WSJ: How to Quench the World’s Thirst

From The Wall Street Journal, some interesting perspectives on the world’s water crisis from Maude Barlow, the recently-named water advisor.  Some highlights include

“…Geopolitical experts warn that water scarcity poses not just a public health risk, but a threat to global security. Currently, some 1.1 billion people, one-sixth of the world population, lack safe drinking water. Global water consumption is growing at unsustainable rates, doubling every 20 years, according to a March 2008 report by Goldman Sachs. A study by International Alert, a London-based conflict-resolution group, listed 46 countries with a combined population of 2.7 billion that have a “high risk” for violent conflict over water in the next two decades.

…What will you try to change about the U.N.’s water policies?

I would like to see it shift from reliance on water companies and privatization, what I call the hard path, to the soft path — watershed protection, rain harvesting and watershed restoration. You can’t have the human right to water if there’s no water. Studies show that as we remove water from aquifers, we dry up the land. The rain won’t come if there’s no vegetation.

Some economists argue that privatization will reduce water consumption and waste, the way oil prices have spurred efforts toward more efficient energy use. Wouldn’t putting a price on water actually help to reduce waste?

To me, the issue isn’t whether you price or not, it’s the conditions. There are three important conditions to putting a price on water. The first is that no one should be denied access because they can’t pay. The second is that water is maintained by the public sector, so it’s like a tax, not a fee. The third is, you’re paying for the service, you don’t own the water. It’s very important that we say water is not a commodity.

…The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals to reduce global poverty include the objective of cutting the number of people without access to clean water in half by 2015. You have said that at the rate they’re going, it will take much longer. What steps will you recommend to speed things up?

The twin pillars of a water secure future for the world are on the one hand, conservation and protection, and on the other hand, the human right to water.

One of my criticisms of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals about water has been the disconnect between those who are working on the environmental side and those who are working on the human-rights side. I don’t think there’s been nearly enough attention paid to protecting source water. Seventy-five to 80% of surface water in India, China or Russia is too polluted to bathe in, drink or fish in.

The U.N. bought into the World Bank’s solution, which is, bring in water companies and let them provide these huge projects, and if you’re wealthy you can pay for water. They don’t see it as their responsibility to provide water for the poor. I’ve been in communities with prepaid water meters. There’s water, but they can’t afford to turn the tap on, so they go to the river, where there are cholera warning signs.

In your latest book, “Blue Covenant,” you write about virtual water — the water that is used to produce commodities like cars and computer chips — as a big source of water consumption.

I think we’re going to hear a lot more about that in the next few years. The U.S. is exporting a third of its water in the form of virtual water exports through commodities. Britain and Japan import most of their virtual water.

Europe grows its roses in Africa around Lake Naivasha in Kenya. The lake is so damaged now that these companies are looking for new lakes in Uganda. It’s not just looking at our water footprint in our own country and community and household. It’s where your water footprint is coming from.

Has the financial crisis slowed the pace of global investments in water indexes?

What worries me is the opposite. It’s the one area where people are still going to invest. It’s not going to fluctuate the way other commodities do, because we’re a species running out of clean water.

The other thing I’m worried about from the credit crisis is that cash-strapped municipalities and states may sell off water treatment plants to the private sector.

…Which countries would you hold up as models in terms of sustainable water management?

None. Europe is way ahead in terms of how it cares for its water. However, Europe imports the bulk of its water footprint, so the way it protects its own water is to use and abuse other countries’ water.

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