More Precious Than Gold

The Earth may be a blue planet when seen from space, but only 2.5 percent of its water is fresh. That water is wasted, polluted and poisoned and its distribution is appallingly unfair. The world’s population has almost tripled since 1950, but water consumption has increased six-fold. To make matters worse, mankind is changing the Earth’s climate with greenhouse gas emissions, which only exacerbates the injustices.

When we talk about water becoming scarce, we are first and foremost referring to people who are suffering from thirst. Close to a billion people are forced to drink contaminated water, while another 2.3 billion suffer from a shortage of water. How will we manage to feed more and more people with less and less water?

But people in developing countries are no longer the only ones affected by the problem. Droughts facilitate the massive wildfires in California, and they adversely affect farms in Spain. Water has become the business of global corporations and it is being wasted on a gigantic scale to turn a profit and operate farms in areas where they don’t belong.

“Water is the primary principle of all things,” the philosopher Thales of Miletus wrote in the 6th century BC. More than two-and-a-half thousand years later, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations felt it was necessary to define access to water as a human right. It was an act of desperation. The UN has not fallen so clearly short of any of its other millennium goals than the goal of cutting the number of people without this access in half by 2015.

The question is whether water is public property and a human right. Or is it ultimately a commodity, a consumer good and a financial investment?

Our use of water takes many forms. The average Amercian uses 350 gallons of water per day. The embeded infographic tells a powerful story on how and where we use water in America. Our behaviors and consumption of the fresh water resources we assume to be infinite are coming into sharper focus with the recent droughts in the west and in California in particular. It is a region where America, the global superpower, looks more like a developing nation, with its broken streets, run-down houses and residents without running water. Indeed, the water crisis is becoming a humanitarian one — because the absurd agricultural policy of many arid regions in California is being carried to extremes. More recklessly than elsewhere, wetlands in the state are being dried out to make irrigated agriculture possible. Part of the American dream, at least in California, is to subjugate nature, including both the desert and the water cycle. Water is transported from north to south through a 1,500-kilometer aqueduct. This has allowed Los Angeles to grow into a megacity in the south and the Central Valley to become a key center of the agricultural industry.

The dire consequences of this policy are now becoming clear. Temperatures in the southwestern United States are rising faster than the global average, because the region lacks the balancing effect of healthy water systems. And as temperatures rise, evaporation increases, exacerbating drought conditions even further.

Agriculture makes up 2 percent of California’s GDP, and yet it consumes 80 percent of the state’s water. Yet when Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in April and ordered Californians to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent, he was not referring to farmers. They are still allowed to extract as much water from the earth as they can.

Spain in Europe, Brazil, Bolivia in South America, countries in sub-Saharan Africa are all suffering from poor water policies and scarcity. Scarcity due to inefficient use of those resources or due to government corruption and lack of investment in infrastructure. Over-consumed and under-conserved by an ever-growing global populace, freshwater is the “next oil,” the single biggest issue facing our world in the 21st century, say experts.

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