Mel Gurtov: Water, water, more everywhere
“Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink.” Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is only half a description of the planet’s current water situation. The water is drying up everywhere; the oceans and rivers are increasingly polluted and poisoned; watersheds are being drained at a phenomenal rate to meet the needs of industry, sports and agriculture. Quality drinking water, particularly in developing countries, is becoming a major issue. And everywhere, drinking water, access to which should be a human right, is becoming expensive and private.
First, the basic facts about the global water crisis, as provided by UNICEF:
- Four billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year.
- More than two billion people live in countries with insufficient water supplies.
- Half of the world’s population could live in areas facing water scarcity by 2025.
- Some 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.
- By 2040, approximately 1 in 4 children worldwide will live in areas of extremely high water stress.
Reports from around the world point to these trends.
Italy is experiencing an intense and prolonged heat wave. A water crisis is about to be declared in the Lombardy region. The drought has hit northern regions particularly hard, where a parched Po River, Italy’s longest waterway, is 80% lower than usual, wreaking havoc on everything from agriculture and tourism. hydroelectric power to drinking water supply.
In Australia, a report by the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group describes Australia and Asia-Pacific as a ‘disaster lane’ for climate change, but says governments in Canberra have failed to properly plan for the impact cascading and compound events. The report cites predictions that 2℃ of warming could cause Southeast Asia’s agricultural output to fall by one-third per capita by 2040. It says small island developing states in the Pacific are particularly vulnerable to the effects of drought and floods on food production.
China is facing a water crisis in which up to half of the population does not have access to safe drinking water. Almost all groundwater is contaminated. Agricultural runoff and the dumping of toxic industrial waste are among the main causes of the crisis. Weak enforcement of environmental regulations and outright disregard for good environmental practices by national and multinational companies contribute to the crisis.
The South African city of Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), home to almost a million people, is on the verge of “day zero” when the water runs out. Climate change – long-term drought – is certainly a factor, although a corrupt city government has failed to repair thousands of leaking water pipes. The black working class suffers the most from the intermittent water supply.
At home, a Utah newspaper reports:
“The Colorado River Basin is experiencing a 22-year drought and low runoff conditions, and basin reservoirs are at historically low levels. There are far-reaching impacts throughout the Colorado River basin, including water for homes and crops to power generation in all seven basin states, 30 tribes, and Mexico.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are below a third of normal levels. Water for seven states will probably have to be restricted. Meanwhile, California’s two largest reservoirs – Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville – are at extremely low levels, and the Great Salt Lake in Utah set a new record high on July 4.
Threats of spills at sea
The world’s oceans have been particularly affected, leading the UN Secretary General to declare an “ocean emergency”. As the Guardian reports: “Sea level rise, ocean warming, ocean acidification and greenhouse gas concentrations all reached record highs last year, according to the state. of the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Climate Report 2021. . . . pollution creates vast coastal dead zones. Fish stocks are rapidly depleting due to overfishing. “Nearly 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged into the sea without treatment.”
Of the many toxic substances that are regularly dumped into national and international waterways, plastics and oil are among the most constant and dangerous. China, India and the United States are the main producers of disposable plastics which, according to a UN estimate, by 2050 will account for around 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste worldwide. As we all know, plastic bottles and other objects clog waterways, clog drains and, if burned, pollute the air. The ban on plastics is spreading, but very slowly and with a lot of resistance from manufacturers. It is difficult to control the use of plastics, although in India – which now bans some plastic packaging but not plastic bags – some states have found fines to be effective. China is supposed to phase out plastic bags nationwide by the end of this year, while Canada will ban all single-use plastics in December. Only a few US states, including Oregon, have restricted the use of plastic items.
I cannot leave this last topic without mentioning the companies and investors that support the major plastics producing countries. The main plastics manufacturers are ExxonMobil, Dow, Sinopec (Chinese state oil company), Indorama Ventures (a global petrochemical company based in Singapore and Bangkok) and Saudi Aramco. The main investors, aside from governments themselves, are Vanguard and BlackRock, companies that tout their commitment to sustainability.
Oil rig accidents are always large-scale threats to the ocean environment, the fishing industry and public health. Remember the Deepwater Horizon spill: 134 million gallons spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Today, a liberal president is caught between the oil industry and Republican pressure to open more drilling leases, so- saying to help reduce gas prices, and pressure from environmental organizations. and some state governments to drastically reduce or even reject any additional drilling. The fact is that the industry has millions of acres already approved for drilling. Biden will be forced to act soon, and if the past is any guide, he’ll take the middle path, approving new leases — Alaska’s Tonga seem the most likely to be picked — but not all, which makes disgruntled lobbyists all around.
Politicians hold (almost) all the cards
As numerous scientific reports have made clear, we are headed for an environmental catastrophe, and in the United States the reason is just as obvious: the political power of right-wing politicians, the fossil fuel corporations that fund them, and a malevolent majority of the Supreme Court which takes its cue from them. Paul Krugman sums up the problem succinctly:
“What’s important right now is that the United States is the only major country in which a right-wing authoritarian party – which has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections while controlling the Supreme Court – has the ability to block actions that could prevent a climate catastrophe.
The ballot box may therefore not be the most effective way to change national environmental policy. But at the local level, people are fighting in an original way: they are demanding that water be legally recognized, in the same way that companies, estates and universities are represented in court. In Florida, for example, a constitutional ballot initiative is before voters that would grant a “right to clean and healthy waters.” Lawmakers can be held liable in court for failing to protect water supplies. Elizabeth Kolbert reports in The New Yorker on the story of efforts to give nature “rights”. In my home state of Oregon, the protection of wetlands, which are an important carbon sink, is currently under review to strengthen regulations. In the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, the protection of rivers, forests and fisheries is growing.
We will need a lot more of this kind of action right now to save the waterways.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.