I’ve just read Blue Covenant by Maude Barlow (see photo) and learned a lot from it. (For one thing, at the UN, “covenant,” “treaty,” and “convention” all mean the same thing.) Barlow wants a covenant to be enacted defining access to adequate affordable water as a human right — which would oblige every government to ensure it for their citizens. I heartily agree. And so does Mikhail Gorbachev, whose organization, Green Cross International, is promoting that very goal. (Surprisingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not cover access to water. However, in a war it is illegal to deprive the adversary of water — a policy that the United States enforced illegally in the sanctions against Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.)
I’d skipped Barlow’s books before because of her prominence as a Canadian nationalist. I don’t like nationalism of any kind. My impression had been that her concern is limited almost entirely to keeping Canadian water away from Americans — a manifestation of nationalistic selfishness, if you ask me. I don’t care who buys or sells water; I just care what it is used for. If Canada sells the US its water for wasteful purposes, that’s neither better nor worse than wasting it ourselves.
But fortunately, Barlow’s nationalistic argument was almost confined to the final chapter. The rest of the book was packed (indeed, overly packed) with detailed evidence supporting her argument — that a large fraction of the human population lacks access to sufficient safe water to maintain health; that the world is rapidly depleting the earth’s freshwater; and that much of the blame can be attributed to the privatization of water to corporate managers, who do a poor job and often charge more than poor people can afford.
Barlow easily convinced me that we are approaching a global water crisis. I had heard that message before, but she hammers it hard. As things are going, the world will run short of fresh water. We are depleting Earth’s groundwater, aquifers, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and even poaching each other’s clouds for rain. She concurs with Lester Brown’s prediction that by 2050, some 1.7 billion people will live in dire “water poverty” and be forced to relocate.
What I had not realized, however, is the extent of the consensus among global development organizations (especially the World Bank) requiring nations to privatize their water, by contracting with corporations that manage water and sewerage systems on a profit-making basis. A country wanting World Bank loans may find that privatization is a precondition. And if one country enters a trading relationship with another country, they may not be free to cancel the deal.
Barlow emphasizes two big points: that water privatization is bad, and that we should not expect technology to save us; only conservation will do so. She is persuasive, especially by pointing out that privatized schemes have widely disappointed those who adopted them. However, I'm not utterly convinced of either point, and I will try to work through the arguments myself here.
Her objections to Green Cross International stem from Gorbachev’s willingness to work with the big water corporations. He does insist that access to affordable water for life should be defined as a human right, but he does not specify whether that water should be provided by public or private utility companies. He does distinguish between “water for life” (i.e. for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and subsistence agriculture) and “productive water” used in commercial enterprises. He says that only the former should be a guaranteed human right.
I can see some defensible logic in favor of privatization. First, it is proper to put a price on water so as to keep people from wasting it. Whatever is free, or almost free, will not be conserved. (The Soviet Union used to provide bread almost without charge, and one could sometimes see boys in the street kicking a loaf around as their football.) Second — and this is central to Gorbachev’s rationale — governments haven’t enough money to install proper water and sewerage facilities all around the world. Only corporations can generate sufficient capital to do that. So he accepts whatever will get the job done.
Because I have not looked at the complete evidence, I'll leave aside Barlow's adduced empirical proof that corporations generally do not invest in the poor sections of town but only help the rich. Limiting myself strictly to the logic, rather tham empirical facts, I can recognize merits in both of those arguments for privatization. I am especially conscious these days of the importance of price signals in determining the use of various commodities; indeed, I am working for a carbon tax for that very reason. If fuel costs more, people will waste it less. Likewise, if water costs more, people will waste it less.
On the other hand, water must be almost free if it is a human right. So the answer, it seems to me, is to make it very cheap up to the amount necessary for basic human health, but charge higher prices for other uses. This should be possible if water meters are installed everywhere. Each individual needs about 1,000 cubic meters of water per year. A household, then, should be allotted, say, 175 cubic meters per month at a very low price — say, less than one cent per cubic meter. Any amount beyond that would be charged at high enough rate to enable the water company (whether publicly or privately owned) to recoup a small profit. Water used for industrial purposes and especially for luxury (e.g. on swimming pools and golf courses) should be charged at higher rates, to be established by the company with the participation of elected local citizens.
In this way, the market and democratic participation would work together to assure that basic human needs are met, while water is also conserved and sufficient money is collected to pay for clean water and sanitation services. Corporations might manage the system or, if the World Bank or some other aid agency would provide loans, a public utilities company could do the job equally well.
Still, Barlow mentions, in passing, another argument against corporations that makes sense to me. She points out that a profit-making business must try to expand its operations. Accordingly, then, a water corporation will try to increase the use of water, just for the sake of its financial growth. Insofar as we are aiming to conserve water, corporations are the wrong instrument to use.
That’s a telling point if we can be sure that public utilities are significantly less growth-oriented than corporations. I don’t know whether that’s true. Does your public water or electricity company simply meet the expressed demand for its service, or does it advertise and urge you to want more stuff than you would otherwise crave?
Barlow, along with most left-liberal friends of mine, object to the market mechanism — I suppose because it represents greed and materialistic acquisitiveness to them. I would never claim that unregulated markets will solve our problems. Nevertheless, markets can be immensely useful. They affect prices, and prices influence our decisions about what to consume. Logically, if water costs more, the demand for it should decrease, as people begin to use it mindfully and frugally.
But water is not subject to market pressures on the supply side, because it is a monopoly, not a competitive business. Probably that keeps the price of water higher than it might otherwise be, or it allows the company to get away with providing worse service, since consumers have no alternative supplier. There is presumably only room for one water company in a given area, so there cannot be competition among companies. (However, twenty years or so ago, the government broke Bell Telephone into several competing services, and that arrangement seems to be working well. Perhaps — though it seems improbable to me — a water monopoly could also be broken into competing firms.)
In any case, we cannot rely on market forces to get water conservation going on a scale appropriate to the dangerous shortages that must be anticipated within decades. Other collective plans must be developed to meet the crisis.
I myself would bet on technology. Barlow mentions a number of technological innovations, such as desalination, new techniques for sucking clean water out of the air, and nanotechnology. I am not in a position to evaluate any of these — nor, I suspect, is Barlow herself. However, she describes them all with considerable suspicion and claims that desalination inevitably produces toxins (with what effects we are not told).
But technology is a lot more than super-modern hi-tech. It includes old fashioned things such as underground water pipes. Huge amounts of piped water escapes through leaky systems. Renovating the pipes would seem to be a promising technological starting point.
And the technology of rainwater harvesting can be exploited far better. Barlow herself mentions the research of Michal Kravcik, a Slovakian hydrologist who shows that the water cycle is a significant factor in global warming. He points out that civilization covers the earth with impermeable surfaces, so that our rainwater drains away to the ocean without infiltrating the soil. Wetter soil would cool us directly and would produce clouds, which in turn would reflect the sun’s rays back outward. A project is already underway to demonstrate that a better use of rainwater can overcome much of our impending global drought and at the same time reverse some of the effects of greenhouse gases in heating the atmosphere. They believe that results will show up within just a few years.
So I learned a lot, for which I am grateful, but I am not ready to join Barlow’s team. There are other ways.