“Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”
As the World Summit on Sustainable Development draws closer, clear lines of contention are forming, particularly around the future of the world’s freshwater resources. The setting of the summit paints the picture. Government and corporate delegates to the September meeting will gather in the lavish hotels and convention facilities of Sandton, the fabulously wealthy Johannesburg suburb that houses huge estates, English gardens and swimming pools, and has become South Africa’s new financial epicenter. There, they will meet with World Bank and World Trade Organization officials to set the stage for the privatization of water.
At the same time, activists from South Africa and around the world with a very different vision will gather in very different settings to fight for a water-secure future. One such venue will be Alexandra Township, a poverty-stricken community where sanitation, electricity and water services have been privatized and cut off to those who cannot afford them. Alexandra is situated right next door to Sandton and divided only by a river so polluted that it has cholera warning signs on its banks. There could not be a more fitting setting for Rio+10 than South Africa, because neighboring Sandton and Alexandra represent the great divide that characterizes the current debate over water. Moreover, South Africa is the birthplace of one of the nucleus groups that form the heart of a new global civil society movement dedicated to saving the world’s water as part of the global commons.
This movement originates in a fight for survival. The world is running out of fresh water. Humanity is polluting, diverting and depleting the wellspring of life at a startling rate. With every passing day, our demand for fresh water outpaces its availability, and thousands more people are put at risk. Already, the social, political and economic impacts of water scarcity are rapidly becoming a destabilizing force, with water-related conflicts springing up around the globe. Quite simply, unless we dramatically change our ways, between one-half and two-thirds of humanity will be living with severe freshwater shortages within the next quarter-century.
It seemed to sneak up on us, or at least those of us living in the North. Until the past decade, the study of fresh water was left to highly specialized groups of experts–hydrologists, engineers, scientists, city planners, weather forecasters and others with a niche interest in what so many of us took for granted. Many knew about the condition of water in the Third World, including the millions who die of waterborne diseases every year. But this was seen as an issue of poverty, poor sanitation and injustice–all areas that could be addressed in the just world for which we were fighting.
Now, however, an increasing number of voices–including human rights and environmental groups, think tanks and research organizations, official international agencies and thousands of community groups around the world–are sounding the alarm. The earth’s fresh water is finite and small, representing less than one half of 1 percent of the world’s total water stock. Not only are we adding 85 million new people to the planet every year, but our per capita use of water is doubling every twenty years, at more than twice the rate of human population growth. A legacy of factory farming, flood irrigation, the construction of massive dams, toxic dumping, wetlands and forest destruction, and urban and industrial pollution has damaged the Earth’s surface water so badly that we are now mining the underground water reserves far faster than nature can replenish them.