WATER SCARCITY – TIME TO ACT11, published April 2011, Public Service Europe
In 60 per cent of European cities, water is being used at a faster rate that it can be replenished – claims Philip Monaghan
Water is kind of important. It makes up between half and three quarters of the human body weight, needs to be topped up on a regular basis and we cannot go without it for more than about week.
As well as drinking it, we also use water for cooking and sanitation – not to mention industrial processes. Yet, despite water being essential to our survival – more often than not in the West, we treat it with distain. A fact reflected in its low price compared to petrol or electricity – things we may be addicted to but can live without. And how the developed world fritters it away! You may leave the kitchen tap running into an unplugged sink at home but you would not pour petrol from the station pump down the drain, right?
What makes matters worse in terms of our taking water for granted, is that despite 70 per cent of the earth’s surface being covered by water, only 2.5 per cent of the total volume is freshwater and fit for human consumption, coupled with the fact that in 60 per cent of European cities with more than 100,000 people, groundwater is being used at a faster rate than it can be replenished. By 2025, 1.8m people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.
No need to reach for valium just yet though, because this is all about change – maybe. It would appear that the United Nations leadership is mulling over whether to name 2012 as the year of water given the importance of sustainable water management in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. This should be welcomed, of course. But local governance needs to be a key area of any water campaign here. This goes beyond calls for a new shadow price for water or for the world’s largest industrial users, to develop water-security strategies. It requires new forms of water stewardship between citizens, municipal authorities and the private sector. Perhaps, a chance to do things differently then, by looking at the learning from water co-operatives in Bolivia and Finland?
In rural Finland, there are more than a thousand water cooperatives serving farm businesses and villages. According to the UN, while licensed by the government and allotted a limit to the amount of water they can extract, the cooperatives have complete control over price. This means they can offer favourable rates to their members, because their decision is not influenced by fluctuations of the market. The Finnish water cooperatives also have the network benefits of partnering with other regional associations. If, for instance, the water quality in one area is not sufficient due to extenuating natural circumstances – the cooperative may buy from a neighbouring cooperative-owned network. Therefore, ensuring continued low prices and supply dependency.
Taking this learning a step further should involve residents recognising and accepting that they have rights and responsibilities, when it comes to water. This, after all is, is a fair way to realise genuine change. Each of us would have a right to access quality water to sustain life, but we also have a responsibility to not abuse it – say, by watering our gardens during times of drought. This is something, which needs to be backed up by serious sanctions for those who cheat. Ever heard of a neighbour or local golf club being taken to court by the authorities for fragrantly disobeying a hosepipe ban? No, neither have I.
Real behaviour change will require new controls like water efficient planning rules for buildings and incentives including tax breaks for green roofs or water butts. For some laggards, it may also require a push rather than a nudge in the right direction. Clearly, this raises big dilemmas over our costly and ageing national water infrastructure. Especially, in an age of austerity. Take the UK’s forthcoming new water strategy, for example. Given parts of Britain suffer from worse water scarcity than areas of the Sudan and Syria according to Waterwise, it is a tremendous window of opportunity for Cameron’s administration to show the world how to do things better. The Prime Minister could also back up commitments to both devolve power and to be the “greenest government ever” by setting out a bold vision for water resiliency.
As Canadians we are some of the worst at conserving water. For most of us it is an after-thought because we are surrounded by it. But for us to change our habits even a little bit, could help us greatly in our future.