Thinking about all the most pressing world problems, I keep coming back to the question about why the very people who have enormous power are so cruel, and why they garner sufficient support and collusion to get away with it. In the areas of energy, water, food, mining, pharmaceuticals, military weapons, and so on, several hundred people globally make the crucial decisions that now ruin the planet and render billions of lives intolerable, and they garner more wealth than the GDP of 180 countries combined. [The three wealthiest men earn more than the poorest 48 countries combined.]
Is it possible that people do not know about the cruelty perpetrated through this transnational oligarchic regime? When the crimes are so egregious and vast, the end of the “ostrich” (or “CEO”) defense indicates that not knowing is not a sufficient defense. Moreover, there is a great deal of easily accessible information. Courageous investigators in many countries provide reliable accounts of social injustices and environmental crimes.
Water is one lens for examining socio-economic, political and psychological pathology. At the 7 November 2008 Forum on water, Maude Barlow will no doubt speak eloquently about the grave global threat posed by the privatization and commodification of water as large transnational corporations vie for controlling and exploiting each facet of the water process (pricing, pumping, purifying, distributing, sewage, dam-building, wetlands draining).
There are a number of detailed historical studies showing how starvation during droughts, famines, and flooding was largely due to political choices and human irresponsibility, mismanagement, or cruelty, rather than the actual environmental disaster. In these cases, technology was hardly salutary and even at times worsened the situation. Mike Davis writes about how the “newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters). Likewise the telegraph ensured that price hikes were coordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends” (Davis, p. 26). Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution, wrote that that mass starvation in India and China was an avoidable political tragedy, not a natural disaster, and that it represented “the most terrible failures of the century” (Davis, p. 8).
Paralleling the Victorian holocaust are current oligarchic practices. Monbiot writes about the new colonialism in which Britain covertly consumes Pakistan’s water: to meet Britain’s demands for water-intensive rice and cotton, the Indus valley’s aquifers are being pumped out faster than they can be recharged, at a time when snow and rain in the Himalayas decrease water supplies due to climate change (Monbiot, p. 24. The Guardian Weekly). In Canada and internationally, Canadian mining companies dump toxic wastes into rivers and lakes with impunity and permanently contaminate aquifers.
Depletion of aquifers and loss of fresh water comes from many directions. It takes 15,000 liters of water to mine one ounce of gold. It takes 1700 liters of water to produce one liter of ethanol. It takes 400,000 liters of water to make one car. In the U.S. alone, the computer industry uses 1,500 billion liters of water and produces over 300 billion liters of wastewater each year (Barlow, p 8. The figures are from 2001).
And there is the cruelty. For the Vancouver winter Olympics, the aquifer in Secwepmec territory is being drained to make fake snow for skiers. “What Sun Peaks and other corporations are doing to us is affecting our basic human right to live.” In Palestine, Israel totally deprives Palestinians of water rights. German hydrogeologist Clemens Messerschmid disputes the assumption of inherent water scarcity. He speaks of the gratuitous cruelty towards Palestinians: they are not even allowed to collect rain water in cisterns, and he describes how villagers can sit by a stream with their goats but not touch the water. The Separation Wall is constructed in such a way that rain gutters are angled so that water flows to the Jewish side. The average per capita water consumption for Palestinians is 60 liters/day (the World Health Organization minimum is 100 liters/day). Israel takes water from the West Bank aquifers and sells desalinized water to Palestinians. Desalinization is highly energy intensive; the technology is underwritten by international donors and the treated water is sold to Palestinians with profits going back to Israel.
The waste and degradation of the world’s water supply has accelerated in the last few decades and is caused by human cruelty and negligence. It will take much thinking and working together to shift direction.
1 For example, see Davis, Mike (2002). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino famines and the making of the third world. London: Verso. Also, Walker, P. (1989). Famine Early Warning Systems: victims and destitution. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd. ^
2 Barlow, M. (2007). Blue Covenant: the global water crisis and the coming battle for the right to water. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. ^
3 Barlow, M. and Clarke, T. (2001). Blue Gold: the fight to stop the corporate theft of the world’s water. New York: The New Press ^
5 Susan Nathan, author of The Other Israel, personal communication. ^