Water: Source of Life or Source of Profit?

By Leonardo Boff on July 20, 2021

Matanzas Cuba, photo: Bill Hackwell

Today there are two main issues affecting the whole of humanity: global warming and the growing scarcity of drinking water. Both require profound changes in our way of life, as they can lead to a collapse of our civilization and profoundly affect the life-system.

Let’s  stick to the issue of water, which is coveted by large corporations to privatize and profit enormously. It can be as much a cause for wars as for social solidarity and cooperation among peoples. It has already been said that the wars of the 20th century were over oil and those of the 21st century will be over drinking water. Nevertheless, it can be a central reference for a new global social pact between peoples and governments for the survival of all.

Let’s consider the basic facts about water. Water is extremely abundant and at the same time scarce. There are about 1,360,000,000,000 cubic km3 of water on Earth. If we were to take all that water that is in the oceans, lakes, rivers, aquifers and polar caps and distribute it evenly over a flat land surface, the entire Earth would be submerged under water three kilometers deep. Ninety-seven percent is salt water and three percent is fresh water. But only 0.7% of this is directly accessible for human use. Of this 0.7%, 70% goes to agriculture, 22% to industry and the remainder to human and animal use.

Water renewal is of the order of 43,000 km3 per year, while total consumption is estimated at 6,000 km³ per year. There is therefore an overabundance of water, but it is unevenly distributed: 60% is found in only 9 countries, while 80 others face shortages. Just under one billion people consume 86% of the existing water, while for 1.4 billion it is insufficient (in 2020 it will be three billion) and for two billion it is not treated, which generates 85% of verifiable diseases. It is presumed that in 2032 about 5 billion people will be affected by the water crisis.

The problem is not the scarcity of water but its poor management and distribution to meet human demands and those of other living beings. Brazil is the natural water powerhouse, with 13% of all freshwater on the planet, with a total of 5.4 trillion cubic meters. Despite its abundance, 46% of it is wasted, enough to supply the whole of France, Belgium, Switzerland and Northern Italy. We still lack a water culture.

Because it is scarce, fresh water has become a commodity of high economic value. As we have moved from a market economy to a market society, everything is transformed into a commodity. As a result of this “great transformation” (Karl Polanyi), there is today a global race to privatize water and make huge profits.

Thus, multinational companies such as the French Vivendi and Suez-Lyonnaise, the German RWE, the English Thames Water and the American Bechtel, among others, have emerged. A water market worth more than 100 billion dollars has been created. Nestlé and Coca-Cola are strongly present there, looking to buy sources all over the world.

The great debate today is presented in these terms: is water a source of life or a source of profit? Is water a natural, vital, common and irreplaceable good or an economic good to be treated as a water resource and as a commodity?

To begin with, it is important to recognize that water is not an economic good like any other. It is so closely linked to life that it must be understood as something vital and sacred. Life cannot be transformed into a commodity. It is one of the most excellent goods of the evolutionary process and one of the greatest divine gifts. Moreover, water is linked to other cultural, symbolic and spiritual dimensions that make it precious and loaded with values that are priceless in themselves.

To understand the richness of water that transcends its economic dimension, we need to break with the dictatorship of instrumental-analytical and utilitarian reason, imposed on all of society. This sees water as a mere water resource with which to do business. It only attends to ends and utilities. But human beings have other exercises of their reason. There is the more ancestral, sensitive, emotional, cordial and spiritual reason. This type of reason goes beyond purposes and utilities. This reason is linked to the meaning of life, to values, to the symbolic, ethical and spiritual character of water.

In this perspective, water is considered a natural common good, as the source and niche where life on Earth emerged 3.8 billion years ago. Water is a global public commons. It is the heritage of the biosphere and vital for all forms of life. There is no life without water.

Obviously, the dimensions of water as a source of life and as a water resource need not be excluded, but they must be rightly related. Fundamentally, water belongs to the right to life.

The UN declared on July 28, 2010 that clean and safe water and basic sanitation constitute a fundamental human right.

But it does require a complex structure of collection, conservation, treatment and distribution, which implies an undeniable economic dimension. This, however, should not take precedence over the other, that of the right, but should make water accessible to all. Everyone should be guaranteed at least 50 liters of safe and healthy water per day, free of charge. It is up to the public authorities, together with organized society, to create the public financing to cover the costs necessary to guarantee this right for all. Tariffs for services should take into account the various uses of water, whether domestic, industrial, agricultural or recreational. For industrial and agricultural uses, water is obviously priced.

The predominant marketing vision distorts the correct relationship between water as a source of life and water as a water resource. This is fundamentally due to the exacerbation of private property that causes water to be treated without a sense of sharing or consideration of the demands of others and of the entire community of life.

The principle of social solidarity and community of interests and respect for river basins which transcend national boundaries is still very weak, as is the case, for example, between Turkey on the one hand and Syria and Iraq on the other, or between Israel on one side and Jordan and Palestine on the other, or between the USA and Mexico regarding the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers.

To discuss all these vital issues, the Alternative World Water Forum was created in 2003 in Florence, Italy. It proposed the creation of a World Water Authority. It would be a public, cooperative and pluralistic governing body to deal with water at the level of the large international water basins, as well as its more equitable distribution according to regional demands.

At the same time, an international articulation was formed with a view to a World Water Contract. Since there is no world social contract, it could be drawn up around that which effectively unites everyone, which is water, on which the life of people and other living beings depends. Similarly, now with the emergence of Covid-19, there is an urgent need for a global contract to safeguard human life, beyond any kind of sovereignty, seen as something outdated, from another historical era.

An important role is to put pressure on governments and companies so that water is not taken to the markets or considered a commodity. It is important to encourage public-private cooperation to prevent so many people from dying for lack of water or as a result of poorly treated water. Every day, 6,000 children die of thirst and some 18 million children miss school because they are forced to fetch water 5-10 km away. It is extremely important to keep forests and jungles standing and to reforest as much as possible. They guarantee the permanence of water, feed aquifers, and mitigate global warming by capturing carbon dioxide and producing vital oxygen.

A world with zero hunger, advocated for years by the UN Millennium Goals, should include zero thirst, because water is food and nothing can live and be consumed without water. Finally, water is life, generator of life and one of the most powerful symbols of eternal life, since God appears as living, generator of all life and infinite source of life.

Leonardo Boff is a writer and eco-theologian

Source: Alainet, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English