Our Desperate Battle
Over Water in a World
About to Run Out
(Tarcher/Putnam)Just when you thought it was safe to go in the drink, along comes Every Drop for Sale. Author Rothfeder outlines the many errors we've made over the past seventy-five years in water management, with the heaviest condemnation falling on dams, "water management" plans, destruction of wetlands, and excessive pumping of aquifers.
He even had the gall to go for the tour of Hoover Dam and ask the guides and the visitors if they knew that the very existence of the dam was folly, and that it had wreaked incredible damage on the entire Colorado River Basin:
Much of the Colorado, which now has as many as fifty dams up and down its length, replenishes so weakly that the water downstream is polluted; in many places, it's mostly thick, green and murky, and its oily topping seems to be flowing sideways, not downstream. As a result, the river's once vibrant delta in the Gulf of California has become a barren wedge of desert and salt flats, its biologically rich wetlands a thing of the past.
The response to his question: "Nobody wanted to talk about this issue...Parents held their children closer to them, seemingly to protect them from my questions. The kids weren't listening anyway. And Hoover Dam staffers told me to speak to the press office in Washington, D.C."
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One of Rothfeder's grimmest tales has to do with Cochabamba in Bolivia, a city of 500,000 near the Andes. It was there, he tells us, that "globalization faced its first serious challenge, its first physical battle, in a struggle over water." Because the water system was falling apart, the Bolivian government sold it off to Bechtel, the mega-corporation from San Francisco. The first thing that Bechtel did was to jack up the water bill --- almost triple in some cases. For a peasant living on $100 a month, a water bill going from $6 to $17 represents the loss of an intolerably large percentage of income.
There was a general strike; the government sent in the troops; Bechtel refused to back down; some of the strikers were "disappeared;" thousands were injured. The message --- large corporations (including, he notes, the late Enron Corp.), were and are buying up older water companies. Their purpose is to play on the fact that water is a vital necessity; their desire is to turn it into a cash-rich commodity. Those who end up paying through the nose will be the consumers. The middle class will be able to handle a hike in price (they might even own part of the major corporations involved in the hijack); the poor, as usual, will be stuck.
Ironically, many of the most potent ecological lobbying groups welcome the commodification of water. Their reasons: when it gets expensive enough, the very price of it will impose voluntary rationing. If you and I start receiving water bills of $600 - $800 a month, we'll start cutting back on our consumption. The fallacy of this, as Cochabamba proved, is that the very poor will be those who suffer the most.
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One expert has found that each person needs at least 50 liters a day to survive. But 2,200,000,000 people in sixty-two countries live on less than that amount. In Haiti and Gambia, people subsist on three liters a day. The author gives us an image that brings home the plight of those who have so little water:
Imagine having less than two large bottles of Poland Spring as your entire water ration for the day.
In Rothfeder's view, the water wars like those in Cochabamba --- and its historical predecessor, the Lake Owens theft --- are just the beginning. Water rights legal battles and questions of water sovereignty are generating sword-rattlings across the globe. The Six-Day War was just such a water fight:
"People generally regard June 5, 1967, as the day the Six Day War began," says Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was a general in the conflict. "But in reality it started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan."
There is a looming battle over the Aswan High Dam between Egypt on the one side and Ethiopia and the Sudan on the other. Turkey controls the Tigris and Euphrates, and thus controls the water destinies of Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan (he notes that Suleyman Demirel, the President of Turkey, is a former water engineer). Botswana and Namibia are at loggerheads over the Okavango River. Developers and Native Americans and ecopurists are battling over the Skagit River in Washington. Florida and Alabama are haggling with Georgia over the precious waters of the Chattahoochee.
So far, one of the few success stories is the battle over the Pilcomayo River: Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay were set to go to war, and only the intervention of Mikhail Gorbachev resolved this South American water war without a shot being fired. (He had learned water arbitration from his early days in the Politburo, allocating water resources from the Syr Dar'ya and Amu Dar'ya rivers among four Russian states.)
Rothfelder's book is brief --- less than 200 pages --- but it is sure to provide nightmares for those of us who live in desert regions where the water tables are being decimated and water that we have stolen from other regions is running out. He worries about the concept of water-for-
profit, where "The financial benefits of any given water deal matter more than the needs of individuals." But, he tells us,
Water relief organizations in poor nations are concerned with issues much more fundamental than conservation; as they see it, you can't worry about conserving what you don't have in the first place.
Every Drop for Sale is chock-full of wet and woolly information: Canada has the greatest backlog of fresh water in the world, almost 20%. Upward of 10 million deaths per year, mostly among the young and the elderly, are caused by water-related diseases --- chiefly cholera and dysentery. Monster dams like the Aswan High, the Paraguay-Paraná Hidrovia, and the appalling Three Gorges Dam in China wreak havoc on in-place natural water replenishment systems, destroy animal, plant and fish life, and do not, in the long run, solve flood or water-shortage problems. (In addition, the High Aswan has created a whole new plague of parasites that thrive in its still back-waters; bottomland, once renewed with the annual flooding, is, in some parts of Egypt near the mouth, no longer usable for agriculture.)
The Middle East is the Earth's "most densely populated desert region." The population will rise to 350,000,000 people in twenty years. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel rely on fossil water which, in short order, will be depleted. (Fossil water is just that: it lies deep, it was trapped during the last ice age, and it does not get replenished.) There are plans to harvest Greenland's ice-sheets; they cover an area three times the size of Texas. In Greece, tugs haul huge waterbags, filled with fresh water, from Piraeus on the mainland to the near-by Saronic Islands.
The Everglades in Southern Florida was one of "nature's most spectacular and elegant water systems." It was fed by the Okeechobee River but fifty years ago, dams and canals were constructed that now dump much of the flow into Florida Bay. The Everglades has lost half of its acreage --- mostly to housing and fields of sugar cane, mostly owned by the Fanjul brothers (who get $65,000,000 in federal government price supports and have resisted all efforts to restore the Everglades).
Ironically, the only hope for change will be a water disaster. The dams on the Okeechobee drain 1,700,000,000 gallons of fresh water into Florida Bay each day. As more and more people move into South Florida, other available water sources will dry up. Thirsty (and pissed off) developers, citizens, and boosters of Southern Florida will probably force a rebuilding of the natural water system of the Everglades; in fact, work has already begun to undo what state, federal, and private engineering types did to destroy the natural flow.
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Rothfeder is an elegant writer who knows, thank god, the simple declarative sentence. He also knows how to build a case. One of the loveliest passages in the book, ironically, has nothing to do with water resource, but rather with the ecosystems that grow up on the ocean floors around hydrothermal vents. We quote it as a reading (see www.ralphmag.org/BJ/hydrothermal-vents.html) mostly to give you a taste for his style --- so that you will be convinced to go out and buy this fine book, to spur you on, we should hope, to try to help undo so many years of what some of us think of as The New International Water Follies.--- Lolita Lark