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The Global Water Crisis Demands a Paradigm Shift

By Maude Barlow and Meera Karunananthan.  This article was written for the report, “Rights of Nature: Planting Seeds of Real Change,” published by Global Exchange.

Gandhi said it best when he said, “the Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not enough to satisfy every man’s greed.”

This is truer of the world’s freshwater supply now than ever before. There is no shortage of water for the needs of people and the planet, yet we are rapidly running out of clean water because there aren’t sufficient amounts to serve the insatiable greed of a small number of powerful corporations whose interests dominate the global economic agenda.

If there was any illusion that Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, could restrain the runaway capitalism that has generated the environmental crisis plaguing our ever-shrinking planet, it has already been extinguished. Rio+20 is shaping up to be yet another platform for corporations seeking unfettered growth at a time when the planet is telling us we need to scale down and change course.

Dominated by corporate interests, the dialogues leading to Rio+20 have been about packaging the quest for economic growth and market expansion into a new brand of corporate environmentalism, and the still fairly vague proposals for a so-called “green economy” are being met with fierce opposition from social movements around the world.

When it comes to water, the corporate green economy is about using the environmental crisis to further entrench corporate rights and access to increasingly scarce water resources. As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) puts it, “water is the engine for the green economy.”

On the one hand, systemic causes of the global water crisis are evaded by emphasis on resource efficiency and high-tech solutions that allow business as usual for water-intensive and water-polluting industries. On the other hand, there is a push to develop market-based models for the distribution of scarce water resources. These models will entrench corporate rights and access to water resources — among them, water markets and pricing mechanisms that will allow for those who pay more to have more, and the financialization of both water resources and utilities in order to generate new forms of capital accumulation in areas where markets have had very limited access. All of these elements require greater analysis than what we are able to offer within the limited space of this article. Suffice to say that many forces are at play to ensure that the environmental and economic crises serve as ruses to facilitate greater corporate control of water.

And in the tug of war against corporate so-called “rights” — which are better described as privileges and protections — we need to think bigger and beyond existing regulatory systems and human rights mechanisms.

By 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40% according to a 2009 report by the World Bank-sponsored Water Resources Group. This will cause tremendous human suffering, yet this statistic does not even take into consideration the water needs of non-human life. The handful of corporations engaged in water-intensive and water-polluting activities are not only competing with the rest of the world’s human population, they are competing with all other species as well.

Water shortages are having an ever-increasing impact on the planet’s biodiversity. According to Wetlands International, there has been a 50% loss of wetlands over the course of the 20th century. Freshwater species in particular are disappearing at a much faster rate than all other species. Nearly 25% of freshwater fish in Africa alone are threatened with extinction and 136 freshwater-dependent birds had become extinct by 2010.