Water as a human right
Assessing our water "footprint" doesn't begin and end at the faucet and showerhead. Here on the east coast of the U.S. where I live we import more than 90 percent of our food. When I munch on that head of iceberg lettuce from California it's important to remember that I've actually paid to have mostly water (with relatively little nutritional content) shipped a few thousand miles across country. The quantities of water that agribusiness uses to grow the food we consume is enormous.
Bottom line: you don't have to walk on water to leave a significant footprint. (GW)
February 18, 2009
While Europe may take better care of its water resources than other continents, it in fact uses larger quantities via imports of goods such as cotton, beans or wood, which often come from regions that already suffer from water scarcity, argues a UN expert in an interview with EurActiv.
The notion of "virtual water" embedded in a commodity or a product, is an essential part of the 'water footprint' theory but has not yet received much attention, argued Maude Barlow, a special adviser on water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.
However, she warned: "You are going to hear about this virtual water trade a lot more in the next few years."
A water footprint is the total amount of water a country needs to sustain its population and industry. But while Europe tries to take good care of its own resources, it uses water from other places via its agribusiness imports. "I think it is important to find out about each country's footprint, how much of your water comes from outside the country and what was the energy needed to bring that water here," she said.
Barlow called into question European consumers' way of life, with some wanting strawberries all year round. Meanwhile, African lakes are dying, because the berries suck up water which is then shipped out of the country, she said. Great Britain alone "imports two thirds of its water footprint. And it imports it from Africa, Latin America and from places which don't have any water," she noted.
As for biofuels, she noted that while there is a drive to grow biofuels to combat CO2 emissions, "we don't stop and ask what biofuels might do to other parts of nature. They are water guzzlers. Biofuels and corn ethanol use a huge amount of water".
Water and climate change
Barlow thinks that the chance of getting water high up the agenda of the UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen are "slim", as "Copenhagen is already so contentious and there are so many issues". However, she thinks that water may well become part of the post-Copenhagen talks once people become more water conscious.
"The water crisis is where climate change was five years ago. It is just starting to get into the media and people's heads, and in five years it will be what people talk about," she said.
Barlow also argued that the water crisis must no longer be considered a result of climate change, but rather as another side to the equation of what causes climate change. "You've got to get the analysis right if you're going to get the answer right," she said.
Water as a human right
Regarding calls to establish access to water as a human right, Barlow said it is possible "to begin the process toward the notion that no-one should be denied water because they can't pay for it". She explained: "This clearly does not mean the right to fill one's swimming pool, but it is about the right to life and to water for your daily needs, and about the right to local sustainable food production."
However, this will not happen overnight and some countries have different reasons to oppose it, she underlined. According to Barlow, in Canada and the United States, for example, serious water crises are hitting indigenous reserves and neither government wants to face litigation over such a right. At the same time, governments of poor countries fear that their populations will use it to sue them, Barlow said.
Need for water pricing
While she supports water as a human right, Barlow said she also supports water pricing, on three conditions:
- That the water is public, delivered by government not-for profit agencies so that the money collected goes back into protecting source water and infrastructure re-building, etc.;
- that one does not buy the water but pay for the service, so it is not about people owning water, and;
- that 'bloc pricing' guarantees a certain amount of water for free or inexpensively for basic needs, and then the price would go up at next levels of usage.
"There is a commercial role for water but it would always have to be done by permit and with the ability for the governments to re-control the water" if the permits are not being used sustainably.
"I don't think we need private companies to run water services, water delivery and waste water, because governments can do that perfectly well on a not-for-profit basis. So I'm opposed to companies like Suez and Veolia running water services," because private companies should not be making decisions about water allocation, Barlow said.
However, she does see a role for businesses in putting together and upgrading infrastructure and hardware that is out of the governments' control. She said businesses can also help with the expertise, consulting and innovation to help industry cut its water footprint or invent water cleaning techniques.