The Water of Life

Sean McDonagh SSC

Water has become the latest casualty of consumerism and overpopulation. Sean McDonagh gives us the statistics and shows how, inevitably, it is the poorest who end up being without. On present trends, two-thirds of the world will not have enough clean water in thirty years time.
Oh, waters of life! Full of noble virtues
You are a beacon of light,
Divine and pure,
envelop me in your majestic
tides and hold me secure.
(from the Rig Veda, a Hindu holy text.)

Oh! Come to the water all who are thirsty;
Though you have no money come (Isaiah 55:l).

Praise to You, my Lord through Sister Water,
Which is very useful and humble and precious
and chaste.
(Francis of Assisi - The Canticle of Brother Sun).

Whoever drinks this water
will get thirsty again;
But anyone who drinks the
water that I shall give
will never thirst again.
The water that I shall give
will turn into a spring inside
them, welling up to eternal life.
(John 4:13b and 14).

2003 International Year of Fresh Water
The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 55/196 declared 2003 as the International Year of Fresh Water. It is easy to understand why the UN is so concerned about fresh water. At this moment in history, it is clear to any researcher that the human community is facing a global water crisis. The cold statistics are as follows: 1.2 billion people, about one third of the world's population, have no access to clean water: 2.5 billion have no sanitation and if we continue with a business-as-usual attitude two-thirds of the world will not have sufficient water in 30 years time. These figures are taken from the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP's) report Global Environmental Outlook 3. The report is based on the work of over 1,000 scientists and was prepared for the Summit on Sustainable Development which met in August 2002 in Johannesburg .

Human activity is polluting water in rivers, aquifers, lakes and the oceans around the world. The situation is extremely serious and poised to get worse unless concerted action is taken at local, national and global levels. In many areas of the world humans are using water at a rate beyond which it can be replenished, thus endangering the hydrological cycle.

Fresh Water
The Global Environmental Outlook tells us that 97.5 percent of the world's water is in the oceans. Only 2.5 per cent of the waters of the world are fresh water and much of that is locked up in ice and snow in Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic. Around 1 per cent of the fresh water is available which amounts to 0.01 percent of the world's water. During the 20th century the human population tripled. Water consumption on the other hand jumped 7-fold. World wide the demand for water is doubling every 21 years. By 2020 water use is expected to grow by 40 percent.

The major factors that account for the increased use of water are population growth, industrialisation and, especially, irrigation agriculture. For example, it will probably come as a surprise to many people to learn that it takes 400,000 litres of water to manufacture one car and 2,000 litres to produce a glass of brandy and 42,500 litres to produce one kilo of beef . To date, in order to meet the human demand for water over 60 percent of the world's largest 227 rivers have been dammed. In 1996 the United Nations estimated that humans consume about 54 percent of accessible freshwater in rivers, lakes and aquifers. As human population levels rise the human share of available fresh water could jump another 20 percent by the year 2025 .

Water Distribution Inequitable
It is estimated that there are about 12,600 cubic km of water available for humans. The distribution is quite uneven. Canada receives 26 times more per capita than Mexico. 60 percent of the world's population live in Asia yet it only receives 36 percent of the world's fresh water. Of the fresh water available 25 percent is used by industry and 70 percent by agriculture .
In many First World countries water is readily available from taps and some wealthy individuals have luxury swimming pools attached to their houses. The recommended basic amount of water needed by each person is around 50 litres per day. Five litres are needed for drinking and cooking and 25 litres to maintain personal hygiene needs and the rest goes into producing food . The average person in the United States uses 600 litres of domestic urban water per day. Europeans use about 250-300 litres while people in sub-Sahara Africa use 10-20 litres per day. For First World people almost 50 percent of this is flushed down the toilet. Less than 10 percent is used for drinking or cooking. The most wasteful aspect of our present toilet system is that the water in the cistern has been treated to drinking water standards. This water, which has undergone expensive chemical treatment and has been pumped for miles from the reservoir, is polluted with a single flush. Then the negative cycle begins as this polluted water is pumped to sewage treatment plants.

In Mindanao, where I worked as a Columban missionary, many people, usually women and children, had to walk for miles to get their daily supply of water. Even then they had to use it sparingly. The same is true for vast numbers of people in Africa and Latin America.

The cost of water
The cost of water varies a lot. If you live in Tanzania you will pay 5.7 percent of your daily wages on water. In Pakistan it costs 1.1 percent of the daily wage. In Britain the average yearly cost to a household for water and sewage services ranges from £197 (Thames Water) to £327 (South West Water). There a person pays 0.013 percent of the wages on water while people on the far side of the Atlantic in the United States pay as little as 0.006 percent of their wages on water. In France the annual cost to an average family for their household water ranges between €318 and €615 depending on what part of the country people live in. The cost of water has risen by over 50 percent since 1992.

The bottled water industry
In Ireland drinking water is free for the ordinary citizen who gets water from a municipal supply. It is the only country in the EU or OECD not to have water charges. That could change very quickly despite the controversy that water charges caused in the mid 1980s. However, people in Ireland now pay a fortune for bottled water. In 2002 we drank 110 million litres of bottled water.

Globally the bottled water market reached the 100 billion bottle target in 2002. Approximately 25 per cent of bottled water is merely tapwater. The bottled water industry makes huge profits from selling water. There are major environmental costs. Pumping can dry out springs, destroy habitats, devastate ecosystems and drain aquifers. Perrier group owned by Nestle is the largest bottle water company globally. It controls 30 percent of the market. Currently the industry is worth $22 billion and it is expected to grow at 30 percent annually. Furthermore plastics are now the fastest growing sector of the waste stream. At the moment they comprise more than 25 percent of the volume of materials sent to landfills every year .

Archbishop Renato R. Martino represented the Holy See at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan in March 2003. He argued that "the water concerns of the poor must become the concern of all in a perspective of solidarity. This solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, to the good of all and of each individual. It presupposes the effort for a more just social order and requires a preferential attention to the situation of the poor. The same duty of solidarity that rests on individuals exists also for nations; advanced nations have a very heavy obligation to help developing nations."

The lack of political will
Global Environment Outlook 3 estimates that it will cost $30 billion a year until 2015 in order to bring clean water to the poor of our world. This is a fraction of what the war in Iraq continues to cost. Despite commitments given at the Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 to reduce the number of people who lack access to clean water to 650 million by the year 2015 there is little chance of that happening as the political will to address the problem is not present in rich countries.

Water a precious gift
Life began in water and can only survive if it has access to water. Modern science tells us that life emerged in the oceans about 3.8 billion years ago. For almost 2 billion years it remained there and evolved in extraordinary ways. Even when life came ashore about 650 million years ago it brought water with it in the cells of every living creature. We humans are almost 70 percent water. Clean water has sustained and nourished life thoughout that magnificent journey from single celled organisms in the oceans to the complexity of human life and all other species on the planet. So naturally water is the most potent symbol of life. Water is a precious gift which we know to be under threat right around the world today. We must do all that we can to protect it.

Author: Sean McDonagh, a Columban Missionary, has worked in the Phillippines. He is author of many books and articles dealing with environmental issues. For more on fresh water and oceans see Sean’s most recent book, Dying for Water, Veritas Publications, Dublin 1 (October 2003).

Source: with thanks to Voices for Justice Vol. 31, Autumn, 2003. Contact: St Columban's, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co. Meath. Tel. +353(0)46-9021525.
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