On a day when we were scrambling to finish this issue on water, warm rains came to Bainbridge Island, pouring down a record of more than four inches in 24 hours after the driest summer in Washington state's recorded history. The warmth meant the moisture will not be stored as snow in the mountains, but reservoirs deepened, aquifers began refilling, and the cedar trees seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief. A little further north, though, rivers flooded their banks, and soon after, fire storms, stoked by tinder-dry conditions, swept through southern California.
We are watery beings. Well over half our bodies are water—for babies, the proportion is closer to 90 percent. As Maude Barlow and Tony Clarkepoint out , the amount of water on Earth is pretty much a constant. During some epochs, more or less water has been frozen or in a gaseous state, but without water in a liquid state, between zero and 100 degrees Celsius, life could not exist—at least in forms we can imagine.
Given all that, isn't it absurd to ask, whose water? How can water be anyone's? There was water on Earth long before people, and there will be water long after we're gone. Trying to own water makes no more sense than owning love—it is the flow that matters. And yet corporations, the World Bank, and the U.S. government are pushing for the privatization of water (see page 12), raising the spectre of people shut out from access to water for lack of enough cash to pay for it and for the water corporations' profits.
Water teaches many lessons, among which is humility. The Army Corps of Engineers tried to channel, control, and tame the Mississippi River, only to discover that their work amplifies flooding downstream. In the Napa Valley of California, residents persuaded the Corps to allow some floodplains to go back to being wetlands, where they can act as giant sponges, releasing excess water slowly, over time, while providing wildlife habitat.
Likewise, building gigantic dams was once seen as a harbinger of prosperity; now even the World Bank is getting skittish about dams' tendency to displace people, farms, and natural habitats; disrupt watershed flows; and turn rushing water into stagnant lakes.
Big projects concentrate benefits in the hands of the big players—agribusiness, industry, power generators—not communities, small farmers, or flora and fauna. As it becomes clear that the big, highly engineered, private solutions are creating problems beyond what they can solve, many are turning elsewhere for solutions. Dams are coming down in Wisconsin (see article by Elizabeth Grossman). A lake that was being drained to supply Los Angeles is saved—in part by the commitment of urban youth to water conservation (see page 22). In India, many communities are reviving ancient systems that capture and store rainwater and ensure water sufficiency even in arid areas(see article by Vandana Shiva).
Scarcity is a human creation, author and scientist Vandana Shiva tells us(see article). It is not a condition of nature. Scarcity happens when water is wasted, polluted, diverted, or when the climate changes faster than people can adapt. It's when water is “enclosed”—owned by some while others are excluded—that scarcity results.
It's true that we are facing a global water crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that over 1.1 billion people are unable to get the water they need. An estimated 3.4 million people die each year from water-related diseases. Surface water is being degraded and ground water drawn down.
The solutions to water scarcity, though, are not global, but are to be found in each watershed—with its unique combination of geology, climate, culture, and livelihoods—and in each community that must live with the consequences of decisions it makes. (See article byFreeman House.)
What is needed, Vandana reminds us, is ecological democracy, so that local folks, not distant corporations or development banks, choose solutions best suited to both meeting their needs and sustaining the resource.
Whose water? The answer may be one that is both simple and full of implications—water belongs to everyone and to no one. It is fundamentally a commons, which we all must care for, but which none of us can own. To paraphrase a famous Kenyan proverb, water is not inherited from our ancestors but rather borrowed from our children.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder