Right to water

Mounting evidence suggests that the right to water for many people – ranging from private individuals to indigenous peoples and farmers – is being threatened by a range of extreme energy methods in a range of different countries. For example, the highly controversial tar sands in Alberta Canada are the site of huge wastewater ‘tailings ponds’, which can be viewed from space.

There have been well-documented research findings pointing to downstream water pollution having negative impacts on indigenous communities in particular (detailed in Huseman and Short’s 2010 article). In terms of the extreme energy technique of ‘fracking’ there are three broad areas of concern:

1) Water usage: 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.

Read more: ‘Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis’ at Food and Water Watch

2) Water pollution:  Unconventional gas extraction may well pose significant short-term and long-terms risks to water quality.

Read more:
IPS, ‘Mexico Lacks Water to Frack for Shale Gas’, April 18, 2013
Myers, T, ‘Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers’ Volume 50, Issue 6, pages 872–882, November/December 2012.
Lustgarten, A, ‘Buried Secrets: Is natural gas drilling endangering U.S. water supplies?’ ProPublica. November 13, 2008.
U.S. EPA [Draft], ‘Investigation of Ground Water Contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming’ December 8, 2011 at xi and xiii.

3) Climate change: Burning unconventional fossil fuels in addition to conventional resources will exacerbate climate change in the coming decades, contributing to increased variability in seasonal and annual rainfall patterns prolonged droughts, will stress water utility systems.

Read more: ‘Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis’ at at Food and Water Watch.

The following is an excerpt from the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, Mission to the United States of America, which engages with fracking and water rights.

‘The independent expert received concerning reports on hydraulic fracturing and its impact on water. Hydraulic fracturing is a well-stimulation process used to extract underground resources, such as oil, natural gas and geothermal energy. In 2005 the Congress exempted this practice from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act making this the only industry allowed to inject known pollutants into the ground near water sources without federal oversight.

Residents in regions where hydraulic fracturing occurs have reported drinking water contamination. In some cases, reports have been received of flammable tap water in a severe incident causing a home to explode.

Federal and state agencies have determined the drinking water in several rural towns, such as Dimock, Pennsylvania, and Pavilion, Wyoming, non-potable due to chemical contaminants used in nearby hydraulic fracturing operations.

Natural-gas extraction in rural areas increases the likelihood that water contamination will go undetected, as rural water supplies are difficult to monitor. The 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act permit variances for rural utilities (less than 10,000 connections) to provide lower quality water. Moreover, as already highlighted, EPA does not have the authority to regulate private wells, which are the primary source of drinking water in many rural areas.

Large urban cities are better equipped to withstand pressure from the natural gas industry. For example, the Marcellus Shale – cutting across New York and Pennsylvania – is believed to contain valuable natural gas resources. This notwithstanding, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has asserted that “hydraulic fracturing poses an unacceptable threat to the unfiltered water supply of nine million New Yorkers and cannot safely be permitted within the New York City watershed.’

Conclusion on hydraulic fracturing in the US:

‘A policy disconnect seems to exist between polluting activities and their ultimate impact on the safety of drinking water sources. The absence of integrated thinking has generated enormous burdens, including increased costs to public water systems to monitor and treat water to remove regulated contaminants and detrimental health outcomes for individuals and communities. The independent expert recommends a holistic consideration of the right to water by factoring it into policies having an impact on water quality, ranging from agriculture to chemical use in products to energy production activities.’

Read the full report here.