World Water Day 2013: To the Highest Bidder, the Water

It’s World Water Day.  In a video message, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, is calling water the ‘key’ to sustainable development.  We must, he says, ‘work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite resource’. More than that, 2103 is the International Year of World Water Cooperation.

We all agree that water is essential for life. It is because water is essential for human life that it is a human right. The UN has a Special Rapporteur to the Secretary General on the Right to Water, Catarina de Albuquerque. It also has a Special Rapporteur, recently established, on the ‘implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes’, Cailin Georgescu, who has notably worked together with the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, to call for the protection of indigenous communities from waste producing industries. Many indigenous peoples rely heavily on clean water. We all do.

Food and Water Watch highlight in their report on hydraulic fracturing that ‘fracking’ for shale gas impacts the human right to water in three ways:

Water use:  Fracking a single shale well requires millions of gallons of water. Widespread shale development would thus compete with essential water needs in regions prone to water shortages.

Water pollution:  Shale development presents inherent short-term and long-terms risks to water quality.

Climate change:  Shale development is likely to accelerate global climate change in the coming decades, contributing to increased variability in seasonal and annual rainfall patterns. Such variability, in the form of either flooding or prolonged droughts, will stress water utility systems.

In the US fracking is very much underway across a number of large shale ‘plays’, such as the Bakken and Marcellus Shales. Water use is substantial: an independent study from Western Resource Advocates, suggests that fracking in Colorado alone uses enough water annually to supply up to 296,000 people for an entire year. This excessive water use by the industry is good news for the water companies. An article from the American Independent News Network posted on the Coalition to Protect New York website highlighted how private water companies in the US are turning a very neat profit by selling water to fracking companies, now big players in the water market.

In Colorado,  this has also threatened access to extra water reserves by farmers, who once had an exclusive claim to increasingly precious ‘unallocated water’. After a drought last winter, farmers found themselves priced out at auction by companies that provide water for hydraulic fracturing. Private water companies in the US are now joining forces with frackers to lobby the US government for water-intensive shale gas fracking to continue, simply because it is so profitable for them.

This is clearly outside of the spirit of ‘cooperation’ so desperately required to make this the year we all agree to protect and preserve water. It also raises an interesting point about a public necessity in private hands. Eric Goldstein, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said:

‘Sometimes the interests of private ownership are inconsistent with the concept of preserving our water resources in the public trust for future generations. And the potential clashing of those interests is why these questions have been raised about whether for-profit companies ought to be running public water supplies.’

How much is water really worth? Should something so essential – something as essential to human life as air and sunlight – be privatised?

Food (and water) for thought.


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