FRESH WATER IS now talked of in some business circles as 'blue gold', just as oil is called 'black gold'. But while wealthy investors enrich themselves from this natural resource, lack of clean drinking water and sanitation is killing many of the 11 million children under five who die every year from disease and malnutrition. In this article, ROGER SHRIVES draws attention to some of the issues arising from the scandalous private exploitation of water, and calls for water supplies and sewerage to be taken out of the hands of profit-making multinationals.
T BOONE Pickens, a US billionaire who made his fortune by aggressively taking over oil and gas companies, is now into water in a big way. He has bought land in Texas that includes an enormous and ancient underwater aquifer that he hopes will soon be gushing water for sale. Pickens justified his move by saying: "There are people who will buy the water when they need it. And the people who have the water want to sell it. That's the blood, guts and feathers of the thing".
But local people are afraid that this reckless profit-seeking approach may be over-tapping the aquifer that takes many years to replenish. And there is the problem of cost. Already, before Pickens has sold any of his water, the price of water has doubled in some areas. That may not at present worry those who can afford it, but those who cannot will lose out. All these problems are in the USA, the richest country on earth.
In the world's poorer regions things can get far worse. In Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, for example, water supplies for the shanty towns are contaminated by raw sewage, exacerbated by the recent cyclone and frequent flooding. Contaminated water supplies kill 200 people every hour in the ex-colonial world. Cholera, a virulent water-borne disease, is now seen again in countries like Zimbabwe and DR Congo. Private water companies have no interest in meeting the water needs of such areas.
Fresh water is essential to life - our bodies and our survival depend on it. In theory, water is available freely in nature though 97% of all water is salt water and less than 1% of all water is accessible for consumption.
There is enough water for all the world's people but its supply needs to be planned if enough free, clean and safe, water is to be made available.
The United Nations (UN) calculates that each person needs five litres of water each day to survive and another 50 litres for cooking, bathing and sanitation. However, 1.1 billion people worldwide cannot get access to adequate, safe water supplies, 2.6 billion people have inadequate sanitation and 80% of illnesses suffered are water-related. The poor suffer the most; two-thirds of the people who lack water live on $2 or less a day.
Meanwhile water consumption in homes, industry and agriculture is rising rapidly, practically doubling in ten years. Population growth and economic development raised human water demand by six times in the last 50 years.
Where does the water go? Only 10% of water is used for drinking. Industry uses 20%. The remaining 70% is used for irrigating crops, so most money is invested there, even though some agriculture has an enormously negative impact. Farms and industry pollute the water of 100 million people.
One similarity with oil is that access to water is one of the major causes of conflict. Water reserves are shrinking in the Middle East, north China, Mexico, California and many countries in Africa, increasing the potential for conflict. The UN predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will experience water shortages, with severe lack of water potentially hitting the lives and livelihoods of 1.8 billion people. Climate change will worsen things by making patterns of rainfall and drought far less predictable.
Threat to the environment
WATER PRIVATISATION is a prime example of how capitalism threatens ruin to the economy and the environment. Maintaining water supplies needs planning. Water should not depend on financial gain. Over many centuries in the older countries of capitalism, the workers' movement and social reformers have fought and laid the basis for largely public-owned systems.
In Britain, capitalist industrialisation created horrific poverty, exploitation and squalid conditions for the working class, particularly in the city slums. In the hot summer of 1858, parliament and the residences of the rich in London were hit by the 'big stink', nauseous fumes caused by bacteria living in faeces-infected water that was causing outbreaks of cholera in the slums. To replace London's overflowing cesspits, immense public works were started such as the capital's incredible sewerage system, built at public expense and at considerable cost of workers' lives.
Even in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism, when the markets were supposed to solve everything, politicians, municipal authorities etc, knew they would wait for ever for the market's 'hidden hand' to invest in water services when profits could not be made. Water and sewerage became a responsibility of government.
In systems under a degree of public control, the priorities were keeping water clean, free from contaminants from industry and agriculture and free from disease. The aim was to prevent the possibly poisonous effects of drought and flooding, to stop wastage and leaks, to encourage industry and individuals to use water more efficiently; and where needed, to expand the sources of water available.
New problems have arisen or grown since then such as contamination by salt, or by fertiliser and pesticide residues, percolating down into aquifers. But other toxic waste, from human pathogens to arsenic, has been found in US water supplies.
About 20 million Americans have perchlorates, an ingredient of rocket fuel, as a contaminant in their water supply. This chemical can disrupt the working of the thyroid gland and cause cancers.
This year around 250,000 people in Northamptonshire and 45,000 in Gwynedd and Anglesey were told to boil tap water for drinking, after tests found the bacterium Cryptosporidium.
The priorities for maintaining pure water have never been more vital. A planned, international approach is urgently needed. However, other priorities have been reintroduced into the equation by water privatisation - those of private profit, which charges higher and higher prices for this basic necessity of life.
Capitalism is based on production for profit. Competition, which drives all companies to try to pay lower wages, also tends to lead to environmental degradation out of fear that other companies will disregard the environment and reap higher profits. This is particularly true when booms turn into slumps. What is more, as clean drinking water gets scarcer, its value as a commodity rises.
At the turn of the millennium Fortune magazine said that water is the best 'investment sector' of the century. Water has again become a capitalist commodity to be bought and sold for profit. As water problems increase, and desperate authorities have to drill a kilometre into the ground to get to water, a socialist planned approach to water, involving the ordinary people of the world, is needed more and more.