Samuel Coleridge Taylor may yet be right. World Water Day takes place March 22 and this year its theme is “Water and Urbanization”. International attention will be focused on the impact of rapid urban population growth, industrialization, and the uncertainties caused by climate change. Meanwhile, for the global water companies it’s “business as usual”.
Water is essential to human life. Water is vital to the functioning of every single cell and organ in the human body, which cannot survive longer than seven days without it. As Bill Bryson points out in his wonderful compendium A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003): “Every scenario you have ever read concerning the conditions necessary for life involves water – from the ‘warm little pond’ where Darwin supposed life began to the bubbling sea vents that are now the most popular candidates for life’s beginnings.”
Water regulates body temperature (through perspiration), serves as a lubricant to form the fluids surrounding joints and bones and to provide cushioning. Water helps the body to absorb nutrients in the intestines, plays a role in regulating metabolism, and constitutes saliva (necessary for consuming and digesting food). Water carries oxygen to all the body’s cells and facilitates all the chemical processes that occur in the body. Water is essential for the efficient elimination of waste products through the kidneys.
Access to drinking water underlies the existence and survival of all civilizations and communities worldwide. The very earliest began in river valleys: Mesopotamia around the Tigris and Euphrates, Egypt on the Nile, the dynasties of Xia and Shang along the Yellow River. The Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BC) was one of the first to build towns and open up trade routes. Without functional water management techniques, this would have been impossible. No wonder that throughout the ages, monarchs and despots tamed rivers, dammed lakes, and exercised control over water resources.
What’s bizarre is how long it took for the international community to begin to think about a regime of water rights to safeguard this precious commodity. It was only in 2002 that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) felt able to state that, “the right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival.”
In 2003 the World Health Organization proposed taking a rights-based approach to water. It produced The Right to Water, asserting that water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity or service provided on a charitable basis. This means achieving basic and improved levels of access to water as a priority; decreasing inequalities by better targetting the “least served”; empowering communities and vulnerable groups to take part in decision-making processes; and monitoring progress and infringements in realizing the right to water using mechanisms available in the UN human rights system.
The irony is that, despite such general recognition for the right to water, it is only in societies with sustainable democracies and economies that there is much prospect of effective mobilization against the kind neoliberal globalization that restricts access to water. In her No-Nonsense guide to Water (2004), Maggie Black points out that:
“The arbiters of land use, industry, agriculture, energy, transport and tourism, pursue their water demand and water conservation policies with the blessing of the world’s international financial and trading institutions… they are not over-committed to environmental integrity or to sustaining the livelihoods of around 1 billion rural people at the edge.”
The San Rafael waterfall in Ecuador is in the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, a beautiful site protected by the United Nations for its unique flora and fauna, a result of the wet climate that originates from the meeting of the Andean and Amazon regions. Yet, this natural wonder and its delicate ecosystem will be destroyed by the development of the country’s largest hydroelectric power plant, which is being built on the river that feeds the San Rafael Falls.
The state-owned company managing the project claims that hydrological studies have established the optimal ecological flow needed for the waterfall to maintain the same intensity, and the project is designed to ensure that this flow is met. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Matt Terry, director of the NGO Ecuadorian Rivers Institute, thinks the studies are out of date. “We’re very concerned that when they build the project for this very large capacity, they’ll take every drop of water in the river and leave this waterfall dry.” As evidence, he points to the Agoyan Falls, Ecuador’s second largest, which have been drastically affected by a similar hydroelectric project.
According to the South Centre, the intergovernmental organization of developing countries, one third of the world’s people today face water scarcity and by 2025 two-thirds of the population may suffer water stress. This crisis should be at the top of the global agenda.