John Buell

Water Everywhere, but Hardly a Drop to Drink?

A Toronto Star editorial recently called a frightening irony to our attention. On the same day that a UN report warned that over a billion people worldwide face growing shortages of water, American scientists announced they found evidence of water on Enceladus, a far-off moon of Saturn.

Some have argued that global warming may already be inducing long-term changes in weather patterns resulting in many regional droughts. Regardless of the truth of this contention, there are more immediate and obvious challenges to the amount and integrity of our water supply. If we do not address these concerns, we might consider booking reservations on the next shuttle to Saturn.

Since 9/11, the media have been full of speculation regarding oil shortages and wars over oil. On a daily basis, however, far more people are dying from shortages of drinkable water, and tensions over access to water are intensifying even in the so-called developed world. Struggles over water have long been keys to the history of the Southwestern United States.

Maine, Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and the Great Lake states all appear to be well endowed with clean, fresh water, yet appearances can be deceiving. Here in Maine, mercury pollution makes some of our freshwater fish dangerous to eat. Long battles have been waged against corporations that would treat our rivers as free sinks for industrial discharges.

The Midwest, home to the world's most expansive source of fresh water, demonstrates a prototypically American pattern of water use and a "What, me worry?" mentality. Five years ago, the New York Times reported a story that has become all too typical. "In the Chicago area, hydrologists say land that would normally soak in water and replenish aquifers has been paved over, effectively blocking water needed to refill the underground basins.

"In past shortages, people tapped into Lake Michigan. When Chicago was coming of age, it reversed the flow of the Chicago River, draining water out of Lake Michigan instead of into it. Now, the so-called collar counties around Chicago, which are expected to add 1.3 million people over the next 18 years, find that the lake is off-limits and supplies below ground are not being adequately replenished."

The crisis of adequate and healthful water supplies has led to one familiar response -- turning water into another privately owned commodity that is bought and sold for a profit. The biologist Garrett Hardin's famous argument regarding the tragedy of the commons is often cited to suggest that aquifers and other water sources will be protected and used wisely and efficiently only when they are owned by individuals or corporations for which they can be a source of profit.

If people are, however, as narrowly acquisitive as Hardin suggests, they also have no incentive, short of court sanctions, to recognize their neighbor's property rights. In the greater Phoenix area, a land rush and unplanned development have led to rapid exploitation of aquifers, which, after all, do not have clear boundaries. Even many members of the valley business community now realize that water shortages and fights over rights to water may end its rapid growth.

In addition, Walkertown, Ontario's experiences with water privatization -- a privatized company there failed to monitor adequately and notify residents regarding bacterial contamination of the water -- are instructive. They remind us that a privatized water company can have incentives to skimp on health and safety expenses.

Our attitudes toward water are also being reshaped by the mass marketing and consumption of bottled water. The product is marketed as pure and natural. What started as a luxury good has now become standard fare for many teens and adults. Many consumers now routinely assume that only bottled water is safe. As more of us buy it, public pressure to maintain the integrity of public water supplies diminishes. More reports of problems with public water in turn reinforce the bottled water craze.

The irony, of course, is that bottled water is not regularly monitored by public health authorities and may well fall way short of its advertised excellence. Safe and ample water will depend to some degree on that hated "R" word, regulation. But regulations must not be just a straitjacket, especially when they are the product of broad citizen participation. Laws that enhance the safety of our drinking water can also foster open space, safer and more efficient transportation, and agricultural and industrial techniques that enhance the quality of life we all enjoy. More of us will have a stake in promoting and enforcing such regulations.

When NASA scientists announced their discovery of water on Saturn's moon, they reminded us that the existence of water is vital to harboring extraterrestrial life. It is also vital to our lives and many of our daily joys.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2006

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