The world is running out of accessible clean water. Modern humans are polluting, mismanaging and displacing our finite freshwater sources at an alarming rate. Since 1990, half the rivers in China have disappeared. The Ogallala Aquifer that supplies the breadbasket for the United States will be gone “in our lifetime,” says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
By 2030, our global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 per cent, a sure-fire recipe for great suffering. Five hundred scientists recently told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that our collective abuse of water has caused the planet to enter “a new geologic age” and that the majority of planet’s population lives within 50 kilometres of an impaired water source.
Yet in election, after election the world over, no mention is made of the elephant in the room. In my new book, Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, I call for a new water ethic that places water and its protection at the centre of all policy and practice if the planet and we are to survive.
What would agriculture policy look like if we understood that the global food system is depleting local watersheds through the export of “virtual water” embedded in commodities and other products? How would trade policy be different if we understood that current trade agreements give transnational corporations the right to claim ownership of the water they use in other countries? Would our energy policies change if we realized that water-guzzling biofuels may be more environmentally dangerous than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace?
This new water ethic should honour four principles.
The first is that water is a human right and must be more equitably shared. The United Nations has recognized that drinking water and sanitation are fundamental rights and that governments have obligations not only to supply these services to their people but also to prevent harm to source water. This provides an important tool to local communities in mining, dams and energy-extraction struggles around the world.
The second is that water is a common heritage of humanity and of future generations and must be protected as a public trust in law and practice. Water must never be bought, hoarded, sold or traded as a commodity on the open market and governments must maintain the water commons for the public good, not private gain. While the private sector has a role in helping find solutions to our water crisis, it must never be allowed to determine access to this basic public service as its need to find a profit will of necessity come before the public good.
The third is that water has rights too, outside its usefulness to humans. Water belongs to the earth and other species. Our belief in “unlimited growth” and our treatment of water as tool for industrial development have put the earth’s watersheds in jeopardy. Water is not a resource for our convenience, pleasure and profit, but rather the essential element in a living ecosystem. We need to adapt our laws and practices to ensure the protection of water and the restoration of watersheds, a crucial antidote to global warming.
Finally, I deeply believe that water can teach us how to live together if only we will let it. There is enormous potential for water conflict in a world of rising demand and diminishing supply. But just as water can be a source of disputes, conflict and violence, water can bring people, communities and nations together in the shared search for solutions. Water survival will necessitate more collaborative and sustainable ways of growing food, producing energy and trading across borders, and will require robust democratic governance. It is my deepest hope that water can become nature’s gift to humanity and teach us how to live more lightly on the earth and in peace and respect with one another.
Barlow’s new book, Blue Future, debuts this week.