Water isn’t just what flows from the tap or falls from the sky. From policy, money and health, to energy, food, conflict and cooperation, water is modern life in all its complexity. Paula Hanasz explains.
Is there a glass of water beside you right now? Take a sip. What do you taste?
Water is everywhere; in everything. It is so ubiquitous that we forget what it really is and where it has come from. Take, for example, that sip of water you just took. How did it end up in your glass?
Maybe you filled it up at the tap. But how did clean water come to be flowing through the enormous, complicated system of pipes in your city or town? And why is it that millions of people worldwide still cannot just drink water straight from the tap, or even have a tap at all? After all, availability of and access to an adequate quantity and quality of water is a human right. But that’s easier said than done.
The Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed on internationally in 2015, commit developed and developing nations alike to, among other things, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.
Back to the sip of clean water you just had. Municipal water supply is probably the most important thing our local government does for us, and often the one we least appreciate – until it is not there. Just think of what is happening in Flint, Michigan. Years of cost-cutting and mismanagement have resulted in thousands of lives being put at risk through lead poisoning in the water supply. And as millions of people affected by cholera and other water-borne illnesses can attest, water is health.
The cost-cutting element of the Flint case is important. Water, like time, is money. Bottled water is big business, and big dams are even bigger business.
The World Bank, for example, has financed countless dam construction projects in developing countries. Large dams have fallen out of favour in developed countries in recent decades — partly because many of the eligible sites have already been taken, and also because of the growing public awareness of the significant social and environmental costs of dams. But China is now the world’s biggest – and still increasing – financier of large dams. China is not only building large and mega dams domestically, it is also constructing dams in other parts of the developing world, especially in Africa.
There is nothing inherently bad about dams. They can be a crucial source of hydroelectricity for states reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Water is energy. But the relationship between water and energy is two sided: energy is also water. Desalination plants, for example, may be an excellent solution to water security problems in arid countries such as Israel, but at the cost of significant amounts of energy required to power this technology. There are always trade-offs in water governance.
Another trade-off is in the agricultural sector. Water is food. It is also meat and cotton and coffee beans and everything else we consume that first needs water to grow. You can calculate your water footprint much like you can calculate your carbon footprint – by quantifying the amount of water required to produce everything you use in your life. This is called virtual water. And yes, turning the tap off while you brush your teeth is an excellent way of reducing your personal water footprint.
But think about the thousands of litres of water required to quench the thirst of the cow from which you ate a steak last night. And think of all the land and fodder (and therefore water) that that cow required to grow. And now think of what else could have been grown on that land instead, and how many people could have been fed from it. There’s those trade-offs again.
Take another sip of water from your glass. Where would it be now if it had not been piped into your municipal water system and into your cup or bottle? A truism of water governance used to be that if a river ends up flowing into the ocean, the water has been wasted. Using every drop for human consumption was once seen as the paramount value of water.
Today we understand that keeping rivers flowing brings other benefits too (regulating sedimentation flow, for instance, or reducing saline erosion). Some countries have even legislated for ‘environmental flows’. In the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, for instance, a certain amount of water is reserved not for agricultural or domestic consumption, but for the upkeep of fragile ecosystems, such as endangered wetlands. A certain amount of water in that basin is also earmarked for Indigenous cultural rights.
But dividing water for different uses and users is neither straightforward nor without its critics. The quantity of freshwater on earth is finite, while populations continue to grow and consume ever larger amounts of food and energy. Competition over water is thus increasing. It has even been said that the wars of this century will be fought over water. Although that is unlikely, water – or lack thereof – can certainly be a stress multiplier in conflict. Severe drought, in combination with weak governance in the agricultural sector and lack of preparedness for environmental shocks contributed to the current crisis in Syria.
At the same time, cooperation over shared freshwater resources can sometimes withstand conflict. The Indus Waters Treaty, though far from perfect, functioned throughout two wars between India and Pakistan. Perhaps water is just too important to fight over?
So, then, what is water? Water is not just H2O. It does not simply fall from the sky or flow in our rivers. Water is policy. Water is health. Water is money. Water is energy. Water is food. Water is conflict. Water is cooperation. Today, World Water Day, remember that water is life.