,900 children daily, contributing to a worldwide total of two million deaths a year from diarrhea.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe resettled poor rural families on farms previously occupied by white farmers — without providing proper sanitation.

Now, human waste is seeping into reservoirs, causing a major health crisis.

“The poor continue to be the worst affected, with 50 percent of the population in developing countries exposed to polluted water sources,” says UNESCO, adding that the world’s most polluted rivers are in Asia, and contain three times the global average of human waste bacteria.

In China the problem is compounded by industrial waste: State-controlled media there reported recently that “illegally discharged” pollutants in the Sanchajiang River affected the drinking water of 40,000 villagers.

Attempts to draw safe water from deep underground has left 35 million people in Bangladesh and India poisoned by naturally occurring arsenic, which causes skin lesions and can lead to cancer.

Back in the United States, some 13 million people — mostly in the west — are exposed to low levels of arsenic in their drinking water, according to the Environment Protection Agency.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the Seattle School District had to distribute bottled water to all students after arsenic was found in drinking fountains in at least five elementary schools.

Elsewhere in the United States, Maryland is grappling with contamination from chloroform, bacteria and agricultural chemicals as well as leakage from a gas pipeline; New York City, meanwhile, was fined by the EPA for failing to meet standards for its Catskill/Delaware drinking water supply.

Often, measures taken to provide clean tap water pose their own risks.

Since 1908, the United States has chlorinated tap water to remove microorganisms that cause cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other diseases.

But chlorine can react with naturally occurring organic compounds in water, creating cancer-causing “disinfection byproducts,” or DBPs.

Back in 1992, researchers at Harvard University and the Medical College of Wisconsin released a controversial report finding that chlorinated water was responsible for 6,500 cases of rectal cancer and 4,200 cases of bladder cancer in the United States each year.

While they stressed that the cancer risk is greatly outweighed by the dangers of unclean water, the researchers called for an exploration of “alternative disinfectants.”

Water as “blue gold
Although water is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the World Trade Organization and North American Free Trade Agreement consider it a tradable product — one with increasing value as safe supplies diminish.

According to Corporate Accountability International, water suppliers bring in $400 billion annually worldwide — more than the pharmaceutical industry.

Bottled-water producers such as Pepsi, Cadbury, Nestle, Danone and Coca-Cola are accessing huge markets in China, Mexico and India, as their $100 billion industry grows rapidly.

But regulation is lacking: A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that “about one-third of the waters tested contained levels of contamination — including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic.”

Multinationals such as Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux believe that water privatization is “the best way to deliver it safely to a thirsty world,” writes Maude Barlow of the left-oriented advocacy group Council of Canadians.

Her fear — that Suez, Veolia Environnement, Bechtel and other corporations are simply in the water business for profit — is borne out by one former Suez director’s insistence that “[s]ooner or later the company that invests recoups its investment, which means the customer has to pay for it.”

But customers are often unable or unwilling to pay.

In Namibia, a hospital had its water shut off for nonpayment. Nurses said that patients had to “endure an unbearable stench from toilets that have not been flushed in three days and bloodstained linen that cannot be washed,” reported the Namibian.

In 2000, Bechtel, the largest construction company in the world, signed a deal with Bolivia to privatize water in the city of Cochabamba.

After prices went up an average of 50 percent, locals unable to pay rioted.

The government pulled out of the contract, enabling Bechtel to sue for $50 million. The case was recently settled.

Some nations, such as Malaysia, reject foreign privatization of water.

The water industry there “is a basic utility and should not be opened for international market forces to determine,” water minister Lim Keng Yaik told China’s Xinhua News.

The United States, Philippines, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa are just some of the countries that supply water on a “prepaid” basis — akin to prepaid phone cards.

The United Kingdom banned prepaid systems in 1998 because of public health risks.

The mayor of Cape Town, South Africa, also banned the use of prepaid water meters, saying they prohibit poorer families from obtaining safe water.

Although privatization there is seen as a means of improving water quality and infrastructure, the Third World Network reported that families that can’t pay have their supplies shut off.

Riots and cholera outbreaks usually follow shutoffs, as locals are forced to rely on polluted rivers for domestic water needs.

“Access to water is a critical right for our people, and no measures which will have a negative social impact on our communities will be implemented by this Administration,” Mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo said, according to South Africa’s Creamer Media Online.

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Bibliography & Internet Resources
World Health Organization topics: water, drinking water

UNESCO search: water

Stockholm International Water Institute

Suez Environment – Water, Sanitation, Waste services

Veolia Environnement


“Water, a shared responsibility”
The 2nd UN World Water Development Report, June, 2006

“Water Management in Developing Countries” (PDF)
Stockholm International Water Institute

“Drought’s Growing Reach: NCAR Study Points to Global Warming as Key Factor”
The National Center for Atmospheric Research, Jan 10, 2005

“East Africa drought: Need for aid urgent beyond ‘hot-spots'”
Project Concern International, May 5, 2006

“Seven million Londoners could face water curbs”
Telegraph (U.K.), May 2, 2006

“Artificial rainfall to alleviate drought, dust weather in Beijing”
Xinhua (China), May 5, 2006

“City to solve water crisis with irrigation buy”
The Australian, May 1, 2006

“Declining water tables a warning to Indians”
Indo-Asian News Service, May 1, 2006

“Celebrating water for life: The International Decade for Action 2005-2015”
World Health Organization, March 22, 2005

“Rural Zimbabweans Hit by Health Crisis”
Institute for War and Peace Reporting, April 21, 2006

“Political inertia exacerbates water crisis, says World Water Development Report”
UNESCO, May 3, 2006

“Water pollution affects 40,000 people in Guangdong”
Xinhua (China), April 28, 2006

“Arsenic in drinking water”
World Health Organization, May 2001

“Arsenic deaths spreading in India”
peopleandplanet.net, Nov. 23, 2004

“Arsenic taints water at 5 schools”
seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 2006

“Study Finds Polluted Water in Washington County”
WHAG-TV, April 19, 2006

“Md. sues Exxon over gas leak”
Baltimore Sun, April 28, 2006

“EPA Fines New York City for Drinking Water Violations”
Environmental Protection Agency, May 1, 2006

“Historic Milestones in Drinking Water History”
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

“Tiny Cancer Risk in Chlorinated Water”
New York Times, July 1, 1992

“Byproduct of water-disinfection process found to be highly toxic”
University of Illinois, Sept. 14, 2004

“Has water disinfection caused cardiovascular disease or cancer?”

“Alternate Disinfectants”
Washington State Department of Health

“Water as Commodity – The Wrong Prescription”
Maude Barlow, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2001

“‘Think Outside the Bottle’ Campaign Challenges Pepsi at Annual Shareholders’ Meeting”
Corporate Accountability International, May 3, 2006

“World’s poor tap bottled water”
Associated Press, March 22, 2006

“Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype? “
National Resources Defense Council, March 1999

“Namibia: Keetmans Hospital Without Water Since Friday”
The Namibian, May 2, 2006

“BOLIVIA: Bechtel Drops $50 Million Claim to Settle Bolivian Water Dispute”
Environmental News Service, Jan. 19, 2006

“Bechtel vs. Bolivia: Riley Bechtel’s response”
The Democracy Center, 2004

“Malaysia not to further liberalize water industry: official”
Xinhua (China), May 2, 2006

“Is This What Efficiency Looks Like? Prepaid Water Meters”
Public Citizen

“User fees blamed for cholera outbreak in South Africa”
Third World Network, Oct. 26, 2000

“Cape Town opts against prepaid water”
Creamer Media’s Engineering News (South Africa), Jan. 9, 2005


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