from the booklet

Blue Gold

The global water crisis and the commodification of the world's water supply

A Special Report issued by the International Forum on Globalization (IFG)

by Maude Barlow
National Chairperson, Council of Canadians
Chair, International Forum on Globalization (IFG) Committee
on the Globalization of Water


A Finite Resource

It is commonly assumed that the worlds water supply is huge and infinite. This assumption is false. In fact, of all the water on Earth, only 2.5 percent is freshwater, and available freshwater represents less than half of 1 percent of the world's total water stock. The rest is seawater, or inaccessible in ice caps, ground water and soil. This supply is finite.

As Allerd Stikker of the Amsterdam-based Ecological Management Foundation explains "The issue today, put simply, is that while the only renewable source of freshwater is continental rainfall (which generates a more or less constant global supply of 40,000 to 50,000 cubic km per year), the world population keeps increasing by roughly 85 million per year. Therefore the availability of freshwater per head is decreasing rapidly."

Most disturbingly, we are diverting, polluting and depleting that finite source of freshwater at an astonishing rate. Today, says the United Nations, 31 countries are facing water stress and scarcity and over one billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. By the year 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world's population-predicted to have expanded by an additional 2.6 billion people-will be living in conditions of serious water shortage and one-third will be living in conditions of absolute water scarcity.

World Resources, a publication of the United Nations Environment Program, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, has a dire warning "The world's thirst for water is likely to become one of the most pressing resource issues of the 21st century...ln some cases, water withdrawals are so high, relative to supply, that surface water supplies are literally shrinking and groundwater reserves are being depleted faster than they can be replenished by precipitation."

Groundwater over-pumping and aquifer depletion are now serious problems in the world's most intensive agricultural areas. In the U.S., the High Plains Ogallala aquifer, stretching some 800 miles (1,300 km) from the Texas panhandle to South Dakota, is being depleted eight times faster than nature can replenish it. The water table under California's San Joaquin Valley has dropped nearly ten meters in some spots within the last 50 years. Twenty-one percent of irrigation in the U.S. is achieved by pumping ground water at rates that exceed the water's ability to recharge (and most water used for irrigation cannot be recycled).

In the Arabian peninsula, groundwater use is nearly three times greater than recharge and, at the current rate of extraction, Saudi Arabia is running toward total depletion in the next 50 years; Israel's extraction has exceeded replacement by 2.5 billion meters in 25 years and 13 percent of its coastal aquifer is contaminated by seawater and fertilizer run-off; current depletion of Africa's non-recharging aquifers is estimated at 10 billion cubic meters a year; water tables are falling everywhere throughout India; land beneath Bangkok has actually sunk due to massive over-pumping; and northern China now has eight regions of aquifer overdraft while the water table beneath Beijing has dropped 37 meters over the last four decades. In fact, so severe is the projected water crisis in Beijing, experts are now wondering whether the seat of power in China will have to be moved.

In Mexico City, pumping exceeds natural recharge by 50-80 percent every year and experts are saying the city could run out of water entirely in the next decade. In the maquiladora free trade zones all along the Mexican-U.S border, water is a precious commodity, delivered weekly in many communities by truck or cart. In early 2001, the National Water Commission reported that the border area, thick with industrial and human waste and strapped for funds, only treats about one-third of its waste water and sewage. Ciudad Juarez, growing at a rate of 50,000 people a year, is running out of water; the underground aquifer the city relies on has declined at about five feet a year. At this rate, there will be no usable water left in 20 years.

As Stikker explains, this means that instead of living on water income, we are irreversibly diminishing water capital. At some time in the near future, water bankruptcy will result. Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project adds that, in addition to depleting supplies, groundwater mining causes salt water to invade freshwater aquifers, destroying them. In other cases, groundwater mining actually permanently reduces the earth's capacity to store water. In California, for example, overuse of the underground water supplies in the Central Valley has resulted in a loss of over 40 percent of the combined storage capacity of all human-made surface reservoirs in the state. In 1998, California's Department of Water Resources announced that by 2020, if more supplies are not found, the state will face a shortfall of water nearly as great as the amount that all of its towns and cities together are consuming today.

Further, the global expansion in mining and manufacturing is increasing the threat of pollution to these underground water supplies. (In most Asian countries, for example, these aquifers provide more than 50 percent of domestic water supplies.) World Resources reports that as developing countries undergo rapid industrialization, heavy metals, acids and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are contaminating aquifers.

At the same time, over-exploitation of the planet's major river systems is threatening another finite source of water. "The Nile in Egypt, the Ganges in South Asia, the Yellow River in China, and the Colorado River in America are among the major rivers that are so dammed, diverted, or overtapped that little or no freshwater reaches its final destination for significant stretches of time," writes Sandra Postel. In fact, the Colorado is so over-subscribed on its journey through seven U.S. states that there is virtually nothing left to go out to sea. The flows of the Rio Grande and upper Colorado rivers are in danger of being reduced by as much as 75 percent and 40 percent respectively over the next century.

Perhaps the most devastating analysis of the global water crisis comes from hydrological engineer Michal Kraveik and his team of scientists at the Slovakia non-governmental organization (NGO) People and Water. Kraveik, who has a distinguished career with the Slovak Academy of Sciences, has studied the effect of urbanization, industrial agriculture, deforestation, dam construction, and infrastructure and paving on water systems in Slovakia and surrounding countries and has come up with an alarming finding. Destroying water's natural habitat not only creates a supply crisis for people and animals, it also dramatically diminishes the amount of available freshwater on the planet.

Kraveik describes the hydrologic cycle of a drop of water. It must first evaporate from a plant, earth surface, swamp, river, lake or the sea, then fall back down to earth as precipitation. If the drop of water falls back onto a forest, lake, blade of grass, meadow or field, it cooperates with nature to return to the hydrologic cycle. "Right of domicile of a drop is one of the basic rights, a more serious right than human rights," says Kraveik.

However, if the earth's surface is paved over, denuded of forests and meadows, and drained of natural springs and creeks, the drop will not form part of river basins and continental watersheds, where it is needed by people and animals, but head out to sea, where it will be stored. It is like rain falling onto a huge roof, or umbrella; everything underneath stays dry and the water runs off to the perimeter. The consequent reduction in continental water basins results in reduced water evaporation from the earth's surface, and becomes a net loss, while the seas begin to rise. In Slovakia, the scientists found, for every 1 percent of roofing, paving, car parks and highways constructed, water supplies decrease in volume by more than 00 billion meters per year.

Kraveik issues a dire warning about the growing number of what he calls the earth's "hot stains"- places already drained of water. The "drying out" of the earth will cause massive global warming, with the attendant extremes in weather drought, decreased protection from the atmosphere, increased solar radiation, decreased biodiversity, melting of the polar ice caps, submersion of vast territories, massive continental desertification and, eventually, "global collapse."


As well as creating major environmental problems, overtapping of ground water and rivers is exacerbating another potential crisis-world food security

Irrigation for crop production claims 65 percent of all water used by humans, compared to 25 percent for industry and 10 percent for households and municipalities. The annual rise in population means that more water is needed every year for grain production (for humans and animals), a highly water-intensive activity. But, every year the world's burgeoning cities and industries are demanding more and more of the water earmarked for agriculture. California, for example, now projects a serious decline in irrigated lands just as its population is exploding.

Eventually, some dry areas will not be able to serve both the needs of farming and those of the ballooning cities. If these regions are to meet everyday water requirements, they might have to permanently import all or most of their food. This raises the prospect that lack of water will make some countries chronically dependent on others, or on the international community at large.

Throughout rural Latin America and Asia, massive industrialization is throwing off the balance between humans and nature. Export-oriented agribusiness is claiming more and more of the water once used by small farmers for food self-sufficiency. Another major drain on local water supplies are the more than 800 Third World free trade zones, such as those in Latin America, where assembly lines produce goods for the global consumer elite. In the maquiladora zones of Mexico, for example, clean water is so scarce that babies and children drink Coca-Cola and Pepsi instead. During a drought crisis in northern Mexico in t 995, the government cut water supplies to local farmers while ensuring emergency supplies to the mostly foreign controlled industries of the region.

The story is perhaps most stark in China. The Worldwatch Institute warns that an unexpectedly abrupt decline in the supply of water for China's farmers could threaten world food security. China faces severe grain shortages in the near future because of water depletion due to the current shift of limited water resources from agriculture to industry and cities. The resulting demand for grain in China could exceed the world's available exportable supplies. While China might be able to survive this for a time because of its booming economy and huge trade surpluses, the resulting higher grain prices will create social and political upheaval in most major Third World cities and shake global food security.

The western half of China is made up mostly of deserts and mountains; the vast bulk of the country's 1.2 billion citizens live on several great rivers whose systems cannot sustain the demands currently placed upon them. For instance, in t 972, the Yellow River failed to reach the sea for the first time in history. That year it failed on t5 days; every year since, it has run dry for more days. In 1997, it failed to reach the sea for 226 days. The story is the same with all of China's rivers and with its depleting water tables beneath the North China Plain. As big industrial wells probe the ground ever deeper to tap the remaining water, millions of Chinese farmers have found their wells pumped dry. Four hundred of China's 600 northern cities are already facing severe water shortages, which affects over half of China's population.

These shortages come at a time when China will see a population increase in the next 30 years greater than the entire population of the United States, when conservative estimates predict that annual industrial water use in China could grow from 52 billion tons to 269 billion tons in the same period, and when rising incomes are enabling millions of Chinese to install indoor plumbing with showers and flush toilets. The Worldwatch Institute predicts China will be the first country in the world that will have to literally restructure its economy to respond to water scarcity.


Around the world, the answer to the increase in water demand is to build more dams and divert more rivers. Water has long been manipulated. Even the earliest civilizations, from the Roman to the Mayan, built aqueducts and irrigation schemes. But we are now tampering with water systems on a scale that is totally unsustainable.

The number of large dams worldwide has climbed from just over 5,000 in 1950 to 38,000 today and the number of waterways altered for navigation has grown from fewer than 9,000 in 1900 to almost 500,000. In the northern hemisphere, we have harnessed and tamed three-quarters of the flow from the world's major rivers to power our cities. While advances in modern engineering have allowed governments to supply farms and cities with water, these practices have done great damage to the natural world.

In the U.S., only 2 percent of the country's rivers and streams remain free-flowing and undeveloped. The continental U.S. has lost more than half of its wetlands and California has lost 95 percent. Populations of migratory birds and waterfowl have dropped from 60 million in 1950 to just 3 million today. Watersheds that are the most biologically diverse are the most degraded, putting species and wilderness at great risk.

"The U.S. is the epicenter of freshwater biodiversity in the world," says Larry Masters of the Nature Conservancy. However, 37 percent of its freshwater fish are at risk of extinction, 51 percent of crayfish and 40 percent of amphibians are imperiled, and 67 percent of freshwater mussels are extinct or vulnerable to extinction.

One billion pounds of weed and bug killers are used throughout the United States every year, reports National Geographic, most of which runs off into the country's water systems. The Natural Resources Defense Council says that 53 million Americans drink tap water contaminated with lead, fecal bacteria or other harmful pollutants. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are too dangerous for fishing,

In Canada, Jamie Linton has documented a disturbing story of water system abuse for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Wetland loss includes 65 percent of Atlantic coastal marshes, 70 percent of southern Ontario wetlands, 71 percent of prairie wetlands, and 80 percent of the Fraser River Delta in Canada's province of British Columbia. Acid rain has caused a 40 percent decline in fish species in some Canadian lakes. Most major river systems have been dammed, and more stream flows are diverted out of their basins of origin than in any other country in the world by a considerable margin. Over a century of mining, forestry and large-scale industry has affected virtually every water body in Canada, and toxic chemicals are found even in the most remote parts of the Far North. "We have crashing ecosystems in every river basin in the West," says Steve Glazer of the Sierra Club's Colorado River Task Force.

In the Great Lakes of North America, the world's largest freshwater system, the result has been a "catastrophic loss of biological diversity," according to Linton. Janet Abramovitz of the Worldwatch Institute adds that the Great Lakes have lost two-thirds of their once extensive wetlands and that less than 3 percent of the lakes' shorelines are suitable for swimming, drinking or supporting any aquatic life.

The Nature Conservancy has identified 100 species and 31 ecological communities at risk within the Great Lakes system and notes that half don't exist anywhere else. Two hundred years ago, each of the five Great Lakes had its own thriving aquatic community. In 1900,82 percent of the commercial catch was native. By 1966, native species were only two-tenths of 1 percent of the catch; the remaining 99.8 percent were exotic species, most of them devastating to the local species.

The story is the same all over the world. All but one of England's 33 major rivers are suffering; some are now less than a third of their average depth. The Thames is threatening to run dry and already larger ships are having to restrict their movements to high tides. Development has cut off the Rhine River in Europe from 90 percent of its original flood plains, and the native salmon run has nearly disappeared. Over the last 25 years, the Danube's phosphate and nitrate concentrations have increased six-fold and four-fold, respectively, causing great harm to the region's tourism and fisheries. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 80 percent of China's major rivers are so degraded they no longer support fish. The building of Egypt's Aswan Dam in 1970 caused the number of commercially harvested fish to drop by almost two-thirds.

The World Resources Institute reports that, after the Pak Mun Dam was built in Thailand, all 150 fish species that had inhabited the Mun River virtually disappeared. Introduction of non-native species to Victoria Lake in Africa has all but destroyed the native species population, already imperiled by millions of liters of untreated sewage and industrial waste dumped by the cities of surrounding Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Three-fourths of Poland's rivers are so contaminated by chemicals, sewage and agricultural run-off that their water is unfit even for industrial use. Nearly half of the water and sewage treatment systems in Moscow are ineffective or malfunctioning and, according to the Russian Security Council, 75 percent of the Republic's lake and river water is unsafe to drink.

The Aral Sea basin shared by Afghanistan, Iran and five countries of the former Soviet Union was once the world's fourth largest lake. Excessive river diversions have caused it to lose half its area and three-fourths of its volume, while its surrounding wetlands have shrunk by 85 percent. Calling it one of the planet's greatest environmental tragedies, Postel reports that almost all fish and waterfowl species have been decimated and the fisheries have collapsed entirely. Each year, winds pick up 40150 million tons of a toxic salt mixture from the dry sea bed and dump it on the surrounding farmlands. Millions of "ecological refugees" have fled the area.

There is simply no way to overstate the water crisis of the planet today. No piecemeal solution is going to prevent the collapse of whole societies and ecosystems. A radical rethinking of our values, priorities and political systems is urgent and still possible. Yet, as we will explore in the next section, there are forces at work in the world today that, unless challenged, would move the world almost inexorably into a water-scarce future.

Blue Gold

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