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Sunday, 14 October 2012

Whose Water Is It, Anyway?

Water cycle
Water cycle Other language versions: Català Czech español Finnish Greek Japanese Norwegian (bokmål) Portugese Romanian עברית Diné bizaad (Navajo) and no text and guess water vapor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As far as I know, no individual or corporation has laid claim to the air we breathe or the light that stems from sun, moon and stars (though the possibility clearly exists in this materially-obsessed world of ours). We accept that these are naturally occurring phenomena that have enabled life on the planet we inhabit. Logic suggests that water be included in that short list. It’s a natural consequence of a long-established cycle that was not initiated by human activity and it’s a substance that’s the very essence of life. Yet there are those who lay claim to the water that exists in a given region. My view is that water, like air and sunlight, should not be allowed to ‘belong’ to anyone.

I hear the cries of those who either run or own shares in water companies, berating me for robbing them of their profits, and telling me that treated water doesn’t get that way for free. I know. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that it does. That isn’t what I’m suggesting. I’m saying that they do not and cannot make water.

We may clean and modify the raw material. But that raw material is a natural resource and is therefore not something over which someone can rightly claim ownership. The processing, storage and delivery are those elements for which we should expect to pay, allowing the companies concerned to add their reasonable profit for future investment and to pay their workers a living wage. But, to allow anyone to claim rain, which is what all drinking water is at source, as an owned resource is patently mad, bad and stupid. So, as a society, and I am talking worldwide here, we should accept that water, which exists without our intervention, isn’t a commodity to be traded but a resource to be distributed without reference to either profit or boundaries.

Treatment, modification, extraction, storage and delivery are the only elements that should be subject to cost. The raw material should be considered a zero cost component of such a business.

Drinking Water
Drinking Water (Photo credit: SEDACMaps)
Logic suggests that I should go further in my argument. Is rainfall a matter of human control? Only inasmuch as, occasionally, societies have seeded clouds in order to encourage precipitation at a specific time in a specific place, with variable success. We have no control over where and when those clouds are formed. That’s a natural process. It’s true that our activities are increasingly distorting it, but that’s an accidental by-product of our irresponsible behaviour.

So, it follows that not only is water not the property of any individual or company; it isn’t the property of any country or state either. The water cycle knows no boundaries. The presence or absence of water in any given location is due to a combination of natural influences: geology, geography and climate. Of course, there are man-made aquifers, reservoirs and other capture and storage facilities where man has usurped the natural product to direct it for his own purposes. But such activity doesn’t constitute ownership of the actual resource, it merely permits the transient capture of a quantity of it for local consumption and is therefore part of what I’ve referred to as storage.

Over the history of our species, we have instinctively tended to settle near sources of drinking, or fresh, water. The exceptions are nomadic peoples who have taken their chances and followed certain natural cycles in order to obtain their food and water. These are stateless peoples who, for historical reasons often lost in the annals of unrecorded history, have not been able, or allowed, to settle in any given location. But, for the majority of us, a settled existence has been the norm for millennia. And settlements have almost always developed near sources of drinking water simply because its absence would prevent expansion.

English: Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanz...
English: Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanzania. "In Meatu district, Shinyanga region, Tanzania, water most often comes from open holes dug in the sand of dry riverbeds, and it is invariably contaminated." . Français : Point d'eau du village de Mwamanongu, en Tanzanie. "Dans le district de Meatu (région de Shinyanga, Tanzanie), L'eau provient le plus souvent de trous creusés dans le sable de lits de rivières asséchées. Elle est systématiquement contaminée." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, whether that water is obtained from boreholes, lakes, wells or rivers, it remains a natural resource. Yes, there have been more recent settlements that have provided their own man-made storage facilities and collected or redirected the water needed to fill them. But the water, the result of rainfall, remains a natural resource, along with sunlight and air. (I’m aware that my argument can be developed to include other natural resources, by the way, but I intend to discuss that in a later piece).

It follows that national borders are irrelevant to the incidence of water. Presence or absence is an accident of geography for any state, since this aspect of the cycle is unfixed. A city can grow up on the banks of a river which then changes course. A settlement can develop around a lake which subsequently drains due to tectonic or mineralogical activity. The boreholes leading to an underground aquifer can end up as mere holes in the ground when natural changes shift the level of that aquifer.

Yes, we, as a species, can and do make changes aimed at preventing such dangers to our second most essential resource. But the fact remains that the substance itself stands outside ownership or borders. Something that falls from the sky in the way that precipitation develops water sources can hardly be claimed as the property of any person, corporation or state. We are custodians only. Modifiers; nothing more.

In the near future, water, or its lack, will become an increasing source of dispute between nations. There are already signs of conflict arising from the reduction of available water in certain geographical areas. The famines in parts of Africa are almost entirely driven by changes in the water cycle in those regions; increased population has merely exacerbated the problem. My guess is that the problems in Israel are fundamentally caused by the perception that the most important source of fresh water is growing insufficient to sustain more than a given population. There are signs that drought will soon invade the fertile plains of the Punjab in India, making it impossible for them to provide the food on which that huge continent depends. The western states of the USA are finding more and more difficulty in obtaining water for agriculture, industry and human consumption. Not that this has stopped certain organisations from squandering the precious resource in displays of irresponsible excess.

If, as a world society, we fail to recognise the basic fact that water is a natural resource belonging to all and to none, regardless of source, we will have conflict in the near future. Almost certainly, the next major wars will be over the ownership of fresh water: man killing man through an inability to accept a basic truth. Water, like air and sunlight, is a natural consequence of the location and geography of the planet and belongs to no one and to everyone. It is time we dealt with it in that way.

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