The United Nations reports that we have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis and that, by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent. Five hundred renowned scientists brought together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that our collective abuse of water has caused the earth to enter a “new geologic age,” a “planetary transformation” akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Already, they reported, a majority of the world’s population lives within a 30-mile radius of water sources that are badly stressed or running out.
For a long time, we in the Global North, especially North America and Europe, have seen the growing water crisis as an issue of the Global South. Certainly, the grim UN statistics on those without access to water and sanitation have referred mostly to poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and large parts of Asia. Heartbreaking images of children dying of waterborne disease have always seemed to come from the slums of Nairobi, Kolkata, or La Paz. Similarly, the worst stories of water pollution and shortages have originated in the densely populated areas of the South.
But as this issue of The Nation shows us, the global water crisis is just that—global—in every sense of the word. A deadly combination of growing inequality, climate change, rising water prices, and mismanagement of water sources in the North has suddenly put the world on a more even footing.
There is now a Third World in the First World. Growing poverty in rich countries has created an underclass that cannot pay rising water rates. As reported by Circle of Blue, the price of water in 30 major US cities is rising faster than most other household staples—41 percent since 2010, with no end in sight. As a result, increasing numbers cannot pay their water bills, and cutoffs are growing across the country. Inner-city Detroit reminds me more of the slums of Bogotá than the North American cities of my childhood.
Historic poverty and unemployment in Europe have also put millions at risk. Caught between unaffordable rising water rates and the imposition of European-wide austerity measures, thousands of families in Spain, Portugal, and Greece have had their water service cut off. An employee of the water utility Veolia Eau was fired for refusing to cut supplies to 1,000 families in Avignon, France.
As in the Global South, the trend of privatizing water services has placed an added burden on the poor of the North. Food and Water Watch and other organizations have clearly documented that the rates for water and sewer services rise dramatically with privatization. Unlike government water agencies, corporate-run water services must make a profit for their involvement.
And, as in the Global South, aging pipes and leaking water systems are not being repaired or upgraded by Northern municipalities, which have become increasingly cash-strapped as public funds dry up. It is estimated that the United States needs to spend $1 trillion over the next twenty-five years for water infrastructure. To pay for this in a time of tax-cutting hysteria, it is likely that the burden will fall on families and small businesses, pushing water rates even higher.