April 22, 2009

The Necessity of Managing Our World’s Water in the 21st Century

We are living in a world in which resource exploitation and distribution exists between more than six billion people. In developing these resources and providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, many factors must be considered by the statesmen who decide who gets what, and at what cost, for their country. Finding a balance in this resource management might prove to be incredibly difficult since one country’s wants may tend to trump another country’s essential needs in a world of globalization. This will become increasingly apparent as resources continue to be depleted and inequality around the world surges. The needs of some that may be overridden by the wants of those in authority might include the basic essential social services (including health or eldercare), or freedom of choice. Also, emerging concerns (or wants) for environmental protection and climate change may also be suspended in order to protect the economic welfare of society, ensuring that industry will be able to provide jobs and that corporations do not go bankrupt. Many public officials might suggest that investing more energy into resource management will be the easiest way to ensure that unemployment rates decline, allowing for us to climb out of the worst recession in eighty years. But investing in resource management must include an impartial and in depth investigation of all social, economical, and environmental implications. The importance of comprehending current quantities and qualities of these resources must be realized. Lastly, transparency, integrity, and public acceptance of the way in which these commons are being managed are the most crucial aspects of maintaining a sustainable planet. It is my opinion that the privatization and commoditization of our earth’s resources works against this, and that we must find a way of holding the decision-makers (in government and industry alike) accountable for the way that our commons are treated. However, it is up to us as individuals to make a start by being accountable for our own personal resource management in our day-to-day lives.

I would like to focus specifically on the implications of the privatization of a resource that is often a determining factor between life and death of all living things: water. The way in which the world’s water has been managed over the past half century is alarming. And now, more than ever, are we seeing an unprecedented pull towards water privatization; despite shameless fear-mongering and substantiated scientific studies which both warn of impending extensive droughts and climate change. Water scarcity and climate change are tied very closely together; after all, as much of the industry that contributes to climate change is dependent on exorbitant quantities of water to drive industry (eg. oil sands and high-tech industries). In addition, within the these industries, water subsidies allow for companies to thrive from inexpensive process water, where in comparison the public will have to pay significantly higher rates just for their basic water needs. The emerging economies of India and China are also creating an enormous burden on their countries’ water demand as industrial growth rapidly expands. However environmental regulations in these countries may be more difficult to monitor as each country strives to generate as much wealth as it can, despite the effects on water availability to consumers, contamination of water resources, or how this rapid industrial growth is contributing to climate change. Globalization and economic agreements put in place by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have allowed the water privatization industry to largely go unchecked in developing countries. The system is arranged such that a country’s profit is maximized despite any detrimental impact to the environment.

However, the United Nations has recently appointed a Canadian to the post of Senior Advisor to Water Issues. Maude Barlow is credited with writing many important books about this important resource, including Blue Gold, in which she distinguishes between water being perceived as a right rather than a need. The difference, she claims, is in how water as a need can be marketed by companies governed by the rules of laissez-faire, whereas water perceived as a right would ensure that all people are granted access to “clean and affordable drinking water” (Blue Gold, 2002). As less than one percent of the world’s water is in fact accessible freshwater, it is all the more important to realize the challenges we face regarding equal affordable access to this clean, life-sustaining substance here on of earth (Water Consciousness, 2008).

Between globalization, the rising industrial powers of China and India, population growth and domestic and industrial pollution, water utilities will be challenged to maintain tolerable quality, especially methods of cutting costs are utilized in this time of recession. Privatization (and private-public partnerships (P3)), are often seen as cost effective ways of doing so, such that a municipality simply places the cost of water directly on the consumer. It is widely understood that even P3 water companies are corporations that can be bought, traded, and sold. Therefore, when water resources become extremely strained, the largest multinational water corporations will have the power to purchase struggling utilities and revamp them in order to provide better service. The fear is that with this improvement to water service, consumer costs will escalate to a point beyond affordability. And then, any maintenance of the system that ensures that the water quality remains adequate is also perceived to be less transparent if run by a privately owned company rather than if owned by the municipality.

Within Canada, there is no legally enforceable drinking water standard, but rather “guidelines” offered by Health Canada. Despite these guidelines, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that in April 2008 there were 1766 boil-water advisories currently in place in Canadian municipalities, not including First Nations communities (Council of Canadians, 2009). With this exceptionally high number of water issues for a developed country, more must be done by the government to both protect our water sources and ensure that appropriate treatment technologies are in place for its 33 million citizens. And this is happening in Canada – a developed country, which makes claim to 6.5% of the world’s accessible freshwater (Water Consciousness, 2008). Other countries have incredibly less quantities of freshwater and exponentially higher population densities.

A component of protecting Canada’s water sources is the way in which wastewater is treated and returned to rivers, lakes, or oceans. This must be protected by enforceable legislation that has stringent regulations for deleterious substances being discharged. The Fisheries Act speaks to this; yet, in a court of law, penalties or permissions for discharges may be very lenient if the greater good is realized, economically speaking. As a result, carcinogens, bacteria, and pathogens can potentially migrate into the water that Canadians drink and the food Canadians eat. In Fort Chipewyan, for example, one of the largest concerns from the First Nations people is what contaminants have been entering their surface water, as a result of tar sands activity on the Athabasca River.

As engineers, our responsibility lies in implementing the best available system which will provide people with the basic necessities to survive. This is especially true in providing water and sanitation services, but is also limited to dollar amounts granted for the specific job. Therefore, if the government is not responsible for the maintenance or upgrading of these utilities because they have been privatized, then it is at the for-profit water company’s discretion to spend the required monies such that minimal environmental regulations are met. After all, only what is measured will be managed. The private water company can then attempt to manage the quality of their streams as the affordability of the design allows them to do so.

Hopefully, with an understanding of current water scarcity, judgment will be used by the many industries that require large quantities of water, and engineers will be able to design ways to maximize the performance for the company. In addition, individuals will hopefully understand that it is not just big industry that has an impact on the environment, but rather, by using restraint and common sense, our water will be able to be managed in such a way that it will last us for centuries to come.

It is difficult to manage what cannot be measured. Aside from the United Nations and various levels of governments, there exists a number of NGOs dedicated to keeping people and companies accountable for their water-using habits. The Pacific Institute is showing that Americans are consuming less water per capita then they had in the 1970s, with consumption rates down as much as 25%. There is a new awareness about the energy and “virtual water” in the bottled water industry and how some nutrients, such as fluoride, may even be lost by opting for bottled water. Excessive water waste in instances such as elaborate Las Vegas fountains will be ridiculed as awareness is heightened, and water saving techniques from installing low-flush toilets to having shorter showers will be rewarded. People will be willing to change for the benefit of the environment. People will only make this a reality though, if a single person makes it their reality first.

The largest challenge will be finding a legal, measurable, enforceable way to ensure that water intensive companies are realizing what long-term effect they are having on out planet. Whether we consider Coca Cola wanting to increase Dasani sales , the high-tech industries in Silicon Valley requiring more cheap purified water for the next generation of iPod, Alberta’s own Syncrude, who uses anywhere between 3 to 5 barrels of water to produce 1 barrel of oil, or lastly, EPCOR water wanting to expand its water treatment business into more water-stressed areas... all of this water use must be justified. If individuals can find a way to understand the current water crisis and modify their behaviour, then nothing less should be expected from any corporation. True, an exploding population will require water for a multitude of services and products; but with this larger population, more people are available to ensure that a certain degree of temperance in the way water is being used.

1 comment:

  1. this was a paper i submitted for a course called engineering, environment, and society.