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A new water ethic for Brazil

I just returned from an extraordinary trip to Brazil where I presented at a major environmental conference in Porto Alegre and then visited a beautiful region called Minas Gerais, reputed, along with Vichy, France, to have the most beautiful natural mineral water in the world.

The lovely town of Cambuquira became a “Blue Community” while I was there to send a signal to corporate plunderers such as Nestlé (which is destroying the waters of a neighbouring town called Sao Lourenco) that their waters are sacred and a public trust and will not be sold or privatized.

Brazil is known as a water-wealthy country. But what I discovered from various previous trips there is that the country is polluting, diverting and exporting its water heritage (as “virtual” water in commodity exports such as biofuels, rice and beef) to such an extent that it is now entering a crisis of water in spite of its water abundance.

As well, the massive cutting of the Amazon is dramatically affecting rainfall. Major parts of Brazil are experiencing severe drought unprecedented in living memory. And the vast waters of the Guarani Aquifer are in danger from over-extraction, pollution and corporate plunder.

For details please see my speech notes below.

Cambuquira Blue Community Certificate

Speaking notes for International Forum of Environmental Management

Porto Alegre, Brazil, June 4, 2014

The global water crisis is the greatest threat of our time, ecologically and in terms of human rights.

Our planet is running out of water. All we learned in school about never being able to run out is false.

Humans are polluting, mismanaging and diverting water from where nature put it to where we want it at an alarming rate.

Using bore well technology that‎ did not exist before the 1950s, we are mining ground water far faster than nature can replenish it.

We are also damming all the great rivers to death for flood irrigation to provide food for the global market. 

And sending vast amounts of land-based water ‎into thirsty mega cities where it is dumped into oceans. As a result, deserts are growing in over 100 countries.

Our removal of water from water retentive landscapes is a major and unrecognized contributor to climate chaos and global warming.

As a result of this mistreatment of our finite water sources, parts of the world are drying up. 

Half the rivers in China have disappeared since 1990. The Ogallala Aquifer which provides water for the American breadbasket, will be gone in our life time says the US Department of Agriculture.  

Even the Great Lakes of North America are not safe.  A major study says they may be “bone dry” in 80 years.

And I don’t have to tell you that Brazil is experiencing its worst drought in living memory.

In a world of rising demand and declining sources combined with a deeply divided world between ‎rich and poor, the issue of access to water is becoming a major area of contention.

More children die of water borne disease than all forms of violence, including war.

In every case, if their parents had money to pay for water, these children would not be dying.

The lack of access to clean water is the greatest human rights issue of our time.

And so it is no surprise that a mighty contest has arisen over control of this dwindling resource needed for life.

Is water a commodity to be put on the open market like oil and gas, or a human right and public trust?  How we answer this question will determine the future of millions and the survival of the planet.

The commodification of water takes many forms: privatization of water services; massive bottling of ground water; water “trading,” where ‎water licenses are converted to private property and bought and sold on the open market; and land and water grabs, where the actual water in a community is sold to private foreign investors whose interest is protected by free trade and investment agreements.

Recently, ‎foreign corporations are claiming ownership of the actual raw water they use for their operations.

All of these issues are playing out in Brazil. While there have been serious improvements in the campaign for access to water, Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, reports that 8 million Brazilians still defecate in the open and over half the country has no sewage collection.

Brazilians, like Canadians, have grown up with the “myth of abundance,” ‎the notion that we are blessed with so much water, we can do anything we want with it.

Pollution of Brazil’s waterways is‎ rampant. Heavy metals, toxics from the mining and forestry industry, urban sprawl, poorly treated sewage, phosphorus, fertilizers, agro-chemicals, and multi point contamination combine to spill a witch’s brew of poison into your lakes and rivers. 

About 30 million people in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are victims of contaminated water. (The $11.5 billion price tag for the FIFA games could clean up every polluted waterway in the country.)

(Lest you think I am coming “from away” with pronouncements on your country, I am very critical of my own government that has slashed all the regulations governing protection of our water in order to make way for massive oil and mineral extraction in Canada.)

But ‎Brazil has water issues unique to it and that is massive exports of your water in the form of biofuel, beef and rice exports. This water is called “virtual water” and is the water used in the production of these commodities. When the commodity is exported, so too is the water that was used in its production.

Brazil is the world’s leading ‎exporter of biofuels. Brazil currently produces 28 billion litres of sugarcane ethanol and that will rise to 64 billion litres by 2018. 

It takes a great deal of water ‎to produce biofuels; 1000 litres of water for one litre of ethanol if we count the water that was used to grow the sugarcane. 

Currently, 7 trillion litres of water are extracted every year to produce ethanol in Brazil. Within the next few years, 65 trillion litres of water will be extracted to produce this product, a huge drain on the country’s water supplies and one that is not factored in when governments negotiate export deals.

Biofuel production is also threatening the Amazon and the savannas, which in turn affects local hydrologic cycles ‎as we now know beyond a doubt that rain forests bring rain and stabilize climate.

The story repeats itself in beef and rice exports. As Newsweek puts it, “The water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer.” The story is similar for water-intensive rice production.

Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of beef and its rice exports are expected to jump by 50% this year (2014). Much of both the country’s beef and rice production takes place in areas such as Sao Paulo, now experiencing severe drought.

Couple this with the relentless assault on the Amazon (mostly to make way for export-oriented crop land) and we have a recipe for water disaster. At current rate of clearance, the Amazon will be reduced by 40% by 2030.

A major new study by the Leeds University in Great Britain reports that the rainfall in the Amazon could drop another 21% by 2050. This is because when you take away the trees in a rainforest, the rain goes too.

Dr. Dominick Spracklen, lead scientist on the project, explains that air passing over vegetation produces about twice as much rain as that blowing across sparsely covered ground and that removing the rainforest causes drought that can affect weather patterns thousands of kilometres away.   

The current drought in Brazil is very likely linked to the destruction of the Amazon and the exploitation of groundwater for commodity exports. 

Ten million people in the semi arid region are currently affected by the drought and 1,000 municipalities have had to seek federal help. This is not a one-time phenomenon. Water rich Brazil is not taking care of its water and the crisis will grow until it is addressed.

And Brazil’s water is ripe for corporate plunder.

This deliberate push to become the world’s leading biofuel exporter‎ has led to a situation where the big agro companies are given preferential access to water over local needs.

Global energy giants such as Royal Dutch Shell and BP are piling into ‎Brazil in anticipation of huge growth in this industry.

They are vying to control the sugarcane fields and the massive amounts of water they will require.

In fact the Brazilian government is in negotiations through the World Bank to come up with a plan for the Guarani Aquifer that involves engineering, food and water giants such as Monsanto, Bechtel, Suez and Veolia, all who want access to the precious waters of this aquifer.

As happens all over the world, it is the indigenous, the poor, Favela dwellers who are left behind in the rush to use water for profit.

Let me be crystal clear: you are sitting atop a vast reserve of water in a thirsty world, a reserve vital to the health and future of millions. It is a treasure that must be protected by governments for all time.

In my new book Blue Future, I call for a new water ethic that puts the protection of water and watersheds at the heart of all policy, from energy to food production to trade agreements.

In all we do we must ask the question, what is the impact on water?  If the impact is negative, we have to go back to the drawing board.

And this ethic must honour four principles if we are to have a water secure future.

The first is that water is a human right. This has now been recognized by the United Nations but we have a long way to go before it is a fact.

The UN now asserts that no one has the right to appropriate water for personal gain while others go without.

All governments now have to come up with a plan based on three obligations: 

To respect, which means a right once given cannot be removed (for instance, water services being cut to those who cannot pay after water services have been privatized)‎;

To protect, which means ‎that governments must protect people from third party destruction of their water, such as mining pollution;

And to fulfill, which ‎obligates governments to come up with a plan to provide water and sanitation to the most vulnerable.

Priority must be given to the needs of people and communities over corporations and profit.

The second principle is that water is a common heritage and a public trust.

The bountiful waters of Brazil belong to all the people and future generations and governments must protect and manage them for the wise use of all.

These watersheds cannot be owned. They belong to the people and must be carefully managed for the enjoyment of all. As a public trust, water serves the public good, not the interests of a privileged few. 

Under public trust, all activity, private and public, must serve a mandate of restoration and preservation of watersheds and water justice for all members of the community.

And water services must be kept as an essential public service if the human right to water is to be real. There is no place for private profit in the delivery of water.

The third principle is that water has rights too beyond its usefulness to us.

Water is not a resource for our pleasure and profit. It is the essential element of a living ecosystem that gives life to us all. It is time to change our attitude to water.

Water was put where it belongs. Rivers need to flow. We play God when we engineer, ‎displace and dam our rivers to death and pump ancient groundwater mercilessly.

We must also recognize the right of other living beings to survive and thrive. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother ‎Earth calls for a body of law that stops seeing nature as property and is more compatible with the laws of the natural world. 

In a speech three years ago to a conference on the Guarani, I called for a Guarani Watershed Covenant that would establish it as a public trust and protected bioregion and set watershed wide laws and regulations to stop the corporate plunder and pollution now threatening this precious heritage.

As well, the destruction of the Amazon must stop. Reforestation, watershed protection and restoration and rainwater harvesting are all necessary to fight the drought currently plaguing the country.

As well, political leaders must take a long hard look at their policies of unlimited export growth. The waters of Brazil are not unlimited!

Finally, water can teach us how to live together if we will only listen.

In a world of dramatically increasing demand and dramatically shrinking supplies, it is possible water will lead to conflict, violence and war. Water is already being used as a weapon of war in Syria.

But it is equally possible that water can bring us together in the search for solutions to our shared water crises.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that the future belongs ‎to those that believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Well I believe in the beauty of this dream:

That our shared need to protect water for life and for future generations will teach us to to live more tolerantly and lovingly with one another and step more lightly on our beautiful mother earth. 

This is the challenge of our time and we are blessed to be given this solemn task.